It’s amazing that I passed my driver’s test on the ﬁrst try, since I can see now that I was a pretty bad driver. But I was an excellent test-taker, and the State of Minnesota sent me home with a score of 96 out of 100. Mere weeks later I backed the family van into the mailbox.
It’s not that my parents didn’t try their best to improve my driving skills. In fact, they each logged enough hours of behind-the-wheel training with me that I learned to translate their two very different approaches to corrective feedback.
My mother’s primary feedback was to initiate the following sequence when I made a driving mistake: 1) make a horrified face, 2) suck air in wetly over her teeth, 3) clutch the dashboard, and 4) stomp her foot onto an imaginary passenger’s side brake.
My father was more verbal, but prone to understated commentary such as: “Did you happen to notice that was a red light you drove through?”
It’s hard to ﬁnd just the right way to give somebody helpful feedback. And it’s just as tricky an issue when it comes to giving students feedback on their writing.
Praise for what is working well is always a good starting point. But then I also try to provide something concrete that students can work to improve. Leading questions are a great tool for this: queries such as, “How could you help readers better understand the character’s problem?” or “Can you make the readers feel more like they’re inside the setting of the story?”
You also want to avoid imposing your own voice over the student’s voice. The key is to remain in the role of editor rather than “re-writer.” I point out where changes could improve the writing, but then give students some room to learn to rewrite for themselves.
It’s totally tempting to stomp on the brake yourself, and just tell them how you would do it. But if you do that too many times, they might never learn how to drive without you in the car.