Writing Workshop News

Issue 31: Making Feedback Specific and Actionable

“Students deserve clear goals and frequent feedback. They need to hear ways their writing is getting better and to know what their next steps might be.” ~ Lucy Calkins

Featuring Guest Writer, Jen Breezee, 6-12 Literacy Coordinator

It’s been a (long) while since I was a student, but I still vividly remember my teachers handing back writing assignments. In those moments, I craved affirmation that I was doing well. When I didn’t do well, I wanted to know why. Unlike some of my classmates, who merely looked at the letter grades and then tossed the papers into the trash, I read every comment the teacher wrote in the margins of my papers. Sometimes I was rewarded by “Good job!” Other times, the teacher pointed out grammatical or punctuation errors. On a few occasions, the teacher wrote, “Clarity?” in the margin of a paper. What, specifically, was unclear, however, wasn’t clear to me. Ironic, no?

Looking back, I realize those teacher comments did little to help me develop as a writer. What did “Good job!” mean? What specifically had I done well? What did “Clarity?” mean? Was the whole paper unclear, or one paragraph, or maybe even just one sentence? Even more importantly, what strategies or techniques could I have tried to make my intended message clearer to my readers? The feedback I received from my teachers, generally speaking, was unhelpful because it was vague and offered little to move my writing forward.

In contrast, Regie Routman writes in her most recent book Read Write Lead, “Helpful feedback is specific and actionable.” She offers the following example of specific, actionable feedback:

“In your opening paragraph, when you said ______ [restating actual language], I knew as a reader exactly what this piece was going to be about. I wonder if you might take another look at the title, which confused me because it suggests a totally different topic.”

Notice that Routman first addresses what the writer is doing well. This feedback is “specific to the task and lets the learner know how he or she is doing, beginning with recognizing and naming strengths.” She then purposefully offers a suggestion for the writer to consider in language that is “specific, relevant, and respectful” and that leaves “the learner with an ‘I can do it!’ mindset.”

To make certain the feedback we offer students is specific and actionable, Routman recommends keeping the following questions in mind when giving feedback:

  • What am I noticing about what the learner has done well or is attempting to do?
  • What am I noticing about where the learner may be confused?
  • What are the most important things I can do and say at this time to move the learner forward?
  • How will the feedback help the learner progress toward the learning goal(s)?
  • How will the feedback help the learner to become more confident, competent, and self-directed as a learner?

We know the ultimate goal of providing timely, specific, and actionable feedback is to help each student grow as a writer. In doing so, we must also remember Kelly Gallagher’s first commandment of building successful writers (fromTeaching Adolescent Writers): “…all writers, especially young writers, are fragile.” Therefore, we must “nurture them by keeping the focus narrow [specific] and attainable [actionable].” Our feedback should feed the writer’s interest and spark the energy that will support the writer’s continual growth. Looking back on my own (long past) experiences as a young writer, I can't help but wonder what specific and actionable feedback my teachers could have provided to help move me forward as a writer. . .