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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Encouraging, Thoughtful, and Helpful Responses to High Stakes Writing: How Do Writing Teachers Do It All?



My research question developed as I spent uncountable numbers of hours responding to students’ formal writing assignments. As I “graded” my students’ high stakes writing assignments, I often wondered whether I was wasting not only my time, but the students’ time as well. I questioned whether the comments I wrote in response to the students’ work assisted them in improving not only their writing, but also their attitudes and confidence about writing as well.

I found that many other teachers asked the same questions. Linda Christensen, a high school Language Arts Coordinator for Portland Public Schools, raised similar issues in an article titled, “The Politics of Correction,” recently published in The National Writing Project Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2003). She stated, “So how do we both nurture students in their writing and help them learn the language of power? We start by telling them what they’re doing right. All too often teachers scar students’ esteem about themselves as writers by wielding their pens in the margins with, “You’re wrong. Wrong again. Ten points off for that comma splice. Where is the past tense?” These had been the same thoughts that I struggled with as I tried to write comments on students’ papers.

It is no secret that teaching writing is one of the areas that teachers find the most difficult. Recent research conducted by The National College Board and the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges resulted in a report titled, “The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution,” which was published in April 2003. One of the major problems outlined in the report is finding time. “Writing is a prisoner of time. Learning how to present one’s thoughts on paper requires time. The sheer scope of the skill required for effective writing is daunting. The mechanics of grammar and punctuation, usage, developing a ‘voice’ and a feel for the audience, mastering the distinctions between expository, narrative, and persuasive writing (and the types of evidence required to make each convincing)—the list is lengthy. These skills cannot be picked up from a few minutes here and a few minutes there, all stolen form more ‘important’ subjects (20). I needed to think about how to respond to, how much, and how often.

These were not the only questions that arose. I also wondered about assessment. In light of the recent increase of publicity surrounding standardized tests and assessments, I wanted to provide more meaningful, helpful, and authentic feedback to my students about their writing. As per the Neglected R, “As everyone understands, student performance and growth in writing are difficult to measure, for many reasons…Writing assessment is a genuine challenge” (21). I began to see my comments on my students’ work as a form of development and I knew that I needed to think about what would be most helpful to them as beginning writers.


  • Student Surveys
  • Parent Surveys
  • Student Reading Journals
  • Emails
  • Student Work
  • Student Interviews

I selected the above tools in order to gain the most breadth when collecting data. I wanted gather feedback from parents as well as students, hence both the student and parent surveys. In addition, I used the student reading journals as well as both parent and student emails as they sometimes offered “unsolicited” insight into how the students’ feelings and attitudes toward writing developed and shifted as the year progressed. I used the student work as evidence upon which to reflect how the students’ writing shifted or stayed the same as the school year progressed. Finally, I interviewed students in very casual and often unprompted situations. I did not want students to simply respond in a way that they felt “would satisfy” the responses I sought. Thus, I often allowed these interviews to develop organically out of a previous conversation or during writing conferences.


For the most part the data shows that in, those surveys on which students used a numerical rating system, students found the comments on their writing useful, encouraging, honest, fair, and sufficient. This information was useful in attempting to grasp a general sense of how my comments affected their writing as well as their attitudes toward my comments. However, I gathered much more telling data from their responses to the open-ended questions on the surveys. Many students desired more specific comments on their writing. They made some of the following suggestions:

  • Give us back our drafts so we know what to change.
  • If she would give us a grade based on the draft what would it be? This would let us know where we stand, and we can use your constructive criticism to reach our goals.
  • I think you should always comment on it, otherwise I don’t know what to do and sometimes that makes me not do it.
  • For Ms. Rygalski to explain more her comments. Sometimes I don’t understand what she is trying to do to make my story better.
  • There are too many after a while and it gets hard after a while to keep track of all of the feedback.
  • Be more specific with comments. Give examples.
  • Instead of saying “expand on this,” tell me how I can expand.


Despite the fact that I gave a parent survey to each of my ninty-seven eighth grade students to take home, I only received seventeen back. Of the seventeen returned, only twelve of the surveys had the numerical ratings completed. For the most part, these were positive. Most parents seemed satisfied with the written feedback and comments their students received on their writing. The parents offered more constructive feedback in the open-ended responses. Some of them included:

  • So far, all the comments are very helpful but maybe some examples can be given to whatever changes you make or in any comments.
  • I think to add grammar, spelling, sentence structure should be incorporated in the writing.
  • Maybe more feedback could be given about genre or specific strategies and less on content.
  • I saw some comments early in the year and thought they were academically helpful and personally supportive.


In examining and analyzing different samples of student work from the beginning of the year until the end, many students demonstrated improvement in several areas including:

  • Sentence structure
  • Sophisticated vocabulary
  • Organization
  • Fluency

I conducted several informal interviews with students at the end of the school year. Many of these interviews developed organically out of a conversation about writing in general. Most importantly, I wanted to find out how the students thinking and their attitude about writing shifted if at all from the beginning of the school year to the end. Some of their responses included the following:

  • I am now more in tune with what I want to write and how to express my feelings
  • I feel I am better organized
  • The comments showed that you read our essays and paid attention to what we wrote
  • Seeing that you commented so much on everyone’s papers showed that you really read all of our essays and that you paid attention to what we wrote and we couldn’t ‘B.S’ because we knew you read it.

