Read About Best Practices in Mini-Lessons for Revising and Editing

Introduction/Overview

In this module, teachers will learn how to instruct primary grade students to effectively revise and edit their writing, make well-informed decisions about style, and utilize acceptable mechanics. By helping students with these aspects of the writing process, teachers will provide them with the tools of effective communication.

This section is divided into two parts, revision and editing. Although these two steps in the writing process are often grouped together, they are quite different. Revision requires students to read through and change the language of their writing. Revisions allow students to better communicate with their audience. The editing process is one of mechanics: spelling, grammar, and punctuation. When considering the steps in the process, revision always comes before editing. Revisions clarify content and meaning while editing provides the author time to fine tune and polish the finished product.

Revising

For many students, revising means copying a writing piece neatly or making minor changes to polish their work. As a result, they have grown bitter toward the process. Who can blame them? When defined in that way, revising seems rather dull and pointless. Nonetheless, teachers have reinforced the practice for years.

Students not only need to be taught the correct ways to revise their work, but they need an audience in which they have a vested interest.

Most, if not all, of students' dislike and distress about revision involves revising what is on the page, not what hasn't been written yet. This is normal; no one likes to rewrite, copy over what they have already written. But that isn't revision.

— Barry Lane

If revision is not recopying, what is it? Think for a moment about the word revision. Take it apart: re and vision — to “see again.” When writers look at their work over time and from different vantage points, they grow, change, and evolve. Revision is recreating — molding, shaping, experimenting, and working to make a creation exactly right.

Good writing is revised, reread, reconsidered, revised again, reread, and often revised again. Having a writer’s mindset demands that initial thoughts be communicated in the clearest way possible. Building this mindset in students requires a culture wherein audience and meaningful messages are valued. When students realize that this is the goal of revision, they warm up to the idea.

This module will examine the ways teachers can help students find different perspectives and rethink their writing to improve its effectiveness. It will also help teachers who have conveyed the wrong message about the revision process to rethink their instruction.

Tools and Ground Rules

The following ground rules for writing facilitate the revision process:

  1. Students should write on one side of the paper while drafting. This will allow them to easily cut and add content, and change their pieces as they develop them.
  2. Students who prefer lined paper to blank paper should write on every other line. This will enable them to easily add new information in the space available. Asking students to skip lines when writing also establishes the expectation for revision from the outset.
  3. Students should save all drafts. Drafts allow a teacher to see how a piece was improved, stage by stage, and demonstrate to students that each stage of their writing is valued. Students can collect drafts in a folder or keep them together with binder clips.
  4. Teachers should explain to students that sometimes revising means starting a new piece of writing. If a teacher deems a completed draft uninteresting or unfit for publication, she should look for an interesting nugget within the piece that can be used as the seed for the student writer’s next draft.
  5. Students should be taught to use carets to add information and arrows to direct the reader to another place on the page to read inserted information. Even the youngest students take pride in using “real” writers’ marks in their drafts. Teachers should familiarize themselves with all of the standard editing and revision symbols used in their district.
  6. Teachers should instruct students to draw a line through the middle of a word, phrase, or sentence they want to eliminate in their drafts, rather than erasing or scribbling words out. This strategy allows students to document the history of their pieces and allows teachers to see the thought process involved in each revision. Students may, however, erase misspelled or messy words that need to be rewritten correctly and neatly.
  7. Not every piece must be revised and edited. Some pieces are simply for practice or better left abandoned at the back of a writing folder. Students and teachers may decide together which pieces move toward publication. (Rules that require students to publish a piece every day or once a week inhibit the writing process. Certainly, students should be expected to revise, edit, and publish regularly, but a defined schedule corrupts the integrity of the exercise.)
  8. Writing is recursive. Students do not necessarily have to revise after drafting or before editing. Students may pre-write and then revise their pre-writing; draft and then revise their draft; draft some more and then revise again; or draft, edit and then revise. While not neat and linear, these processes work. When students learn that various models are accepted and valued, they let go of the notion that their writing must be perfect on the first try.
Finding Questions and Answering Them
I tell students that good writing is fueled by unanswerable questions. Once they discover the joy every three-year-old and Ted Koppel knows, a world of knowledge is suddenly unlocked.

— Barry Lane

An author’s ability to anticipate his readers’ questions and address them effectively helps turn regular writing into interesting reading material. In many classrooms, questions are considered signs of weaknesses, rather than welcome opportunities to increase learning. Some teachers even view questions as challenges to their authority. Effective teachers, however, welcome questions.

