Keys to an effective writing program

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This article is the first in a series of three that focus on essential practices of writing instruction. Built on the lessons learned from evidence submitted by schools and conversations with administrators, teachers and students, this series will promote thinking and provide resources to promote effective instructional practices to support student writing development.

Teresa Rogers

By Teresa Rogers
teresa.rogers@education.ky.gov

During the past two years, literacy consultants serving on the Writing Program Review team at the Kentucky Department of Education had the opportunity to visit schools to observe writing programs and provide feedback for next steps. The writing team reviewed evidence from 15 schools across the state. Elementary, middle and high schools shared examples of lesson plans, student work and feedback across content areas. In-person and online meetings were held with administrators and teachers.

Serving as the lead for this process has afforded a unique view of writing in classrooms throughout Kentucky.

Schools were asked to submit evidence to support, “To what extent do teachers, peers and others provide regular feedback on students’ writing and communication products as part of a constructive feedback process that is subsequently applied by students to improve their communications?”

Feedback
A common area of need we discovered at many of the schools we visited was providing effective feedback. Student work examined by the team during their visits revealed the difficulty and complexity of this task. Many of the samples of feedback simply acknowledged positive traits or directed students to correct language conventions. Others included multiple suggestions, along with a final grade, that provided no opportunity for the student to use the feedback.

Positive comments and attention to language conventions are important aspects of writing, but to push deeper thinking, the feedback must provide directions for next steps and an opportunity for students to apply the suggestions.

In his book, “Embedding Formative Assessment,” author Dylan Wiliam said, “It seems obvious that feedback to students about their work should help them learn, but it turns out that providing effective feedback is far more difficult than it appears. Much of the feedback that students get has little or no effect on their learning, and some kinds of feedback are actually counterproductive.”

In his book, Wiliam addresses several factors that affect the outcome of feedback, including:

  • Timing – Feedback given after a paper was scored made no more progress than students given no feedback on their work. Wiliam noted that students with high scores didn’t read the comments and those who scored low didn’t want to read the comments. Conversely, if feedback is given too early, before students have had a chance to work on a problem, they were found to learn less.
  • Student Perceptions – What happens after feedback is given depends on how close the student is to the goal. Students may decide to ease up on the amount of effort they exert, reject the feedback entirely or personalize the feedback – i.e., the teacher doesn’t like me or I’m not smart enough to do this.
  • Mode – Feedback given orally or written can both be effective. What matters most is for students to have the opportunity to apply the feedback.
  • Amount – Wiliam says that, according to research, “Sometimes less is more.” Giving just enough to direct the next steps leads to greater learning and retention than doing all the thinking for students.

Susan M. Brookhart builds on these foundations by explaining how feedback can vary in ways such as focus, comparison and clarity. In her book, “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students,” she describes how the focus may be on the work itself, the process the student used to do the work or on the student’s self-regulation. Drawing attention to the relationship between the work and the process is useful in building student self-efficacy.

Comparison to success criteria is critical for students to identify their next steps. Many teachers use models to help students gauge their progress and spur thinking and creativity. Brookhart expands this to describe how self-referenced comparison can be helpful for struggling students. A comment such as, “This introduction is much more engaging than the on your last essay,” can help students to realize that they, too, can make progress.

Clarity also is essential for students to use the feedback you’ve given. Student factors – such as age, background and vocabulary development – should all be considered when providing written feedback. Ensure students understand the comments that you’ve made in order to clarify any misunderstanding.

Noted Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough says that writing well is to think clearly, which is why good writing is so hard to produce. So how do we get students to think clearly? Wiliam provided a starting point when he noted, “Feedback should cause thinking.”

The following resources may be useful to develop your understanding and instructional skills in the art of providing feedback. These may be used individually or with a small learning group.

RESOURCES

Questions to consider:

  1. Which of these seven feedback essentials am I implementing effectively in my classroom?
  2. Of those essentials that I’m not implementing effectively, which should be my most immediate focus?
  • Susan M. Brookhart’s “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students”
  • Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy’s “Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms.” Read Chapter 5, Strategy 3: “Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward.”

Question to consider:

  1. In what ways does feedback “cause thinking”?

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