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Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Providing Feedback on Student Writing

Explore ways of evaluating students to help them grow as writers and you grow as a teacher.

Student writing demands reaction — from both teachers and other members of the writing community. But what kind of interaction is most powerful and rewarding? The teachers, researchers, and authors tackle this issue in this session, talking about and demonstrating effective ways to conference and comment on student work and direct other members of the writing community to do the same. While offering great tips on structuring peer review, Judith Ortiz Cofer directs the teachers as they comment on each others’ work during this session.

Key Points

It’s tremendously important for teachers to remember that this is not their piece of writing. The student is the author.

— Lucy Calkins

This workshop concentrates on the assessing and evaluating student writing. It investigates ways to help students grow as writers through conversations and written evaluations shared with their teachers and their peers. Grading, portfolio assessment, and high-stakes testing are also part of this workshop.


These are the key points the teachers, educators, authors, and students consider:

  1. In a classroom community of writers, students can expect a fair, honest, and constructive appraisal of their writing, not only from their teachers but also from their peers.
  2. As much as students need the opportunity to write, teachers also need the opportunity to respond to that writing. Teachers can respond to student work in writing or through personal conversations. Teachers can respond to works in all stages of development, from pre-writing exercises to final drafts. They need to decide when, to what degree, and in what manner they will react.
  3. Students need to know how their work will be evaluated and assessed. Rubrics prepared by the teacher or in concert with students can help them do this.
  4. Portfolios are a good tool for assessing the body of a student’s work. There are many ways in which these portfolios can be maintained, managed, and assessed.
  5. Peer review can be expected to be a part of the writing community. Students need to be given the tools to make cogent and useful comments in peer group review sessions.
  6. High stakes testing is an expected student experience. Teachers have to decide to what degree and in what manner they will integrate preparation for these tests into their writing community activities.

Hone your skills in evaluating student writing with Arbiter, an interactive activity featuring student essays.

Use Build a Rubric to construct an analytical evaluation of student writing.

Things To Consider

In student conferences, I share my observations of their work. It becomes a dialogue.

— Charles Ellenbogen

Charles Ellenbogen

What kind of evaluator are you? Think about the last few papers you graded. What percent of your comments were:

Praise comments
(Comments such as “Good word choice” or “Nice transition.”)
Question comments
Comments such as “Did you mean to add more supporting information here?” or “Could you clarify this point?”)
Instructional comments
(Comments such as “Please check the meaning of this word” or “Try varying the length of your sentences here,” offered as suggestions.)
Directional comments
(Comments such as “Change the order of these two sentences,” given as a command.)
Answer comments
(Comments that provide only the answer, such as circling a misspelled word and writing in the correct spelling.)
Attention comments
(Comments that use symbols such as “awk” or “!,” or circling a word.)


Find out how your commenting style impacts students in this article.

  • In the workshop videos, the teachers talked about evaluating student writing on a holistic basis. Read this explanation of holistic versus analytic evaluation and rubrics.
  • To investigate the evaluation methods teachers have used (and researchers have investigated) throughout the past 25 years, take a look at Evaluating Student Writing: Methods and Measurement, a synopsis written by Nancy B. Hyslop for the ERIC Review.
  • The Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Minnesota offers a collection of thoughtful articles on responding to student writing from the perspective of teachers and peers in the writing community.

In the Classroom

The best student feedback, for me, is not correcting something, but questioning and probing.

Susie Lebryk-Chao

Susie Lebryk-Chao

Peer review is an important part of a writing community. While we know it is valuable, we don’t often know how to make it work effectively. These are some suggestions to spark new ideas in thinking about helping your students master the art of responding to their peers’ work.

  • Kelly Quintero used this activity to help her students prepare for a complete a peer review session of essays they constructed in the manner of Sandra Cisneros’s vignette “My Name (Esperanza). You might want to review this as a first step in thinking about students’ responsibilities in peer review.
  • Susie Lebryk-Chao models peer review with her classes by first asking a student to volunteer to read. She then asks these four questions, writing student responses on the board.
  • Do you have a favorite tip for helping students become effective peer reviewers?
  • Dr. Robyn R. Jackson, currently a Student Support Specialist at Thomas Pyle Middle School in Maryland, often used a color-coded rubric to guide her high school students as they develop as writers. She feels it helps her see a student’s progress at a glance. Read her description of how it works and look at a sample. You can also look at the student paper the rubric addresses.
  • If you’d like to see how your processes of evaluating student writing compare with your peers’ techniques, try the interactive activity Arbiter.
  • The teachers in this workshop felt that introducing students to test-taking strategies in order to help them prepare for high-stakes assessments was very worthwhile. If you would like to familiarize your students with some of the techniques and formats used in these tests, try visiting some testing sites together. The College Board’s site for Advanced Placement tests, AP Central is a good place to start. Use a search engine such as Google to find sample test questions on your state or local assessments program.

Additional Resources

“I think one of the most important things student writers need to hear is what it is they did well.”

Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers

Listen to or Read:

On the Web:

  • The National Council of Teachers of English has published this position statement on the assessment of student writing. Although prepared by NCTE’s college level conference, the statement is relevant to teachers working with all levels of students.

In the Library:

  • Bishop, Wendy, ed. Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/ Boynton Cook, 1997.
  • Cooper, Charles R. and Lee Odell, eds. Evaluating Writing: The Role of Teachers’ Knowledge About Text, Learning and Culture. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998.
  • Elbow, Peter. “Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: A Utopian View.” In Composition in the 21st Century. Eds. Bloom, Lynn D., Donald A. Daiker, and Edward M. White. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 83-100.
  • Mahoney, Jim. Power and Portfolios: Best Practices for High School Classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002.
  • Murray, Donald M. The Craft of Revision. 3rd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
  • Sunstein, Bonnie and Jonathan H. Lovell, eds. the Portfolio Standard: How Students Can Show Us What They Know and Are Able To Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.
  • Tchudi, Stephen., ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
  • Wilde, Sandra. Testing and Standards: A Brief Encyclopedia. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2002.