Goodreads: Responding to Student Writing
Published: August 1, 2012
Written from one teacher to another, Nancy Sommers’ Responding to Student Writers offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers — and for thinking about the benefits of responding to writers as well as to their writing. Braddock Award–winning Nancy Sommers has taught composition and run composition programs for more than three decades; she currently teaches writing and mentors future teachers in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In this resource, which is based on her research and her travels to two- and four-year colleges and universities, she focuses on the roles that teacher feedback plays in writers’ development and offers strategies for moving away from responding as correcting. This is a free resource for instructors.
Nancy Sommers’s Responding to Student Writers is a short book (less than 50 pages long), so to some extent it has time only to suggest to teachers the tone of approach they should take to commenting on student essays. Very specific advice on whether it is better to write statements or questions or what kind of questions are the most helpful does not appear here. However, I think the book does a great job, especially for new teachers, of orienting them to grading essays. Sommers makes the process more helpful and engaging for both instructors and students by reminding them that writing is a process and the teacher’s goal must always be to help students learn to write better, both now and in the future.
To that end, Sommers has a few deceptively simple guidelines to grading essays: teachers should take the students seriously as writers, they should respond to the author rather than to the essay, they should remember to point out the strengths of the paper so the student can cultivate them, and they should be very clear about how the “lessons” from this graded essay can be applied to future assignments. All of this amounts to something surprisingly profound: teachers are less frustrated by having to “fix” everything in a student’s essay, and students feel less like the point of grading is just so the professor can point out “everything that’s wrong” with the paper. Instead, student writers are assumed to be people with interesting things to say who may just need some guidance in finding the strongest ways to express their ideas.
This is a book I wish every one of my instructors have read. I think most students have had incredibly frustrating or even insulting experiences with graded essays, receiving vague comments or comments that too bluntly say, “This isn’t very good.” Sommers includes some anecdotes from her own research looking into the ways professors comment on essays the ways students respond to those comments, but I think she could have left them out and nearly every reader could have filled in the blanks with his or her own stories of professors whose comments were baffling, too sparse to be useful, or just downright rude. This is a book that can speak to nearly everyone. If it can convince just a few teachers that grading essays can be an opportunity to encourage and sincerely help students, rather than an opportunity to correct everything that’s wrong with their writing, I think this book will have done some good in the world.