Astute student observers are able to predict the questions that their readers will ask. Students who are comfortable asking questions of themselves will not only often become the best writers, but also will be better able to help their peers. Providing students with questioning strategies and forums during the writing process is an important investment of class time. Teachers should consider the following exercises:

1. During sharing time, give each student a stack of five to ten self-stick notes. Ask two or three students to share their writing pieces with the class. As one student reads her draft, the others write questions on their self-stick notes. For example, if a student reads a piece about her new dog, another student might note the following questions: “Have you ever had any other pets?” and “Do all of your family members like your dog?” After, class members hand their notes to the writer. The writer then sticks them to her piece to review during the next writing time. As students become aware of their readers’ curiosities, their writing takes on new direction and depth.

2. Instruct students in the art of writing a good lead. Strong leads leave questions in the reader’s mind about what will come next. Read leads from both fiction and nonfiction books to help students identify leads that make them want to read further. Ask one student to read the lead to his own piece to a group of peers. Does his lead pique his audience’s curiosity? Does his audience want him to continue reading? After reading several good leads and putting them into categories, such as question, dialogue, exaggeration, and description of setting, ask students to rewrite the leads to their pieces two different ways and then select the one that they think will be most effective at drawing in their readers.

3. Students often convey that a piece is finished by writing “THE END” in large letters at the bottom of the page. Teach students to replace those words with three questions that were asked by a peer after hearing the piece read aloud. Instruct students to use the questions to formulate a new lead, revise text that wasn’t clear to the listener, or add new information.

4. Encourage students to think in question form. Remember, the more you model good questioning, the better questioners your students will become. Choose an aspect of the content you’re teaching and ask students to formulate a list of questions about it. Post the questions, discuss them, and encourage curiosity. Have students notice that one question often leads to others, and that while some are easily answered, others are not.

5. Have students list challenging, thought-provoking questions in their writers’ notebooks. They may add to their lists throughout the year and use them as topic ideas.

Details, Details, Details

Once upon a time a girl loved her pet and she entered him into a contest. He won. Everyone was happy.

— Author Unknown

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."

"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.

"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."

"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.

— E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Which story would a reader prefer? Charlotte’s Web, obviously. compared to the first example, it is a far more dramatic and detailed account of events surrounding a girl’s love for her pet. The first excerpt resembles primary students’ writing. Primary students build the skeleton of a story but fail to add the internal organs, tissue, and flesh that will hold it together and cause it to function.

The following strategies will help students add to the framework of their writing pieces:

  • Memory Storytelling

    Ask students to think of three important memories. As they think, they should jot down a word, or phrase about each memory. Once these are recorded, ask students to find a partner and tell their stories, including as much detail as they can remember. To help them get started, model your own memory story, recalling sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and emotions. After one student has shared, have his partner give feedback about the memory the storyteller appeared to be most enthused about. This feedback is used to determine which story is more interesting to the reader. Likely, the partners will discover that the more interesting story contains the most details.

  • Story Swapping

    When students finish a draft that they’d like to eventually publish, ask them to swap stories with a peer and read each other’s piece. After reading, they should ask each other five questions that will help them add more detail to their pieces.

  • Cutting and Taping

    Acquaint students with scissors and tape. Show them ways to cut their drafts apart and reorganize their stories by taping moved and newly written information to them. Students can also add information using self-stick notes when the piece is put into its next or final draft.

  • Detailing

    Ask students to reread one of their drafts, highlighting their favorite details. Have them tell what they like about the details, and then ask them to look for three more places where a detail could help the reader more clearly understand the message. Finally, have them add the new details to their pieces.

  • Paraphrasing

    Teach the importance of details through literature. Choose a favorite picture book, such as Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Write a brief summary sentence of each page on a self-stick note and place the note on the page you summarized. Read the paraphrased book to your class, then discuss what’s missing. Finally, read the entire text of the book to the class. Talk about the differences between the paraphrased text and the actual text. Then discuss the specific details that draw readers into the text. Have students go back to their own pieces and look for ways to imitate what the published author accomplished.

  • Observation

    Have students take their writer’s notebooks and join you in another classroom or outside. Sit together for a few minutes in silence, noticing the surroundings. Then have students jot down ten details they observe. Bring the group back to the classroom and ask them to jot down ten more details that they remember from the experience. They may use the first list to remind themselves of things they might have overlooked before. As a result of this activity, students may find something on one of their lists to write about and may realize that keen observers of the environment see details even when it seems that there is nothing else to see. This is a great field trip activity! (adapted from Barry Lane’s After THE END)

Often, before learning about the importance of details in their writing, students include irrelevant details in their pieces. Primary writers are sometimes guilty of this practice. They begin their story appropriately and then wander away from the topic, adding information that only serves to confuse the reader. Other students begin telling one story in their writing and then quickly jump to another story, then another, within the same piece. Both types of writers need to learn focusing strategies. Neither is ready for lessons on detail. They must first get a solid grasp on what their pieces are actually trying to communicate.

