How to Comment on Student Writing

by , under For teachers

A line drawing of a teacher holding a pen and a cup of coffee while commenting on a student's essay

Suggestions for commenting on student writing

Good writers understand their readers and the effect their choices have on a reader’s experience of their writing. In contrast, novice writers struggle to anticipate difficulties readers face with imperfect prose.

The purpose of a teacher’s comments is, therefore, to “dramatize the presence of a reader” (Sommers, 1982, p.148), letting the writer know what has worked and what has not–insights that motivate revision and improvement on the next draft or assignment.

If, however, the meager comments students receive from their teacher arouse resistance, there will be less revision in the long run, and all that time the teacher spent writing comments will have been wasted. If you want your comments to count, here are two suggestions that can help.

Suggestion 1: Use the voice of the reader instead of the voice of authority

Resist the urge to be the authority figure telling students what to do. Comment instead as a subjective reader who shares his or her experience of the text. The moment you notice yourself looking for problems to fix, stop. Express your experience of the difficulty you are having in the most conversational way you can. Let the writer know where you are in the text, and then express the effect it is having on you.

Here are two examples of short comments teachers often write in the margin from Peter Elbow (2001, p.2) and his suggestions for rephrasing voice-of-authority comments into voice-of-the-reader comments:


Worse: Voice of Authority 
   Better: Voice of the Reader    


Unconvincing for me

I stumbled here.

I'm lost.

This felt strange.


As you can see, the comments expressed using the voice-of-authority and their voice-of-the-reader equivalents identify the same problems with the text. The corrective messages have not been weakened with down-toners like “sort of” or “somewhat.” They express exactly the same corrective intent, with the same degree of precision and conviction. The difference is that academic judgments have been expressed as subjective experiences. Words like “awkward” and “unconvincing” can sound very judgmental and hurtful when scrawled in the margin. Rephrasing these judgments as experiences helps to take the sting out of the criticism. As teachers concerned with student motivation, this is one very simple way to ensure that negative affect does not impede effort.

Just as comments in the margin can be rephrased into voice-of-the-reader equivalents, end comments that report on your global experience of reading the student’s text can benefit from a more personal tone, too. Reflect on the piece as a whole, not in terms of final judgments on an academic product or “negative points in an autopsy” (Elbow, 2001, p.2) but as your turn in a conversation about writing, as your part of an ongoing communicative exchange. Here are further examples from Elbow (2001, p.2) that illustrate the shift in tone:

  1. “I started out sympathetic to what you were saying, but in the third paragraph I began fighting you–getting irritated and starting to disagree with the very point I was ready to accept in the beginning,”
  2. “For the whole first page I was wondering what your opinion was about this volatile issue, and I couldn’t tell. But it wasn’t bothering me; it was kind of intriguing. I was hoping you wouldn’t plop down with a flatfooted black or white position, and it was a great relief to see you torn or conflicted,”  (Elbow, 2001, p.2)

The examples given above of effective comments are consistent with at least two of Straub and Lundsford’s (1995) seven principles for commenting on student texts: 1) comments should aim to be well-developed and 2) they should employ a non-authoritative tone. Notice their potential to draw the writer into a conversation about writing with a “to be continued” feel. Comments like these let the writer know that good writers don’t just spend a lot of time reading and writing; they spend a lot of time talking about reading and writing.

Suggestion 2: Record your voice

Another way to ensure that you avoid the kind of terse marginalia and authoritative tone that rankles students so is to record your comments using a microphone. Apart from making your comments more personal, an advantage to recording your voice is that audio recorded comments will likely be “more developed and targeted to the individual writer,” (Bauer, 2011, p. 66), providing the student with “more thorough feedback,” and “a rich learning experience,” (Cavanaugh, 2006, p. 2).

Whereas for first language writers, feedback on grammar mistakes may strike students as an overeager reaction to simple “accidents of discourse” (Sommers, 1982, p.15),  with second language learners, talking about a recurring grammar problem along with global concerns is both effective and welcomed. There is evidence that feedback on both form and content is more effective than feedback on form alone (Biber, Nekrasova & Horn, 2011).  Also, Hamp-Lyons and Chen (n.d.) report that second language learners want both kinds of feedback, especially when the grammar feedback comes with explanatory comments. Audio recordings allow you to go into greater depth.

Whether your comments are grammar explanations or reactions to larger concerns with content, Bauer reports better student engagement with audio feedback than with written comments. Students listen to audio recordings repeatedly “when and where the student feels most comfortable,” (Bauer, 2011, p. 67). Furthermore, recording yourself speaking into a microphone can help to emphasize that your comments on writing are meant, not as corrections, but as suggestions to “convince the writer that his or her work is worthy of taking through another draft,” (Bauer, 2011, p.67).

Barriers to Better Comments

Reflecting on these two suggestions, I am plagued with doubts that they will ever be implemented by the majority my fellow ESL teachers. While the voice-of-the-reader suggestion is the easiest to implement, it may be the most difficult to sustain. With 120-60 midterm papers to respond to at a time. I expect good intentions will desert even the most dedicated college ESL teacher, reverting in short order to the terse and time-saving efficiency of voice-of-authority marginalia and autopsy end-comments.

Some teacher may lack the wherewithal to download and install software, install MP3 codecs, record, render, track, upload and attach files to emails or insert links to files and send them to each student individually via email or college messaging system. Despite all the pedagogical advantages, many teachers will no doubt struggle with the technology and revert to the written mode before even one audio comment has been sent.

That’s why I created a PDF Tool for the Virtual Writing Tutor’s grammar checker. To use it, you will have to be a member, but membership is 100% free. Find out how the Virtual Writing Tutor can help you comment more effectively below.

Grammar Checker Solutions

In both cases, teachers would be more likely to implement these pedagogical improvements with the help of a grammar checker that supported MP3 recordings and written comments by the teacher.

You can send feedback on grammar and spelling to someone else with the Virtual Writing Tutor Grammar Checker’s PDF tool. You must login for this to work. Click on “Check Grammar,” scroll to the bottom of the feedback, click “Comment and send a PDF,” write a comment, record a message, and click “Create PDF.” If you lose the URL to the PDF, click “My Feedback and PDFs” and navigate to the “PDFs” tab. is a 100% free grammar checker created for English Second Language Language Learners.