Color, Marathons, and Interactivity: Tools for Improved Writing Instruction

Fall 2019

By Allison Chang

In my ninth year of teaching, I can still remember my first year vividly: I had my syllabi all planned out, but nothing was going according to schedule because of the realities in my classroom. My students needed several fundamental writing and reading skills, and I had a poor grasp of dyslexia, ADD, processing disorders, and emotional needs. Happily, my first classes were also full of passionate, creative, and artsy-crafty learners. By working with their learning styles, doing research, and following my own tendencies, I was able to stock my toolkit with several methods that have proven effective for several high school writing courses. I believe that these techniques would also transfer to younger grades and to any course that involved text-based and language skills (e.g., foreign and computer languages). My current approach involves three main branches: visual compartmentalization, “writing how you run,” and interactivity.

We are familiar with the much-maligned nature of the red pen and how some teachers avoid using one altogether. However, it makes sense to use vivid, easily seen colors to direct students’ attention to our feedback. In order to combat a common fear reaction to teacher comments, I use three to four colors of pen or highlighter to provide compartmentalized (categorized) feedback on specific skills. If I am working on a computer, text can be color-coded or highlighted in different shades. Be sure to check whether anyone is colorblind and, if so, to use colors they can see. The number of colors should not become overwhelming, and larger categories can be umbrellas that include related elements. In this way, the “Eek, so many comments!” reaction can become curiosity about what all these colors mean.

Many of my students have never seen such a system before. Furthermore, color coding supports executive function and helps relieve an overwhelmed or “stuck” feeling. My students find it helpful when I suggest, “Start with the green edits, and move on to the blue if you have time. If not, work on blue and orange at home tonight.” Such instructions explicitly portray editing as having concrete purposes and break down the revising process for those building executive function. Many writers simply do not know where to start because they perceive the editing or writing task as a whole and not as a piecemeal task. Students should understand that they are not simply “working on writing better”—whatever that means—but that they should develop distinct elements, such as diction, punctuation, quotation integration, citation format, and use of transitions.

The color-coding method lends itself well to other writing activities. You might ask students to do their outline on colored index cards and have one color for each paragraph or topic. They might also write in a different-colored pen or marker to brainstorm and outline. In a more basic way, sometimes I will change the color of certain student-written sentences to physically distinguish that section. Then I ask them to type a different version directly underneath, referring to the original and keeping it present. This corresponds to the art tip of erasing something only after you have corrected it. These are by no means the only options for visual compartmentalization, and I encourage you to send me your own ideas on how to use color to facilitate learning!

Another aspect of my teaching approach is to “write how you run” and hence to adopt a growth mentality. This comparison between physical and academic skills should be stated aloud throughout the year: “You don’t just run a marathon with no training unless you want to injure yourself. You start by walking, then jogging, then running progressively more each week.” People of all ages are often convinced that they are simply “not math people” or they are “bad at writing” because of frustrating past experiences. It is more hopeful to reframe writing as being a sport or game: You practice different skills to improve them over time. Writing entire essays—even ones that have been outlined—is not frequent enough practice, unless your class requires shorter and more regular essays. Similarly, discussions about writing are not actually writing.

In my ninth-grade class, I therefore start with digestible bits of the essay-writing project so students are “training” for the essay “marathon” instead of making the same errors again and again. You have likely seen students repeatedly write a “thesis” with no point or a “topic sentence” that lacks focus. Can teachers really blame them when they usually write such sentences only once every several weeks or months? As young writers, they may not understand how to write a thesis, topic sentence, integrated quotation, and so on. Juniors and seniors also benefit from this approach, as they may never have spent quality, focused time on specific skill building in earlier years. For any unit, my students turn in the thesis and topic sentence before even beginning the rest of the introduction paragraph. After receiving feedback and a less weighty grade (i.e., large homework grade or small project grade), they can make informed changes and improve for the final draft. To further reduce anxiety, teachers could even make the first draft ungraded or graded based on effort. This initial feedback should be both written and verbal, so that key misunderstandings about the assignment can be identified and addressed. Even with clear rubrics and class discussions, students may not know what each paragraph topic is or remember to use relevant handouts. I believe that correcting issues early on is the same as preventative care in medicine.

Another example of how to make complex skills digestible is to have students gather quotations from a text separately from putting quotations into their own sentences. Since I have a smart projector, I am able to type discussion points onto a shared Google Doc shown on the board. Many of my classes feature activities where we review skills in this more active, game-like way. I may provide the quotations and assign each to a certain student; these quotations can be differentiated for the levels in your room. Students then type their attempts onto the shared document, and they can view others’ work if feeling lost. To practice evaluation, they can bold only the words they plan on actually quoting. In class, we often talk the process out as the students or I type out the desired sentence. Of course, these tasks may also happen on a large wall poster paper or in another analog format. The goal is to solidly engrain term definitions into students’ minds and to allow them the time to have guided training before moving on to the whole project. My essay rubrics list each project component with its deadline and grade weight (e.g., 10% or 10 points). Students thus have multiple chances to learn and grow, rather than feeling they “failed” at an entire assignment.

A third and final component of how I teach writing is interactivity. While the size of classrooms varies widely, I always try to touch base with students multiple times during a project. It may take several days to finish this process. After smaller project components are done and feedback is written, I do a quick verbal check-in so students may begin edits immediately. “John, I loved your thesis, so please work on merging your related clauses into compound-complex sentences.” “Angela, you’re on the right track with your topic sentences, but I need you to add the ‘so what’ to connect to the thesis.” For full drafts, I pull each person outside the room for a short personal conference. Switching from group to pair communication often helps my quiet students or those who need more time to process. Each is encouraged to ask questions and to brainstorm next steps as well as top concerns. Meanwhile, instructions are on the board for what the rest of the class should be doing and in what order.

Additionally, I have “workshop days” when students type their essays in front of me (and their helpful peers). When I was in high school, planning and discussion were done in class, and homework was done at home—sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Instead of bemoaning procrastination and task avoidance, I espouse bolstering knowledge and skills in the writing classroom just as a math teacher goes through problems on the board. To avoid this devolving into a silent study hall, I explicitly explain and write down my expectations: that each student touch base with me at least once per period; that each student start by identifying what tasks will be priorities; and, sometimes, that I will be able to see their screens. With their resources loaded or in front of them, everyone begins work on a particular task. If using Google Docs, teachers can have all essays loaded for real-time analysis. Thus, everyone may work at his or her own pace and on the skills he or she actually needs to build; each person will feel appropriately challenged. This time is also a rich opportunity for peer mentoring and quick small-group conferences. Students should feel valued as potential teachers with the agency to guide and help. I have only two or three workshop days before a draft is due, and I expect students to continue making progress on their own.

Not every teacher has the flexibility to adopt all of the techniques I have outlined here. My hope is that one or two might be attractive to you and will help you improve both the student experience and your working relationship together. By adding diverse and purposeful color into your curriculum, you can increase the fun and functionality of writing and connect with more visual artistic learners. Similarly, those experienced in sports may better conceptualize writing as a worthy, even possible, endeavor with the use of analogy. Finally, taking some of the “home” out of the work transforms a stressful, confusing, and often rushed activity into a clear and personalized process. Writing is not boring. It is the amazing pursuit of thoughtfully articulating one’s message—a message that can remain accessible to readers around the world and across time.
Allison Chang

Allison Chang (allison@nora-school.org) teaches high school English and Anthropology and is an administrator at The Nora School, Silver Spring, Maryland.