My students used to scoff, sneer, or ignore my efforts to make them revise their writing. And almost every one of my attempts at getting students to take a second look at their own writing usually ended in discouragement.
For me, not too long ago, lightening struck. I made a change. I started to get my students to approach revision in a fresh way, and their attitudes completely changed. They spent real, invested time making their writing better. They stopped complaining about revision. And, wouldn’t you know it, their drafts got better. Many students even started inquiring, on their own, how to adjust their first draft writing to avoid making their usual first draft mistakes.
What did I do? The answer was surprisingly simple. Actually, anyone can do it. And it only requires a little extra energy to make it happen in your classroom. All you have to do is change one little thing and prepare for dramatic results.
Teach Revision with Low-Stakes Writing
I have my students do a lot of pressure-free, low-stakes writing. They do this in a Writer’s Notebook. And let me be frank about this low-stakes writing: it’s bad. My students make all kinds of errors, and I let them.
But what comes next is the part that gets results. Instead of just leaving the low-stakes writing as a warm up and walking away once the students jot down a few thoughts, I have my students take it to the next level by revising their notebook entries. And they do this on a regular basis.
That’s it. Did you catch it? It’s so simple, you may have been looking for something deeper and went right past it.
Let me tell you how I used to teach revision and tell me if this sounds familiar.
When I first started teaching ELA in Southern California, I largely taught in the same way I learned English when I was in high school. As a young teacher, I quickly learned that what worked for me did not work for my students.
When I was in high school, I was typically taught to revise in middle of crafting a complex multi-page essay. As students, we were asked to complete one draft, then we would get the checklist of all the errors we likely committed, and then we would go back an fix the problems. For the most part, this worked for me and my classmates.
When I started teaching, I took the same approach. I would wait until the students were in the middle of a high-stakes, academically complex essay, and then I would teach revision to help them increase the likelihood of earning higher marks on a second draft.
It didn’t really work. I tried many different strategies, including peer-editing. Every time my efforts largely failed.
I don’t know exactly when lightning struck, or even what prompted it, but it occurred to me that teaching revision in the middle of a complex academic writing assignment was bad timing. If the students had only learned how to do it before they started the essay, and I mean really learned it, then they would be in great shape when it came time to put up a second draft.
I thought about what students would need to know and be able to do before they arrived at that point where they were standing between the first and second draft of an essay. Here’s what I came up with:
- Students need to be convinced that writing is a process.
- Students need to know what to do when asked to revise their writing.
- Students need a basic capacity to see the problems in their writing and know what to do to fix them.
- Students must have a developed habit of revising their writing.
That is a heavy list of capabilities. And I was trying to teach that in the middle of a complex academic essay.
I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink my approach. I was looking at the work I was having my students complete in their Writer’s Notebook. At the same time, I was looking at this problem of how teach them to revise their writing. Then I connected the two: have the students practice revision with the writing they put in the Writer’s Notebook!
In my classroom now, my students get a lot of pressure-free, low-stakes revision practice long before they are given a high-stakes writing prompt. As they practice revision, they build their capacity to discern how they can improve their writing.
I also teach language conventions along the way, embedding their learning in within the low-stakes revision. This helps build their capacity to see their writing problems and practice fixing them. And this helps them develop the habit of revision, opening them to the reality that writing is a process.
To sum it all up, the big change I made was to move revision instruction from the middle point of a high-stakes essay a time well before they receive an essay prompt for a first draft. They learn to revise when the pressure is off, when they may enjoy the practice of seeing a piece of writing they care about take shape into something better, more mature. And they do this frequently.
Later on, during the high-stakes writing assignment, I remind them of what they have already learned and practiced several times before-hand. And then, they are ready to be engaged not only as writers, but as revisers.