Monday, November 3, 2008

Helping Children Revise Effectively

How to revise effectively is one of the most difficult things we teach young writers. It requires children to go back and think more about what they have already labored over for hours. Because this move tends to be so painful, I am always looking for ways of making revision more palatable and easier to understand for young writers.

Recently, I was working with a group of fourth grade writers who devised an amazingly comprehensive list of questions that writers ask themselves when writing. They included things like considering the audience, making sure the writing made sense, and taking things out in addition to the more common kid changes like adding details to make the writing more interesting and thinking about catchy beginnings. I was so impressed with what they came up with that I expected their revisions to be profound.

No such luck.

At this stage, these writers knew how to talk the talk, but walking the walk was a different story. I watched as they grappled with where to make changes. I watched as they crossed out one word and told me they were done. I watched as many sat and stared. I left frustrated. What could I do to support these students in their quest to “re-see” their writing?

Then it occurred to me: these writers needed practice.

As teachers, we have become very good about providing children with models of the work we want them to complete. In fact, I had shown this group of writers what revisions look like. But sometimes, until children have had the opportunity to mark up a paper and try out all of the great ideas they have been told make a difference, they just don’t understand how to apply it to their own work. So that is exactly what we did. The kids worked in small groups with a short text. The groups wrote questions in the margins. They crossed things out. They drew arrows. These drafts went from being boring and mundane to colorful and appealing. The transformation was amazing.

Improving the quality of student writing is important work. It is also hard work—both for students and teachers. Working in small groups to provide guided practice is sometimes just what young children need to scaffold them as they make their way toward better writing.

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