Faculty Spotlight Series: Alexandra Frelinghuysen on How to Get Students to Want to Revise

Jana Cook

WMS Language Arts teacher Alexandra Frelinghuysen shares her goal-oriented strategy for helping her students want to revise their writing.

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 

How do you get students to  want  to revise their writing?

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure anyone wants to revise their writing. As someone who loved writing in school, I dreaded seeing my teacher’s blue or green or (gasp!) red pen all over an essay I thought had been my best work yet. It felt like a punch to the gut, and I remember thinking, How do I even begin to fix this? Or should I just start over?  

As a teacher of students with language-based learning disabilities, it goes without saying that writing a first draft can be incredibly laborious for many of them, so the last thing they want to do is revise their work. However, it is an important component of the writing process—the last step before one can turn in a final draft. That being said, I am not looking for perfect final drafts. Rather than demanding a letter-perfect final draft, I find that establishing a goal-oriented revising method encourages students to take part in the process.  

To establish goals for my students, I administer a writing sample as a diagnostic tool at the beginning of the year. Upon reviewing each sample, I set three to five specific and achievable writing goals for each student. (Depending upon student ability, these goals can range from simple to complex: correct punctuation and capitalization, recognizing run-on sentences or fragments, incorporating transitions, drafting an introduction, etc.)  

It is paramount that students understand the goals they are being asked to achieve.

I follow up the writing sample by meeting individually with students to review and explain these goals. It is paramount that students understand the goals they are being asked to achieve. (I recall a teacher who repeatedly told me to stop using the passive voice without ever explaining what the passive voice was, and it got to the point that I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant.) Instead of telling students they need to “vary their language” or “improve clarity” (other phrases I remember seeing written on my own papers), setting clearly defined goals gives students something to work toward.  

The purpose of setting these goals becomes even more important when it comes time for me to review a student’s essay. As opposed to marking every single error on the page, I try to keep the student’s goals in mind. For instance, as I read the essay of a student who needs to incorporate transitions, I look to see if the child is doing this. If he or she is, I give specific positive feedback. If not, I simply write “add transition.” As goals are achieved, new goals that involve more nuanced aspects of writing can be set.  

For students who require more support during the revision process or for shorter pieces like single paragraphs, I like to create a revise and edit checklist for each child. I number the sentences and make a checklist with no more than ten simple instructions, such as “add a comma in sentence 2” or “combine sentences 4 and 5.” Students feel a sense of accomplishment as they check off each completed revision.   

More importantly, achieving these goals contributes to a growth mindset, allowing students to see that they can improve their writing abilities. 

It is easy to regard the revising process as a chore, something that must be done before the writing assignment can be marked as complete. However, students are more invested in the process if they are working to master specific skills. More importantly, achieving these goals contributes to a growth mindset, allowing students to see that they can improve their writing abilities. In doing so, revising becomes less a tedious task and more an essential learning experience.