Writing Feedback


On April 1st, I read this tweet from Cornelius Minor that has sent me on a path of discovery, learning, and thinking about writing instruction and writing feedback.

corn . writing.better pic.


When I followed his link to the blog, the Chart Chicks had an entire blog post on writing that you will want to check out for yourself for the detailed explanations.  Here is the summary:

“Have you noticed that there seems to be three main approaches to teaching the writing process?

  • The “free to be me” approach
  • The “assigned task” approach
  • The “demonstrate, scaffold, release to write” approach”


I often see variations of those approaches in classrooms ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade in school districts of varying size.  Instruction in writing varies.  Teacher assignment of writing is the norm in many classrooms.  Why is this?  Is it the lack of instruction for teachers themselves?  Or does this concern begin with teacher preparation courses?  Do teachers know how to demonstrate, scaffold, and release to write?

Writing Feedback

After attending the June 2013 writing institute at Teachers College, I had many choices to make in how to help teachers and myself improve writing.  One area of special interest to me is feedback because of John Hattie’s work in Visible Learning for Teachers.  Feedback is critical for growth in teaching knowledge and confidence.  A second source of information more recently has been Taylor Meredith’s The Formative Feedback Project that can be found here in Medium.

I believe that “feedback” for writing can also be categorized in three main approaches as well.  Writing responses that I commonly see are:

  • bleeding red ink
  • no red marks – just a summative grade, score, or comment
  • a thoughtful post-it with “think abouts” for the author

Writing is hard for students and teachers.  Writing is evidence of thinking.  If quality thinking is one of the classroom goals, teachers need to provide thoughtful, individual feedback that is  goal referenced, tangible and transparent, actionable, user friendly, timely, and ongoing (Grant Wiggins, 2012).  That may require a transformation by many teachers.

So let’s explore those a bit more.  The first form of “feedback” listed above is “bleeding red ink.”  So what does that look like?

red ink

Who did the work here?   The teacher!

The teacher should not be the copy editor who corrects every error.  That kind of “feedback” is merely information for the writer.  There is no learning or change in the student’s knowledge.  Recopying “corrected” work is only editing.  No revision or understanding of revision has transpired.  There is also a high probability that the next written work will have similar errors.

End Result:   Student writing   +   Teacher red ink   =  No real learning  (only recopying)


The second form of “feedback” is no red marks,  just a summative grade, score, or comment.  This may look like:

checked                         B


A check mark or a B+ provides minimal information for the writer. Someone has read that work and left one mark.  A one word comment can also be limiting as evidenced in this Jerry Seinfeld quote about essay tests:

“I always did well on essay tests. Just put everything you know on there, maybe you’ll hit it. And then you get the paper back from the teacher and she’s written just one word across the top of the page, “vague.” I thought “vague” was kind of vague. I’d write underneath it “unclear,” and send it back. She’d return it to me, “ambiguous.” I’d send it back to her, “cloudy.” We’re still corresponding to this day … “hazy” … “muddy”…”
– Jerry Seinfeld  (SeinLanguage. Bantam Books: 1993)

Who did the work here?   There is not enough evidence to tell us who is doing the work.

But how helpful is that singular piece of information?

The student on the receiving end of these marks may say, “Wow, I dodged that.  I don’t have red marks all over my paper so I don’t have to rewrite my paper.”  But what did he or she really learn?  Are the learning targets clear?  How “close” to the learning targets was the work?  What needs to be done in order to show improvement? And even more importantly, “How does the student really become a better writer?”  “What does the student need to improve?”

End result:   No red marks    +  Summative mark   =   No real learning (No idea how to improve the quality)


The third form of “feedback” is a  thoughtful post-it with “think abouts” for the author.  What does this look like?   The first picture shows three post-its coded with + and one with “??” for think abouts for the author.   The pink flower post-it says, “Tell us what you think!” so that also gives the student enough feedback to know “what” to do as the next step.

post it comments                                   think


It’s more helpful to focus on one single aspect of a student paper for improvement.  Taylor Meredith has a great post on the difference  between input, information, and feedback.  You can find the link here, “Input, Information, Feedback“.  You will notice that I “borrowed” the idea of “equations” from that post.

End Result:   Student Writing  +   Thoughtful post-it with “think abouts” for the author   + Revise, Grow, Change  = Student who is able to Revise /Change “own writing” now in this piece  and also on the next piece!

There is a shift in this third version of feedback for student writing!  The student knows exactly what to do!

What does your writing feedback look like?  What will you do next?

Source:  Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback.Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16.


10 responses

  1. This was a timely post for me Fran. Actually, thinking about it, this is always a timely post. When giving feedback I tend to think about how I feel with comments. What makes me want to write more?

    1. Julieanne,
      Thanks for commenting. I love your question. Thanks for reminding me of “how I feel” and what would keep me writing!

  2. All teachers I encounter always say, “I don’t know how to teach writing.” That makes me think there is a huge gap in teacher education. I know I wasn’t taught how to teach writing (of course that was in the dark ages). Teachers do what was done to them, unfortunately. However with a little education their is hope for changing the course of instruction. Hopefully we will see more of the feedback type in the future. Great thinking here!

    1. Elsie,
      I am with you – from the dark ages – and I also hear that a lot from teachers!

      I think if we can “focus” on writing instruction and feedback and move beyond the “telling and assigning” that the students will reap the benefits.

  3. Fran, this post really resonated with me as well! This year was the first year I made a significant shift in my writing feedback similar to your third feedback equation. I use labels, one has a heart image and one has a brain. The heart is what I loved and the brain is something to think about. I have never seen so much growth in student writing before Moving forward, I want to be very mindful of the language I use on both of those labels – so that my feedback can be clear and meaningful. Thank you for sharing this and getting the writing feedback conversation started!

    1. Thanks, Taylor!
      I love the visuals you are using on your labels. Clear and meaningful feedback will be a benefit for students! Your blog contributed to my thinking!

      WOW! Wish I had read this before posting:


      Great post!!!

  4. Thank you for such a thoughtful reflection on feedback. I aim for the specific comments, but I haven’t used sticky notes for them. I like that idea. To teach grammar in the context of their writing, I focus on one error type (such as run on sentences) and highlight the places where the error occurs. Then after a lesson in how to correct that convention, the students correct the rest of the highlighted sentences. I’ve seen more carryover to later pieces of writing there.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kay. I have been using post-its for comments for several years and students seem to respond to the respect that shows for their own work.

      My goal is student independence. The students have to do the work in order to get better at using the strategy / skill. I used to be proud of the fact that I was NOT “red inking” student papers, but I was really doing the exact same thing with a green marker. All I had done was exchange the red ink for green ink. It really is “bigger” than that!

  5. This is such a helpful post, Fran! I love the way you organized your thoughts about feedback and included specific examples! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Catherine!
      Instead of writing multiple posts this week, I spent some time each day working on this post and I was pleased with the contents in terms of balancing what I learned from the month of slicing and what I learned about feedback.

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