To assist a student who is prone to wandering in his writing, a teacher much first help him determine the main point of his piece. The student should be instructed to use three colored highlighters to color-code the sentences in his draft according to relevance. He should use one color to highlight the main idea, another to highlight important details that are linked to the main idea, and the last to denote the part(s) of the story that can be deleted. A student using this revision strategy will easily see where more relevant detail is needed.

To assist a student who jumps from one story to another within a single piece of writing, a teacher must first help him dissect the piece. To do this, she uses a circle diagram divided into a number of “pie” sections. After conferring with the student and determining the topics included in his writing piece, she writes one topic in the first pie slice. In the next slice, she writes another topic, and so on, around the pie. The diagram helps the student narrow his topic and becomes a source for ideas for him. (It is not uncommon for a fluent writer to have five to seven potential stories all housed in one project.) After he decides which slice he will focus on first, he can begin drafting that single idea.

Concise Language

Fledgling writers rely heavily on adjectives, adverbs, and passive voice to communicate their writing. Teachers must help these students pare down their language and understand the power of concise writing.

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of reading aloud to students. Few activities in the instructional day pay higher dividends. Students who hear sophisticated syntax use sophisticated syntax. Students who hear powerful language use powerful language. Nonexistent or minimal experience with read-alouds can handicap students in both reading and writing. These inexperienced students have extremely limited listening vocabularies.

In addition to exposing students to a wide variety of vocabulary to add power to their writing language, teachers can utilize the following practical methods:

  • Have students reread their pieces and cross out the word very every time it appears—which will probably be very often! Model ways to rework the sentence, using stronger language that can stand alone.
  • Guide the class in creating a list of overused words, such as and, like, and so. Conduct group revising sessions in which students use their own drafts to provide examples of ways to change or rearrange words and eliminate redundancy.
  • Readers enjoy pieces that contain both brief and complex sentences. To teach students the value of varying sentence length in their writing, have them underline alternating sentences in contrasting colored pencils. This activity will graphically illustrate the sentences that have no end (because the student didn’t use a period) and patterns of sentence length that need to be altered. After the activity, model how to combine sentences for flow and how to abbreviate sentences for impact.
  • Review the definition of “adjective” with students. Ask them to underline every adjective they find in a piece of their own writing. Then, pair students and have them check each other’s work. Students may discover that some sentences are held together with several weak adjectives that could be replaced with stronger nouns. (For example, the first sentence in the following pair can be replaced by the second: The big, brown, heavy rock rolled toward me. The boulder rolled toward me.) On another day, repeat the activity with adverbs. (For example: The boy talked loudly to his brother. The boy yelled to his brother.)
Checklists

Primary writers need additional support as they revise. Teachers of these students must do the following:

1. Remind them what they’ve been taught.

2. Hold them accountable for what they’ve learned.

3. Help them focus on a finite number of skills per piece, rather than on all of the areas in need of improvement.

An excellent way for teachers to remind students of what is expected of them throughout the writing process is to keep a running list of recent mini-lessons on the chalkboard or on a chart in the writing center. Students can refer to the list as they evaluate their drafts, noting whether learned skills have been applied.

After revising their drafts and before editing, students should complete a revision checklist. The revision checklist must be manageable. Students will become frustrated or feel overwhelmed if the list is too long or if it contains skills they do not fully understand.

By far, the most important guideline for teachers to adhere to during revision instruction is to allow students freedom in writing. Teachers must not turn writing into a stifling, formulaic endeavor or undermine the thinking necessary for meaningful communication. Students who are assigned a specified lead and asked to record a specific number of details, characters, sentences and paragraphs are not being asked to write. They are being asked to fill a prescription. Teachers must send the message that students are capable of making real decisions about their writing.

Writers don't need to be given formulas; they need to be shown possibilities. Then, like painters receiving new colors, they can embrace their craft.

— Barry Lane

Editing

A potential source of controversy in any writing program is the teacher’s stance on editing. Teachers have serious questions and opinions specifically regarding student editing. After all, editing is the stage in the process that brings their instruction into the realm of public scrutiny. Should the teacher edit the student’s work, or should the student edit his own work? How much editing should be done? At what point should the teacher accept a student’s editing attempts and move on to publication? What are realistic expectations with regard to spelling?

Before answering the questions above, teachers must learn the difference between revising and editing. When a piece of writing is revised, the words are reconstructed to clarify meaning. When a piece is edited, the grammatical and mechanical aspects of it are reconstructed to make the reader’s job easier.

