This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.
Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing
“Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia
As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.
Research (Fisher et al, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?
Time To Consider Pupil Conference?
There appears to be effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.
Unfortunately, most children or adults have never actually seen a professional writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):
‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’
Through pupil-conferencing, you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.
Famous writer-teacher Peter Elbow (2000) identifies the different ways we can respond to apprentice writers and that we should never focus on just one. Instead, we should look to use them in careful combination:
|Zero Response:||Lowest stakes|
|Supportive Response:||No criticism, only praise ‘Your language is really lively here!’|
|Observational Response:||I’ve noticed you’ve written a poem a bit like Allan Ahlberg’.|
|Non-Verbal Critical Response:||Wavy line beneath a sentence with incorrect syntax.|
|Critical Response:||Your writing would be better with more setting description in this paragraph.*|
*Taken from Locke (2015) see references.
The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than feeling a slavish kind of need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require.
You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.
It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.
Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support such an approach. The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, this is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.
How To Conduct Conferences
Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.
Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.
A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.
All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.
Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.
Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards
You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.
The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).
Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.
How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences
After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.
These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:
- What is the subject?
- What is the focus?
- What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
- Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
- Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
- Is it it too long or too short?
- Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?
After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments.
Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.
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**By Phil Ferguson*
Pupil Conferencing: The Research