How to Improve Your Students Essays: Six Strategies for Revision

Six Easy Steps for Revision

No doubt, teaching writing is difficult. Many students don’t like to write, are insecure about their writing abilities, or may not see the purpose for writing, This is especially true in a society that seems to value expediency (such as tweets and posts on social media) over deep, critical thought.

But effective English teachers know that students must learn to write well. Not only does it prepare students for standardized assessments, college courses, and the work world, but it helps to improve their thinking.


In our instruction, it’s important to teach writing as a recursive process. The process involves multiple steps including brainstorming, planning, drafting, revising, redrafting, editing, polishing, and finally, publication. But in our rush to get through mandated curriculum, some don’t feel they have the time to encourage students to use the writing process.

It’s not easy, but I make sure to include time for revision activities with any formal writing. I always tell them that no one writes a perfect first draft- not me, not even the best writers in the world! In fact, here are some quotes from famous writers about revision:


"I probably spend 90% of my time revising what I’ve written."
Joyce Carol Oates





"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile." 

Robert Cormier

Revision is not intuitive for most student writers, however, and needs to be taught. Whether students will revise their own papers, complete peer review, or revise essays in groups, teachers need to give them opportunities to learn how to revise effectively.

So how can teachers help students revise their writing? Here are six strategies that may help you:


Effective Feedback

Teach students how to provide effective feedback when they comment on one another’s papers. I’ve often done this with a short concept attainment lesson. In this activity, students are given sample feedback statements and must put the ones that are “effective” in one column and the comments that are “not helpful” in another column. This leads to a discussion of what makes feedback helpful to writers.

This lesson helps my students understand that providing explanations, using questions, and giving constructive criticism are as important as giving praise. I also tell students that if their peer review partners aren’t able to provide some suggestions or constructive criticism, they should have an additional student (or me) give feedback, too.

Bless/Press/Address


Only have limited time for peer review? Then use one of these quick strategies: “Bless/Press/Address” or “Glow/Grow/Question.” I learned about “Bless/Press/Address” from my work with the National Writing Project.

Bless: The writer is seeking positive feedback and increasing your confidence. You want only to hear about what’s working so far.
Address: The writer identifies one problem or concern they want the reader address. Be as specific as possible.
Press: The writer wants constructive criticism. Of course, the reader can also include “Bless” and “Address” with their suggestions.

The Glow/Grow/Question strategy is from Susan Barber in my Twitter Professional Learning Network on #aplitchat. With this system, Barber gives one comment that tells what the writer did well (Glow), one comment on what the writer could improve (Grow) and responds to one of the writer’s questions. I’ve actually modified this so that I ask one question for the student asking them to reflect on an idea, their word choice, or other writing trait. Besides using this for peer and teacher feedback, I’ve found this system also helps speed up my grading.

Model Revision



This can be done with an exemplar essay from a former student (of course you should remove the student’s name) or if you have a co-teacher, you can work with that person to model revision in front of the class. Use a think aloud or project a draft and annotate it for the class.

In fact, I have a memoir lesson in which I give students a copy of a one of my first drafts. This 100-word memoir is modeled after a former Washington Post feature called, “Autobiography as Haiku.”

It teaches students to “show” themselves in vivid details and carefully chosen words. In the lesson, students work with partners to eliminate redundancy in the draft. Then the class reviews the draft together, and I show them the changes that I made for my final draft.

Guided Peer Review  


I do this with handouts that pose questions for students to answer as they read their peers’ papers. For instance, in the memoir lesson, the student giving feedback answers questions such as the following:

· What insight about his or her life is your partner writing about?
· What ideas and details to you find interesting or surprising?
· How is the memoir organized? Are there any parts that are confusing to you?
· Which words are powerful and specific? Which ones are vague (nice, thing, cool, fun, etc.)?


Task Cards for Revision

Recently, I’ve used begun using task cards to make peer review interactive, collaborative, differentiated, and reflective. These task cards ask students to respond to questions and focus on writing traits such as ideas, organization, word choice, voice, fluency, conventions, presentation, and academic integrity. The task cards can be used for modeling with exemplars, working with partners, working in small groups, or rotating through learning stations. 

Read Aloud


Have students read their drafts aloud to themselves or with a partner. Often, when a writer reads his work aloud, he or she realizes there are parts that need to be changed or corrected. They can “hear” what they need to do. Recently, I’ve learned about a web-app called Text to Speech lets someone listen to their own writing so they will be able to catch mistakes.

Furthermore, there is an extension called Google Draftback that let’s someone play back the revision history of any Google Doc. Many teachers use it for grading purposes, but I also see it as a tool for writers who want to review the changes that they make which get “erased” as they revise their writing. I’m looking forward to giving this a try as my school system moves towards digital classrooms.

I hope some of these strategies give you ideas for teaching revision in your classroom. What tips and tricks do you have for teaching students how to revise well?


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