Responding to Student Writers Article Review

In her article Responding to Student Writers university professor, Nancy Sommers discusses the topic of teachers responding to student papers. In the beginning, she explains that this process is time-consuming and ineffective. While it is the most significant part of a teachers job research has shown that this action has little to do with student success in writing and the process overall is misunderstood. This misunderstanding is the main focus of her article. 

Sommers writes that teachers comment on student papers for two main reasons. 

  1. Thus, we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader, to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves, because, ultimately, we believe that becoming such a reader will help them to evaluate what they have written and develop control over their writing. (pg. 148)
  2. Even more specifically, however, we comment on student writing because we believe that it is necessary for us to offer assistance to student writers when they are in the process of composing a text, rather than after the text has been completed. (pg. 149)

With these two reasons in mind, it is important to know that teachers commenting on student papers is a well-intended practice necessary to create great writers. Often times students believe that their writing communicates well to the reader in sound reasoning and logic, however, it is not always the case. So it is important as teachers to make those comments on student papers so that they will write more effectively, stick to the topic and have an intelligible paper overall. Even so, Sommers argues that the way teachers comment on student papers is vague and lack direction.

The Research

In order to prove the vagueness and ineffectiveness of teacher comments, Sommers mentions a scientific research conducted by her and several other professional colleagues. In the study, a total of thirty-five different teachers at New York University and the University of Oklahoma commented on a set of three student essays.  The result of this research showed that when students received comments and feedback on their papers, they were confused and left to question the ways to best improve their papers. Additionally, she makes a comparison between teacher comments and a computer software ready-made comment for student papers and concludes that unlike teacher comments “the calm, reasonable language of the computer provided quite a contrast to the hostility and mean-spiritedness of most of the teachers’ comments” (pg.149).  In essence, teacher comments are not properly communicating ways for students to edit their papers.

The sharp contrast between the teachers’ comments and those of the computer highlighted how arbitrary and idiosyncratic most of our teachers’ comments are. (pg.149)

Additionally, she presents two different set of teacher feedbacks to show how teacher comments can be difficult for students to understand.  These different comments are interlinear and marginal.

“The interlinear comments and the marginal comments represent two separate tasks for this student” (pg.151).

  • The interlinear comments: encourage the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing.
  • The marginal comments: suggest that the meaning of the text is not fixed, but rather that the student still needs to develop the meaning by doing some more research.

Another type of comment she mentions that teachers often write on student papers is the “rubber-stamped” ( pg.152) type of comment. In the second writing example, she shows how a teacher comments are not texted specific and could be interchangeable. This means that because of its vagueness and lack of specificity these same comments can be made and applied to any student paper.  These types of comments are not encouraging for students and often times creates a more problematic step in the revision process. I agree with Sommers argument that these forms of comments are hindering student success because then they become more worried about correcting the teacher’s feedback on their paper instead of confidently writing in their own voice. The student is more concerned about getting a good grade overall on the paper.

“It is possible, and it quite often happens, that students follow every comment and fix their texts appropriately as requested, but their texts are not improved substantially, or, even worse, their revised drafts are inferior to their previous drafts” (pg. 151).

Proposal- Moving Forward 

Written comments need to be viewed not as an end in themselves-a way for teachers to satisfy themselves that they have done their jobs-but rather as a means for helping students to become more effective writers. (pg.155)

After making these key points and further elaborating in details, Sommers suggest that for teachers to have a more effective influence on student writing,  they need to take into consideration that the draft is not the final copy. Meaning, that over time students will continue to work on their papers. I liked that Sommers brought this up for clarification, I agree that often times teachers fail to keep in mind that the final draft is just an accumulation of ideas and thoughts for the paper. There is no need to comment on student grammar or spelling and other such little errors that can easily get fixed in the revision process. Instead, teachers should comment on the formatting and meaning of the text because those are the most imperative aspects of a paper. Asking students to “be more specific” is not required because there are more steps to complete in order to fully formulate thoughts and ideas in a paper.

Some other points she makes in regards to teachers commenting on student papers is that they should

  • read student text without biases “about what the writer should have said or about
    what he or she should have written” (pg. 154)
  • show students how to patch up parts of their texts, instead of finding errors (pg. 154).

Overall her article makes great points about teachers commenting on student papers. One reflection that stood out to me was her making a distinction between the process and the final product. She mentions that another way to fix the ineffective problem of teachers commenting on student papers is for teachers to differentiate between a draft and the final paper. She writes, “The problem here is a confusion of process and product; what one has to say about the process is different from what one has to say about the product” (pg.154). She concludes her article with this point and I believe that when teachers read this article and take this advice into consideration they will become better at responding to student papers.

Read the article Here!


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