Other Sources of Data

Throughout the year I occasionally came across student’ and parents’ feedback to my comments about their writing. This data was unsolicited, but I believe it is equally important to the overall research.
? (email from parent) “Thank you for copying __________’s essay for me. Of course, I was proud of his work. But I was also greatly impressed by your comments, which provided such clear feedback and gentle guidance, indicating what _____________ would need to do to reach the next level. I am beginning to believe that he will, too! All the more because you hold him responsible and require him to be accountable, so he knows that your praise is genuine.”
? (a student’s reading journal) “I have to thank Ms. Rygalski! She taught us tips and tricks. She also helps us a lot with essays. I’ve learned about active and passive voice. I have to admit that now I want my essays fully active.”


The data collected suggests that there are multiple steps that can be implemented at several levels (student, teacher, administration, parent/guardian) to increase the efficiency as well as the usefulness and helpfulness of teachers’ comments on students’ work. On the surface the data points to the students’ general satisfaction with the comments written on their work. However, when analyzed with a more critical stance, the data suggests that there is a great deal of room for improvement in responding to student work. Given the feedback from students and parents that I need to be more effective and precise in my comments on their writing, I plan to revise my response system.

I plan to create a method for response that allows for greater dialogue between the teacher and the students when discussing a student’s respective piece of writing. As a teacher that has spent countless hours responding to students’ formal writing assignments, I feel that it is important to develop a more efficient system for responding to students’ work. I believe a more efficient system is necessary to prevent burnout and simple exhaustion. I plan to address more of the students’ writing needs, questions, and revisions during class time, where the two actors, teachers and students, can discuss and write together.

Furthermore, I think that teachers across disciplines and curriculums need to work together to create a writing response system that will allow teachers to respond constructively, but in a more time efficient manner. The data suggests that students need encouragement. Students’ attitudes and confidence can be scarred easily if they constantly face too much criticism on writing that they worked tremendously hard to complete. Students do not want to read statements such as “You need to put more effort into this.” They especially do not want to receive this same feedback from five different teachers. I believe that if teachers in different disciplines notice that a student consistently makes the same error or mishap in their writing, there must be communication between the teachers so that the student can work on improving this part of their writing process and move on to something else. I am firmly convinced that when teachers respond to students’ writing, they need to focus on two areas: the positive aspects of the work as well as the constructive criticism that will help improve the work, in all of the respective curriculum areas.

Finally, I think it is essential that students have some voice in the type of feedback they receive. This empowers the students and allows them to have some control over their endeavor as a learner. I believe that students must be able to sit with their respective teachers in a writing conference and discuss what type of advice or feedback they need based on their individual strengths and weakness as well as the requirements of the individual writing assignment.

The individual conferences will allow the teacher to further explain and substantiate why they might have written on a student’s paper, “Expand on this.” This comment might be necessary, however when meeting one-on-one, the teacher can “really” explain what specifically needs to be expanded upon. The comment suggest that something is working in the writing, but simply stating this on the students work does not help the student recognize what is working and in fact might impede their desire to continue to expand on what is already working in the piece. However, a writing conference would help facilitate this information. This is the honest and real feedback that writing experts, Nancy Atwell, Donald Graves, and Tom Romano call for.


  • Teachers and students need to work together to create a safe and caring school community where students feel comfortable to discuss their writing and take risks with their writing.
  • Students need time to meet one-on-one, or in small groups, with their teachers to discuss their writing and their writing goals.
  • Students need positive praise as well as constructive criticism to support their improvement as writers.
  • Teachers across grade levels and disciplines need to collaborate to create writing standards and guidelines, which will facilitate more consistency in expectations for student writing.
  • Teachers need time built into their schedules during which they can conference with students about heir individual needs.
  • Teachers need training that provides guidelines on how to comment effectively on students’ writing in a way that encourages and motivates the students to pursue improvement in their writing.
  • Teachers need to encourage students while they are in the writing process in order to help the students maintain a positive attitude toward writing as well as themselves as writers.
  • Schools need to increase parent/guardian involvement by clearly communicating expectations for students’ writing across disciplines as well as create meaningful ways parents can assist students while they write at home.
  • Teachers and students need time to work collaboratively toward achieving the student’s individual writing goals based on their individual needs.
  • Principals and staff developers need to provide professional development that allows teachers to learn “best practices” surrounding responding to students’ writing, across all disciplines and grade levels.

Jennifer Rygalski

Research Focus:
Writing Comprehension

TNLI Affiliate:
New York City

Mott Hall II
234 West 109th Street
New York, NY 10025

If you would like to learn more about Teachers Network Leadership Institute, please e-mail Kimberly Johnson for more information.



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