Giving children constructive feedback is one of the best ways we can help them to learn to write, says James Clements…
I loved my first year as a teacher. Alongside the actual teaching, I loved all of the new teacherish activities that were now my responsibility: I loved taking the register, I loved blowing whistles and I even loved marking the children’s writing (which is good, as for the first few of years of my career I didn’t do much else on evenings and weekends).
A series of sieves
And did the countless hours I spent giving children detailed feedback help them to become better writers? Looking back, it probably didn’t hurt, but I doubt it was as effective as it could have been. It took me a long time to realise a few key things about marking and feedback:
• It’s oral feedback – the chance to talk and show children how they could improve – that has the biggest impact.
• It’s no good just marking children’s work at the end. They need time to act on the feedback and make changes to their work.
• If a teacher marks a child’s first draft, the chances are she’ll end up correcting secretarial mistakes, rather than the other aspects that will improve their writing.
This means that, rather than the traditional model where the children write and then the teacher marks it, a strong assessment process might look something like this:
• A chance to proofread independently
• Oral feedback
• A chance to edit or add to their work
• High-quality written feedback (or time spent with the teacher)
• The chance to redraft
This process works like a funnel, or a series of sieves with smaller and smaller holes – each stage serving to refine the piece of writing.
Getting it just right
Here’s an example of how this approach works, using Lena in Y1’s writing. Lena has been playing the role of Goldilocks in the home corner, and has been asked to write a note to the three bears apologising for her regrettable behaviour. Here’s her first, hurried attempt:
Dear Bear Family,
i am so sori I ated yor porig I will bring a nuther 1 I didnot mean to brayk yor chair. I to big!
It’s a great start, especially the fact that she’s decided to call herself GoldiLena. But if the teacher marks Lena’s work at this stage, he might end up concentrating on some of the misspelt words, the non-capitalised ‘I’ or the missing full stops. It’s very possible that Lena knows some of these aren’t right already, but has just got them wrong through rushing.
The first stage of the funnel is to give Lena some time to try to identify where there are mistakes and where she could make improvements. Generally, the older children are, the easier they find this task, but if Lena can make even one improvement it’s been worthwhile, as it helps her to learn to become a more autonomous learner. To aid her, Lena has been taught to read her writing aloud, making sure she reads each word as it’s written. Independently, Lena makes the following changes (in bold):
Dear Bear Family,
I am so sori I ated your porig I will bring a nuther 1 I didnot mean to brayk your chair. I was too big!
Already, Lena has made two changes. She’s found the lower-case ‘I’ that she missed at the beginning. She’s also noticed a missing word and that the wrong ‘to’ had been used.
The next step in the process for the teacher to give some immediate oral feedback as he walks around the classroom. He pauses next to Lena and asks her to check her writing to make sure she has used full stops at the end of each sentence. He also explains that the past tense of eat is ‘ate’ not ‘ated’. Finally, she asks Lena to think about how GoldiLena could make things up to the bears. With older children, this oral feedback could be done in front of the whole class (in a supportive and sensitive manner) so everyone benefits from hearing the feedback. This might be through using a visualiser to share the work on the whiteboard.
Lena returns to her work:
Dear Bear Family,
I am so sori I ate your porig. I will bring a nuther 1. I did not mean to brayk your chair. I was too big! I will pay you the mony for what they costs. I will save up my poget mony.
This draft has improved greatly without any marking. Not only has Lena made the suggested changes, she’s also added some kisses (which, quite rightly, Lena is very pleased with). Now the teacher can give her some formal feedback.
With older children, this might mean taking in the writing and marking it. With a child of Lena’s age, the teacher has decided to build in a guided writing session, sitting with Lena and working on the writing together. This potentially time-consuming approach might not be possible all of the time, but it’s one of the best ways of improving children’s writing.
Now, the teacher can focus on some key aspects that will improve the piece. First, she explains that porridge is a mass noun and helps Lena to change ‘another one’ to ‘some more’. Then she helps Lena to join two of her sentences together with the conjunction ‘because’, creating a multi-clause sentence. Then the teacher supports Lena to re-write her last sentence so it is clearer and matches what Lena wants to communicate – that she’ll spend some of her pocket money to make things up to the bears.
Dear Bear Family,
I am so sory I ate your porig. I will bring you some more. I did not mean to brayc your chair because I was too big!
I will save up my pocket mony to buy you a new chair and a new bed. I hope that we can be fwends after that.
Lena’s finished writing is much more mature than her original draft. If Lena’s teachers follow this process each time she writes then slowly, piece-by-piece, she will develop as a writer. By the time she leaves primary school she’ll able to communicate clearly through her writing. And as teachers, we can’t ask for much more than that.
Top tips for effective feedback in writing lessons
• Good feedback validates what children have done well already.
• The best feedback often comes in the middle of the writing process, so children have the opportunity to act on it and improve their work.
• Building in time to self-check helps children to become autonomous and take responsibility for their own writing.
• Ongoing assessments should feedback into teaching. Rather than teach to a predetermined plan, a good teacher adapts the lesson to support children’s learning.
• Using children’s work as examples (in a sensitive way) sends a clear message that every piece of work in the room can be improved.
• Good marking will focus on just a few key areas to address, often phrased as targets, action points of things to change, or as questions to prompt thinking and reflection.
• If the writing needs more than a few pointers to move it to a good standard, then it might well be a better use of time to work through the piece with the child, providing oral feedback and addressing any errors together.