Assisting Student Writers With Correction

A recent conversation with a group of teachers about correcting errors in writing set me to thinking about the ways we approach this often vexed issue.

We know inexperienced writers make errors. We also know experienced writers make mistakes. Learning cannot take place without some level of error. One of the greatest issues a developing writer can face 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 recall with glowing pride as a Grade 1 writer 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. I further recall reading Frank Smith’s ‘Essays Into Literacy,’ many years ago, where Smith wrote, ‘Children do not learn from being corrected but from wanting to do things the right way.’ Children 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 students sees the need for it. When they 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 must be in the hand of the writer, not the teacher. When the teacher assumes the total responsibility for correcting errors  related to spelling, punctuation or grammar, they effectively entrench student dependency. the student comes to rely on the teacher to make the necessary adjustment in order for the writing piece to be viewed as 'reader friendly.' 

Correction needs to be about ownership rather than imposition. Most of the effort expended by teachers playing the part of the correction police is largely a waste of time. It overwhelms the learner and openly discourages effort in the mind of the hapless victim. Imagine how we, as adults would feel if someone took hold of our notebooks and started correcting them for spelling and grammar?

Jeff Anderson’s idea of issuing students with’ an invitation to explore’ exemplars of good writing  has always struck me as a wonderful way to deal with many of the issues that young writers deal with as they grapple with making their writing ‘reader friendly.’  

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. Again, 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!

 I feel the need to be an advocate for all those young writers out there. I still remember being one myself and the dis-empowering feeling of having my writing ravaged by the red pen people.  Those written remarks were usually the only feedback we received for our efforts.


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