Teach long enough and you’ll have those students. The ones who are naturally gifted in Language Arts. The ones for whom writing seems to come easily.
The ones who sometimes, despite our best intentions, slip through the cracks.
As educators, we are so well trained to help struggling students that we sometimes forget that our stronger students need our attention as well. They have already slayed grammar rules and they can embed quotes with the best of them. Their critical thinking skills are exemplary and they work well with others. On the surface, it looks like they have “all the things.” They’ve got it, right? You can direct your attention to the other students, the ones who need more guidance, more help, more teaching, right?
All students deserve equal amounts of our attention and support. Feedback is a critical component of the support we offer.
In our grade-centric world, it’s easy to think of feedback as a way to identify and help correct errors. But that’s not what feedback is meant for. Not really. Feedback is meant to promote growth, not to identify flaws. As such, even our highest fliers deserve – and indeed, need – quality feedback.
An example: This week one of my students who writes pieces for the school newspaper asked me to read her journalism work with a critical eye. Why? Because, so far, all of the feedback she has received for her work has been positive. Now everyone, including this student, enjoys receiving positive feedback. Indeed, I always begin my feedback by first identifying what the student has done well before I discuss areas that could be improved. But this student was particularly frustrated that all of her feedback stopped at the “what she did well” stage, leaving her no guidance on how she could grow as a writer. Her frustration is one that I’ve heard several times over the course of my career, and always in the context of the highest performing students.
It can be difficult to identify areas to target for growth for students who naturally excel at our curriculum. When the writing is strong, our feedback can feel superficial or nitpicky. But it is important that we continue to find ways to promote growth for our strongest students, just as we do for our struggling students. Here are some suggested options to consider when providing meaningful feedback for our more advanced writers:
- Syntax: Explore the student’s sentence structure. Syntax is an important tool in the writer’s toolbox and understanding the various options for composing sentences – and how those options may affect the reader’s understanding of the piece – is a great place to start. In the case of my student, for example, while her writing genuinely was impressive, she relied on the same handful of syntax structures, causing each individual article to feel remarkably similar to the one that came before, despite the content being wildly different. For her, I recommended that she experiment with other syntax structures, incorporate a variety of sentence lengths, and evaluate writing mentors with an eye towards sentence composition when exploring ways to grow as a writer.
- Organization: The way a reader moves through a piece determines the way they understand that piece. Have strong writers experiment with different organizational approaches to see if they can revise the piece to achieve a slightly different effect. Remind them that they can control the reader’s experience with the choices they make and challenge them to align their organizational approach with their rhetorical goals.
- Genre: As with organization, genre plays a role in shaping meaning. If your student is a strong writer who nonetheless always relies upon one narrative approach – prose, for example – challenge them to rewrite their work as a poem or song lyrics, as a memoir or listicle. What happens to the content when they revise it to fit the new genre? What happens to meaning? As with organization, reminding students that the author controls the reader’s experience will help them select the most effective genre for any given piece of writing.
- Diction: Perhaps your students produce writing that already employs a variety of sentence structures, develops a clear, logical organization, and is written in a genre that suits the writer’s purpose. There is still opportunity for growth. Have the student explore their word choices to determine if there are any words that can swapped out to more accurately convey – or perhaps even alter – the original meaning. Depending on the type of writing they are creating, having them modify their diction to signal a shift in meaning, character, or plot can add a layer of sophistication to already strong writing.
- Narrative or Nonfiction Elements: We often teach narrative writing and nonfiction writing as two separate skills. But readers know that the type of nonfiction that captures our attention often employs narrative elements. Likewise, fictional narratives can be complicated by the addition of seemingly “nonfiction” elements. Consider, for example, a common convention of gothic literature: the epistolary format. This style of writing employs letters, journals, newspaper entries, medical logs, and the like to develop a narrative and, in the process, create the impression of a reality that perhaps is not warranted within the larger text. Challenging students to embed narrative features into their nonfiction writing or to play with their fictional pieces to create the impression of truth will allow them to expand their understanding of how the various writers’ tools can function.
Providing students with meaningful feedback regardless of where they are on their journey as writers is a critical component to their growth. We owe it to all of our students to continually give them opportunities to experiment, to stretch, to grow. Providing feedback that focuses on growth rather than correction will ensure that every student has the support they need as they develop their Writer’s Identity.