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Three Strategies to Improve Student Writing

By Jessica Aggrey

As I mentioned in my last article, I recently attended the CATESOL regional conference. This post is about a particularly interesting session titled “Three Tools for Strengthening College-Level Writing Skills” by Elizabeth Dickie. My summer project will be to create theme-based course material for my accelerated composition class, so Dickie’s presentation came at the perfect time. She agreed to let me write a summary of her ideas for TESOL Planner. I’m sure you’ll find them as interesting as I did.

In her presentation, Dickie outlined three strategies that you can add to what you already do in your writing class to greatly improve students’ composition skills. In my opinion, the following ideas are particularly powerful because they help encourage self-reflection and metacognition, two important skills for any student.  I’m particularly excited to add her third tool to my next composition course.


Tool 1: Annotate Reading

A solid understanding of the reading is an integral part of being able to write clearly and effectively. In Dickie’s opinion, teaching students to annotate a reading has many benefits including, “improving their ability to contribute meaningfully to discussions of a text,” and “encouraging student-to-student exchanges.” She also said that it works as a great scaffold for the last step, which requires students to annotate their final draft.

Dickie recommended that you start having students practice this skill earlier than later. It isn’t necessary to wait until students are in advanced academic courses before requiring them to do this. Even at a beginning level class, you can encourage them to use basic annotations. She suggested that it’s a good idea to have students do this in class together before requiring them to do it on their own. She also noted the use of some common symbols that the class can use which is something that I’ve not thought of before.

Tool 2: Reverse Outline The Draft

Once students have written their first draft, Dickie has them reverse outline their draft. She said this will help students reach those “aha moments” and realize that there might be a gap or breakdown in their writing. She said that sometimes she’ll ask them to bring in a draft and then surprise them with this activity which requires them to reflect on what they have written. I imagine that this step is really helpful for the students who procrastinate by writing the paper the night before and turning it in without any review. This step will give them a chance to practice review and revision, important steps two the writing process. 

To do this, Dickie suggested having students read through their first draft and create an outline of the important points and moves in the draft. You will decide what they should be looking for as this will vary with the assignment and level. For example, you could have them label the thesis statement, topic sentences for each body paragraph, transitions, etc.

Dickie recommended having them do this part by writing directly on the draft itself instead of making a new outline. She said that if students are asked to make a new outline, it’s tempting for them to simply recreate one based on the original outline they wrote before starting the draft. If students are writing on the draft, they can’t circle something that’s not there, which will really get them to look at the structure of their essay as it is and reflect on what needs to change. 

As a side note, Dickie mentioned this can be used as a form of peer review where you have other students work together to try and reverse outline someone else’s draft.


Tool 3: Annotate Final Essay

This last tool I find quite fascinating and am excited to try in my class this fall. Dickie has her students annotate the final draft of their essay before they turn it in. She said that it helps to give the students a voice to describe their choices and moves and it also helps promote teacher empathy and more effective feedback. During the presentation, Dickie gave an example where a student had explained why he chose a particular hook. Although the hook was poorly written, the annotation helped her see what the student was trying to say, and she was then able to provide guidance to help facilitate learning.  

To help students with this process, Dickie recommended giving students explicit instructions on what to comment on. As an example, she mentioned the following possibilities:

  • Explain why you selected each quote
  • Explain how your transition sentences bridge the paragraphs
  • What is a sentence you struggled with?
  • What’s the sentence you’re most proud of? Why?

I see this activity as a really powerful way to help students improve their metacognition because it requires them to describe the thought processes behind the choices they made in their writing. I think it would also help students catch any last minute revisions. For example, if they have no reason for using a quote, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. I can also see this strategy really enriching feedback on a paper because it can create a dialogue between you and a student. Dickie said she usually has students do this the first time on the physical draft but then transitions to comments on Canvas later once they have practiced it. 


In her conclusion, Dickie made the argument that these three strategies are “beneficial across levels, boost higher order thinking, increase student sense of agency, [and] enable productive, empathetic feedback.” I would certainly agree. I think the reflective and metacognitive skills students learn from these activities will serve them in the writing classroom and beyond. 


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TESOLPlanner Copyright 2018 Jessica Aggrey
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