Choosing the Right Focus in the Writing Classroom

Because writing, grammar, and vocabulary are interconnected, it can be easy to lose focus during the writing process. This is particularly true when we’re correcting student compositions. As soon as you accept a student’s paper, do you read the composition once through and comment on content first? Or do you concentrate on language skills? Does your mind automatically start replacing common words with higher level vocabulary? Do you take out your pen and start making proofreader’s marks? What should be your focus? I don’t really think there’s one right way of correcting compositions, but let me offer some suggestions for developing a consistent and effective approach:

  • Focus first on the targeted writing skill. When a student places a composition before your eyes, your attention may immediately be drawn to grammatical errors or a poor choice of words. Remind yourself what the lesson objectives are. Have you been working on sentence variety? Spatial descriptions? Topic sentences? Focus on the lesson objective first. Provide feedback that lets the student know if he or she has met the objective or what corrections need to be made in order to do so. After that, you may comment on other aspects of the composition.
  • See the whole composition before looking at the parts. Even if students are only writing sentences and not paragraphs, you can still focus on form first. For example, are they starting sentences with capital letters? Is their handwriting limited to block letters? Do they end sentences with proper punctuation? At the paragraph level, check to see that students indent the first line and they don’t make the habit of starting each sentence on a new line. Within an essay, is there good paragraph division? If time allows, you can ask that a first revision tackles problems with the targeted skill and/or formatting. A second revision could then make changes to improve grammar and vocabulary.
  • Ask for a reasonable amount of revision. Some students may have a lot of weaknesses in their writing, from spelling to grammar to organization. You could address these weaknesses in turn, asking for additional revisions. However, trying to rectify all the weaknesses may be both unrealistic and overwhelming. It may be enough to raise the student’s awareness about some problematic features, and then leave them alone for now. It’s not unlike the way we correct speech in the conversation classroom. Do we really correct every single error uttered? No. Doing so may inhibit communication.
  • Praise the writer’s strengths. What is done correctly and effectively in a given composition? Identify these elements not just to make the student happy (although a kind compliment can counterbalance a load of corrections in red ink)*, but also to make the student aware of what elements he or she has mastered and what can be repeated in future compositions.
  • Take the time to understand the writer’s message. Correcting student compositions is very time-consuming, but you really should take the extra minute to comment on the content. We often ask students to use writing for personal expression, so their compositions reflect their opinions and values. Avoid treating a composition as something to dissect and reconstruct. It’s a form of communication. The student is communicating with you. Communicate back.

*Do you use red ink to correct? Some students react strongly to this color. Try a softer one such as green or blue.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne Millen says:

    This is excellent advice, and very clear.
    It is important to have the student do as much correction as possible, because it will be graded – and it should be the student and not the proofreader who is graded. This is an intelligent and morally correct approach. Thank you!

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