Editing addresses the presentation of a piece of writing, not the content or the message, and involves reconstructing the following:

  • Sentence structure, such as fragments and run-ons
  • Syntax, such as verb tense, subject-verb agreement, and awkward wording
  • Punctuation, such as periods, question marks, and quotation marks
  • Spelling, including high-frequency words and phonetic attempts

Often, teachers use the word revising and editing interchangeably. In Writer’s Workshop, however, teachers must clearly define these two terms and their functions.

Many skills that have historically been taught in isolation on worksheets can be incorporated into Workshop using authentic student writing. For example, students who learn grammar in context will retain their learning and apply it in future situations.

Student Editing vs. Teacher Editing

Both student editing and teacher editing are permissible and necessary. Primary students need to demonstrate the specific skills that they have learned in Workshop and the basics learned throughout the year, such as proper ending punctuation and word spacing, and the correct spelling of specified high-frequency words. They can demonstrate these skills by self-editing. Teachers must acknowledge, however, that in addition to self-editing, “real” authors also send their final manuscripts to editors. Student authors, therefore, should be allowed to do the same.

The editing skills that a student is held accountable for should be based on that student’s individual progress. While teachers should challenge students in editing, they should also use discretion and good judgment.

Published student work can be handwritten or formatted using a computer-generated program. If the piece will be read by other students and placed in the classroom library, all of the words must be spelled correctly. Teachers should not expect beginning writers to know how to spell every word, however. That expectation will inhibit students’ willingness to experiment with challenging written vocabulary. A teacher, aide, or parent volunteer can assist students with the final spell-check before publication.

Daily Exercises

A common strategy for teaching grammar concepts is the “daily edit” model. In this brief activity, teachers display sentences with incorrect structure, syntax, punctuation, or spelling, and then ask students to correct them in whole-group discussions or independently in notebooks. Although students become quite adept at locating errors in the teacher’s sentences, they rarely transfer and apply these same editing skills successfully to their own writing.

A more effective way for teachers to reinforce grammar skills is to use student examples in lessons. While conferring with students about their writing, teachers inevitably notice sentences that would be good teaching tools for the entire class. Teachers who have cultivated a supportive, nurturing group of authors can safely ask a group of students to volunteer their sentences for grammar practice. By using these examples, students see how these editing exercises directly benefit their own writing.

Teaching Editing

Once students are ready for editing, they must be given concrete editing tools. When setting editing expectations, teachers should take the grade and writing skill level of each student into consideration. Students should not be held accountable for applying strategies that have not been taught in recent mini-lessons. Fledgling writers can only internalize and apply learned skills in very small quantities. When the list of expected skills is too long, students shut down and the potential benefits of student editing are lost.

Below is a list of editing strategies. Choose only those that are grade and skill level appropriate for your students and use them in whole-class or small-group settings, or during individual editing conferences.

  • Ask students who are ready to edit their writing for spelling errors to read their work backward, from the last word to the first. Using this strategy, a student can concentrate on individual words and not attend to the meaning of his entire text. Pairs of students can use this strategy as well, as they edit each other’s papers. With a colored pencil, students should circle or underline words that they know are incorrect and those that they are uncertain of, and check them later.
  • To reinforce the concept of complete sentence structure, ask students to box every first word and check whether the boxed word begins with a capital letter. Students should also make sure an end punctuation mark precedes the box. Next, pair students and have the partners trade papers to be sure that they haven’t missed any sentence fragments or run-on sentences.
  • If a student is having trouble separating words with spaces, ask him to let a peer read his piece to help determine if the words are spaced correctly. Remind students that the main purpose of editing a piece of writing is to ensure that a reader will easily understand its meaning. If a reader struggles to identify where words stop and start, much of the meaning of the text will be lost.
  • Determine ways for students to revisit pieces written during recent mini-lessons and check for application of the concepts taught. For example, if students have recently learned how to use commas in a series, ask them to review prior work, looking for “ands” that need to be replaced by commas.

Students will learn editing skills at different paces. Many students will need year-long support to master four or five critical skills, and a few will be able to apply fifteen or twenty skills that were taught in small-group or individual mini-lessons. Teachers should not force all students into one editing mold.

Checklists

After students have prewritten, drafted, revised, drafted some more, and reached the point of editing, teachers should have them complete a checklist. Students will find this step extremely helpful before submitting their final piece. The checklist should reflect recent teaching and require that students attend to only two to four items at a time. For beginning writers, the checklist might be as simple as (1) name on paper, (2) contains written words, and (3) words have spaces between them. As students gain exposure and experience with the written word, teachers’ expectations may rise.