Communicating Feedback: For the Writer First

Feedback does not always have to be about improvement.

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Feedback: what first comes to mind when you hear the term?

“Information on how to improve” or something of that order likely surfaces. Feedback is data in response to our actions, for sure. But why does it always have to be about improvement? What if feedback affirms what we are already doing? 

This might be appreciated most in the world of writing. Of all the subjects I taught, this discipline was the most challenging for my students to consistently experience success and to grow. 

I remember one student who struggled in this area. He had a learning disability in reading. Language not spoken or heard was a constant source of frustration. When we would begin to draft a longer piece, I would give him a small stack of Post-it notes. “Whatever comes to mind, just write it down on a note. Put it on your desk and then write what comes to mind next.” The goal was to get words on paper. I communicated that it did not matter if it was not in the typical format. Each completed sticky note was a small celebration and progress toward the goal. Before we knew it, we had a piece of writing.

But how does that strategy improve students’ writing? Volume is one thing; skill is another. Once we have our students writing, reinforcing what they are doing well as writers seems to be the next best strategy.

As an example, 3rd graders wrote opinion pieces to me (an authentic audience) about how we might make our playground more inclusive for all kids (an important purpose). The springboard for this task was an article they read about a student who had raised funds to provide access to kids who required a wheelchair. Their writings were not cookie cutter, same-shape-same-size pieces. They integrated information from the text with their own ideas and feelings about what should be done about our own playground. “The kids would appreciate any feedback if you have time,” the teacher shared.

As I read through each piece and thought about how I might respond, my mind initially defaulted to how I could help each student improve in their writing. One student’s ideas were described in detail, yet there were a few grammatical errors. Should I sandwich a critique to check for spelling and punctuation between what I appreciated about their writing? I thought. Another student had a truly original idea – a motion-sensor buzzing system to guide students with sight impairments – yet it was only a paragraph long. “Wow, what an interesting proposal. I wish you would have shared more details with me about this,” I imagined communicating.

Reading these opinion pieces reminded me of how this felt sense of needing to improve students’ writing might actually be inhibiting their growth. “Yes, you did this, this, and this well, and now we need to focus on…” To operate like that must be exhausting. Who says good cannot be good enough?1

So I tempered my tendency to critique and instead wrote on a sticky note for each student’s piece the impression their writing had on me

For the former piece that was nicely detailed, I wrote how I could imagine this equipment would look on our playground. “You made it very easy for me to envision what’s possible!” For the latter piece with the abbreviated but original innovation, I expressed that “this is an idea I have not heard of before.”

Our culture is enamored with being the best and constantly striving to improve. This attitude permeates all areas of society. It is especially evident in education. While reaching our potential is desirable, it is concerning when achievement becomes the sole focus for instruction. “What level are you hoping they will reach?” is more commonly heard from teachers about readers than “Do you know what they can do right now?” 

“Students were crying?” I asked the 3rd grade teacher to clarify what she shared. “Tears of joy, correct?” She nodded and then explained that they were most excited when they learned that their writing was so good that it would be shared with the architects and construction managers. 

The teacher went on. “One student was not sure what to do with your feedback.” This was the student who wrote minimally but effectively about the buzzing system for people with vision impairments. “He asked me if ‘This is an idea I have not heard of before.’ was a good thing.” I laughed while confirming that yes, new ideas that favor those with specific needs are usually positive. 

Yet I also heard what he was saying: Is this good? I certainly wanted to hear more about his idea. This would be feedback that, if invited, might spur the student to elaborate even more in writing. That is a good thing too.

What is your experience with feedback for student writers? Share your story in the comments.

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This summer’s book study selection is Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad. Several contributors will be writing a response in July to this professional resource. If you haven’t already, sign up today to receive every post in your email inbox.


Regie Routman offered a more on “good is good enough” in this podcast.