Blog #11: Moving Toward Recursive Structuring of Thought with Writing

This week our class read, Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria by John Bean, “Responding to Student Writing.” by Nancy Sommers; Teacher-Writers: Then, Now, and Next by a NWP research team


I found all three essays interesting for different reasons, but have chosen to comment on the work by Nancy Sommers. I appreciate the opportunity to read a second essay by Sommers. In Responding to Student Writers, Nancy Sommers addresses the relationship of teacher to student in a way that asks several fundamental questions. Why do we comment on student papers? What is the most effective way of moving students toward progress? How do we help students internalize the questioning reader? What determines which of the comments the students will use or ignore when revising?

This essay was a terrific follow up to Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers, in which Sommers presented the divide between student writers and experienced writers in understanding revision. I came away from that reading with the impression that part of that divide is a developmental capability of a student that evolves with age and transforms into the mature executive functioning of an adult with experience. The essay this week, Responding to Student Writers, broadened my understanding of Sommers research and work. In many cases, the lack of understanding by students is enhanced by teachers rather than resolved.

The question of why teachers comment on student’s papers seemed obvious and pointless. However, the material that was presented by Sommers illustrated its necessity. The lack of understanding in students is often intensified by the misdirected efforts of the teacher’s comments. Ultimately, teachers comment on papers with the intention of moving students toward progress. In many cases, the attempt to do so is all over the place. Messages of grammatical, structural errors, often contradict a request for clarity, development, and refinement of voice and argument.

One of the most significant points in this essay was the fact that many students cannot hear their work through the ears of the reader. Many do not even realize that their argument and ideas have not been communicated. I love the goal of helping the student to internalize that questioning reader and would like to emphasize that this has to parallel what is developmentally available to them. Also, it must be addressed that different students have different learning styles. A comment on an individual student’s essay may be of no assistance at all on a different student’s paper. The intention as Sommers’ states, is “to help dramatize the presence of the reader. Comments create the motive for doing something different in the next draft.” She addresses the fact that, “Student writers will revise in a consistently narrow and predictable way. Without comments, students assume they have communicated their meaning and perceive no need for revising.”

I found the research interesting that questioned which of the comments the students will use or ignore when revising. It was particularly disturbing that there was often hostility detected in the comments. It was startling that the software, Writer’s Workbench, was more supportive of student writers solely because of its consistency and lack of emotion. “The calm, reasonable language of the computer provided quite a contrast to the hostility and mean-spiritedness of most of the teachers’ comments (P149).” Sommers clarifies that accidents of discourse have no place in the early sequence and that comments in these areas early on create contradiction and confusion. She cited some helpful examples of contradictory information in the comments: “edit but expand.” Although well intended, these comments inspire inertia and do not give a roadmap for how to proceed through the revision process.

In the last essay, Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers, Sommers stressed the importance of the recursive shaping of thought through writing. Fundamentally repetition is a part of the process she lays out. I believe that the burden here rests on the teacher to make a clear and non-emotional structure which is loose enough for each time of student to practice repetition and lots of it.

I also thought it was essential to address that the teacher can confuse the student’s purpose. “Teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teachers’ purpose in commenting(p151).” Students make the changes the teacher wants as opposed to excavating their clarity. Also, the comments are also generic and vague. “We have observed an overwhelming similarity in the generalities and abstract commands given to students. The accepted, albeit unwritten cannon for comment. Uniform code of commands, requests, and pleading. Students have trouble with the vague directives. Revising becomes a guessing game.” For example, “choose precise language.”  What does that mean? This is compounded by not being offered any strategies for doing so. (P153) There is no connection with the mentor and no reciprocal motivation. I believe that motivation is often generated in the exchange between teacher and student. This requires a skilled structure that provides the necessary guided repetition that leads to the recursive shaping of thought through writing.


  • I want to revisit this material and connect it to another body of work I have read:

Mirrors in the Brain. A particular class of brain cells reflects the outside world, MIND revealing a new avenue for human understanding, connecting and learning. By Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi and Vittorio Gallese


  • I have been working on a structure that is very rough at the moment, but I am going to include it here as a reminder to revisit it in the future. Part of it is included in my vignette entry for my theme in our “Small Bites of Knowledge” project.



Columns: and the art of repetition. Layer in progress incrementally

Column 1: the skills that require the repetition of drilling (grammar, spelling & punctuation) Requires objective drills and non-emotional redirection (Sommers study with Writer’s Workbench) Focus on making a skill repeatable. The practice of what it means to choose precise and concise language.) give the variation on the two groups snow photo.

Relates to Sommers research: To offer a useful revision strategy to a student,

the teacher must anchor that strategy in the specifics of the student’s text. p153

“to elaborate,” does not show our student what questions the

reader has about the meaning of the text, or what breaks in logic exist, that could be resolved if the writer supplied specific information; nor is the student shown how to achieve the desired specificity. The problem here is a confusion of process and product; what one has to say about the process is different from what one has to say about the product.”


Column 2: Language of an argument. Repetition of craft. More space around this than the drill. What do you mean? The listener gets to ask questions. The writer gets to write their answers. How do we create engaging activities that make this skill repeatable?

Mentorship required. Sometimes peer review is pointless depending on the pairing.

Column 3: Refinement

  • All three columns can be worked on simultaneously. Differs from the linear view. It is a horizontal spread. Or perhaps like a snowflake.





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