The largest and most important part of education is the two-way communication of students and their tutors. That is why the educator must read, evaluate, and comment on students’ writing in a meaningful way. Most tutors will agree that responding to students’ papers is the most time-consuming and complicated aspect of their job. At the same time, most learners will say that detailed comments help them grow and distinguish their mistakes to avoid them in the future. However, it is hard for teachers to find the right way to do that – some comments are perceived by students as useful, while others have zero value.
Why does it happen? It is hard to deny that students’ development depends on the feedback – they learn to recognize and open up their potential as writers. The teacher needs to understand how to boost that potential, how and where to comment, and how to engage learners in communication.
Which comments don’t work?
The objective of the teacher’s feedback is to help students find out which of their arguments are successful and which need a revision. There are two common mistakes most educators do.
First, the feedback can include a contradictory message. For example, you suggest that a student should expand the idea and fix the grammar in a particular sentence. These comments exclude each other. In case the student corrects the grammar, the sentence will be complete, but when he/she expands the idea and changes the sentence, the grammar corrections won’t make any sense.
Second, comments can be abstract. For instance, when a teacher writes something like “be specific” or “the argument is weak,” students don’t really understand the claim and, therefore – ignore it. This is especially true when a student finds out that classmates’ papers include the same vague comments.
In both cases, it is hard for a student to get engaged. He/she has no idea what the teacher is trying to say. He wonders how to understand the claim instead of rethinking his/her own writing. The focus changes, and thinking become unproductive.
Tips on how to make helpful comments
The general advice for all educators is to ask yourself what you want to say before writing a comment. Ten comments don’t guarantee that ten lessons will be learned. Sometimes, just one detailed and precise claim is enough. Stick to these tips when evaluating students’ writing:
- Grammar is important, but give these lessons their own time
Teaching grammar is not about fixing every comma and removing the passive voice. Grammar is about patterns, not separate errors. Find the repeating mistakes and note them on the margins of a paper and encourage students to keep track of the most common mistakes they make. Also, teachers may give students specific tasks focused on grammar only – this will help them improve their English without losing focus on writing efficiency. Separating grammar assignments from writing tasks is a good practice.
- Comment drafts and final papers differently
Drafts are papers in progress, which means that comments should be encouraging. Suggest direction to follow and aspects of developing in more detail. The draft is a perfect place to reorganize and reframe arguments – comment wisely to help your students do that.
When it comes to final drafts, comments should evaluate the strong and weak sides of the paper. Suggestions for future papers and general improvements are necessary here.
- Have a conversation with the class
Explain to students that comments are provided to help them learn. Clearly state the purpose of your evaluation and give instructions on how to make the most of it.
- Encourage a dialogue
Not only teachers have something to say about students’ writing. Sometimes, they have questions and comments as well! Ask your learners to write small letters in which they highlight the specific areas to discuss and the challenges they encounter. Also, they may want to write responses to your comments and explain how they are going to use that piece of advice.
- Motivate them
Students, and especially the youngest ones, are waiting for evaluations and encouragement. They perceive feedback as something personal and directive. It would be best if you kept the balance between honesty and commendation – include both in equal proportions. Criticize mildly, suggest improvements, and give support. Youngsters need your validation and acknowledgment. Never forget to highlight the strong parts of their papers and boost their thinking.
If you want to help your students become better writers, remember that evaluation should be balanced and clear. Leave precise and concrete comments, mention their strengths, and suggest the improvements. Turn the evaluation into a dialogue and encourage them to communicate with you. Stay authoritative and friendly at the same time! Good luck!
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