Finding the Right Approach with Errors in Student Writing

If parents don’t understand why you’re not marking up mistakes on a piece of writing or’ correcting’ writer’s notebook entries with relentless zeal, then consider this drastic action.
Take a child’s painting and cover it in transparent plastic or laminate. Then, start marking all over it, crossing things out, redrawing other parts, putting notes and comments on it. Parents will most likely find such action discomforting. They might even gasp in horror. Then ask, why should we do this to a student’s writing? Afterall, both are artistic creations –works of art.

Inexperienced writers make errors. So do experienced writers. Learning cannot take place without some level of error. One of the greatest issues a developing writer can face in the process of becoming a competent writer is to be inhibited from responding, for fear of being wrong.

When a young writer tackles an unfamiliar word in their writing and spells it correctly they confirm their existing beliefs concerning that word. If they happen to get it ‘wrong’ then they learn something just as important. They learn that they must modify their belief about that word. The writer learns by testing their existing belief. This is the kind of healthy risk taking we must encourage in our classrooms. Writers should not be afraid to tackle new words.

I watched with glowing pride as a Grade 1 writer recently tackled the word aquarium in her writing, because ‘fish tank’ just wouldn’t do. We celebrated the risk taking with much ceremony during the share time that day. The next lesson saw many more risk takers emerge in that writing community.

Frank Smith in ‘Essays Into Literacy,’ wrote, ‘Children do not learn from being corrected but from wanting to do things the right way.’

They do not become better writers by writing less, and this is the possible negative outcome from an over emphasis on correction.

Correction is beneficial when the student sees the need for it. When students have an authentic purpose for the writing they are doing, they engage in the process with purpose and a desire to make it work for the reader. The pen that makes the correction is in the hand of the writer, not the teacher. Correction needs ownership rather than imposition. Most of the effort put in by teachers acting the part of the correction police is largely a waste of time. It overwhelms the learner and openly promotes the notion of why bother? in the mind of the hapless victim.

Jeff Anderson’s idea of issuing students with’ an invitation to explore’ exemplars of good writing is a wonderful way to deal with many of the issues that young writers deal with as they grapple with making their writing reader friendly. It encourages the developing writer to look for things they might be able to imitate in their own writing. Anderson’s approach condemns the idea of putting up a piece of mistake riddled writing and having students conduct a kind of misguided autopsy on the body of errors. It is consigned to the rubbish bin of irrelevance.

Remember, the argument is not about the standard of student writing but how we go about achieving the standard. By consistently sharing models of great writing we have the opportunity to highlight the conventional wisdom regarding spelling, grammar and sentence construction. Armed with this information the young writer is then invited to conduct a discrepancy analysis and make the appropriate changes. More power to the writer…

Do we want students to be able to identify errors and make corrections, or do we want them to use the power of punctuation to create messages that resonate with clarity and beauty? Actually, we want both!

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