Reading & Writing Across Curriculum

Responding to Student Writing


How does one respond to a student’s work so that it inspires them to continue to evolve as a writer?

Information from experts in the field...


  • The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing shares that, “The written comments you make on a student’s essay will often be the basis of your relationship with that student” (136).
  • “If approached cautiously and thoughtfully, evaluating and marking our students’ work can serve as an encouraging record of student progress – but only if we supply students with useful information” (135).
  • “Comments create the motive for doing something different in the next draft; thoughtful comments create the motive for revising. Without comments from their teachers or from their peers, student writers will revise in a consistently narrow and predictable way” (373).


Where Do I Start?

Work Collaboratively to Develop Expectations:
The teacher might start by working collaboratively to develop clear expectations for both the students and the teacher. What do they expect from themselves as students in the writing process? What do they expect from the instructor? As you discuss classroom expectations, you can create a list so that everyone feels as though they have had input in the classroom expectations.
"Course-based evaluation does not put all grading responsibility into the students’ hands, of course, but by involving all the members of your class in important decisions – about what they want to learn and have you evaluate- you make grading seem less arbitrary and individual" ( Glen et al 137).

Communicate with Your Students

“Composition teacher should show students how to explore, sensitively yet systematically, facets, feelings, values, and ideas in order to determine what it is they wish to say in their writing” (Cooper Odell 107).
“Students wrote narratives revealing grief and agony and humiliation; they wrote argumentative essays that, taking a deliberately controversial stand, cry out for a direct, engaged response” (Robertson 87).
“Anyone would be outraged if the only response he got from a partner in conversation was criticisms of his habits of speech. When we tell a story or voice an opinion, we expect our auditors to respond to the content of our message – perhaps with a confirmation of our beliefs, perhaps with an excited counter argument” (88).
“To me the most helpful response to student writing is immediate verbal help on the first drafts, actually sitting with a student and helping him put the words on paper” (Freedman 56).
Nancy Sommers has done a great deal of research on what constitutes effective responses to student writing. In one study, she looked at the responses to student papers from thirty-five different teachers. She found, “Teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teachers’ purpose in commenting” (Glen, Goldthwaite, Conners 374).

Link Comments to Class Work

“The key to successful commenting is to have what is said in the comments and what is done in the classroom mutually reinforce and enrich each other” (380).

Annotate Selectively

Robinson offers helpful advice, “It is absolutely imperative to annotate selectively, rather than overwhelming the student with symbols and messages he or she will be unable to cope with” (Robinson 6).


Marginal Comments

Marginal comments "allow you to be specific in your praise or questioning – you can call attention to strengths or weaknesses where they occur…may deal with substantive matters, arrangement, tone, support, and style… options she has in particular places…balance advise and criticism with praise. Try to avoid the temptation to comment only on form or to point out only errors" (Glen et al 146).
Marginal Comments
  1. Allows you to be specific in your phrase or questioning
  2. Limit marginal comments when evaluating first drafts because the may freeze student in current draft
  3. 3-4 marginal comments ok…too much makes the student think the work is bad even if the comments are praise
  4. Balance advice and criticism with praise
  5. Avoid commenting only on form
  6. Avoid only pointing out errors
  7. Try to avoid using a question mark alone-let student know what is wrong and give direction or revision-make it sound like it comes from a human reader
    1. Ex. Instead of using “awk” say “I stumbled here”
  8. Praise is always welcome-good/yes means a lot to a struggling writer



Terminal (End) Comments

Terminal comments can come at the beginning or end of the students paper.
"Must do a great deal in a short space: they must document the strengths and weaknesses of an essay, let the student know whether she responded well to your assignment, help create a psychological environment in which the student is willing to revise or write again, encourage and discourage specific writing behaviors, and set specific goals that you think the student can meet" (148).
  1. Often found at the end
  2. Begin with rhetorical issues-content-organization-general effectiveness- then smaller scale issues of mechanics (global to local concerns)
  3. Avoid harsh or disrespectful comments and minimal or generic comments that seem disengaged from the text
  4. Did they respond well to the assignment
  5. How well does the thesis respond to the paper and assignment
  6. Create an environment that invites revision
  7. Encourage or discourage certain writing behavior
  8. Set goals
  9. Often more than 31 words for best results
  10. Check with other instructors in the department to see their comments and show yours to them


Works Cited

Cooper, Charles R., Lee Odell. Evaluating Writing. New York: National Council of Teachers of English, 1977.

Freedman, Sarah Warshauer. Response to Student Writing. Illionis: National Council of Teachers of English, 1987.

Glenn, Cheryl, Melissa A. Goldthwaite, and Robert Conners, ed. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.135-154 & 373-381.

Robertson, Michael. “Staffroom Interchange: Is Anybody Listening?” College Composition and Communication Vol. 37, No. 1(1986):87-91.

Robinson, William S. Texts and Contexts: A Contemporary Approach to College Writing, 6th ed. Boston: Rosenberg, 2006. 6-18.


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Page last modified: April 25, 2017