Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Effective Proofreading for Frustrated Writers (Nuts and Bolts)

Writing can be one of the most demotivating subjects in school. I recently started physical therapy for a knee injury, and the parallel was almost funny. I was assessed and given exercises. They were very hard and I felt like I was doing them badly. I was corrected, and did them better, but it was still very hard, and progress was very slow. Finally, I got to the target 20 repetitions in all my exercises and arrived at the physical therapist very proud. She said, “Great!” and immediately gave me new exercises, which were harder, and I felt inept again, now with an edge of hopelessness--it seemed clear that I was destined to spend 99% of my time struggling, and about 1% of my time celebrating.

In English class, teachers are often excited about students’ progress precisely because they are getting closer to the good stuff: From Dick and Jane to A Wrinkle in Time to Ulysses; from sentences to paragraphs to stories... and then away from stories forever and into exposition and argument (sigh); from capitalization to commas to complex structures with juicy details. As in any subject, when the teacher comes from a background of great love of the material, it is likely that they are teaching many things they learned instinctively, and this often means an incomplete understanding of the effort and grit it has taken less language-oriented students to achieve foundational skills. This, in turn, can mean that students achievements are “celebrated” with the introduction of the next, proximal skill. “Hey, you really capitalized everything in this paragraph correctly! Great! Now let’s work on your fragments!” Even when the communication is a carefully constructed love sandwich--"I love your description of the firetruck and how you used more than one of your senses! Let me help you fix some run-ons to make it even stronger. You did a really nice job punctuating the dialogue, which is hard!”--the take-away afterward may be that the compliments were window-dressing for an endless stream of wrongness. English class can be like painting the Golden Gate Bridge if we are not careful.

Without belaboring the point, I would suggest that the goal is not simply to celebrate more at each benchmark skill, but to simultaneously
  1. Micro-celebrate every tiny improvement, especially the ones that students do not see or believe count--which forces teachers to become scholars of learning far beyond their own experience, and to really understand the myriad parts and overlaying processes involved in learning tasks, especially those that came easily to them as students.
  2. Make the entire process a joyful one. One of the hallmarks of students demotivated by their school experience is a deep product-over-process orientation. Skilled teachers work against this, modeling fallibility as well as the joy of bringing curiosity to those foibles, and providing materials that are rich and meaningful at every level. Moreover, curious critical thinking, removed from the pressure to be right and the language that reinforces that norm, can make all kinds of materials “rich and meaningful.”

Frankly, we often miss the forest for the trees, day to day, and we unintentionally model the same for the students--each person in that classroom is a neutronium trove of compressed miracles, navigating a world that is a tapestry of miracles as well. The Universe begins with hydrogen and gravity, and somehow wrings out heartbreak and glaciers and froot loops in a few billion years. The child muttering and stuttering through a 4th grade social studies paragraph is a bona fide miracle worker, doing an incredible collection of tasks, simultaneously. The appropriate reaction is awe and celebration, at every stage. Everything else should be embedded in that (wisely titrated, of course, so kids don't become afraid of the kooky overgrown hippy pollyanna who doesn’t understand how mean kids are and how hard school is, but embedded in such an understanding nevertheless).

But this is about proofreading :)

This is one of my favorite moments in one-on-one work because the sense of immediate, surprising success is generally strong, and, almost better, it generally translates into a success in the classroom that is reinforced by teachers. Particularly if a student has been having that slogging-through-drying-concrete experience in English class, this can be a real boon and possibly the beginning of a sea change.

There were a few issues I wanted to address when I started doing this:

  1. How students could get “help” from parents, teachers, and peers that actually sticks and fosters independence, rather than just creating a sense of the eternal need for proofreading help from “a better writer.”
  2. How students could feel more empowered in the process.
  3. How students could reap more benefit from multiple passes of proofreading--similar to checking your math with inverse operations or alternate strategies in order to avoid making the same mistake each time.
  4. How could the students get a clear, inarguable sense of the value of these multiple passes?

Thus was born Four Step Proofreading. Like everything else here, the basics of it are not ground-breakingly original, but it seems as though the presentation really may be.

First, I talk about the most common mistake I see when students proofread: they make a change, and then continue reading from the change, thereby missing the new problem(s) that their change has created. The cure for this is to be vigilant about always backtracking at least one full sentence before the sentence with the change when they start reading again. In a larger essay, I encourage them to backtrack to the beginnings of paragraphs.

Hilariously, most students backtrack when prompted the first time, notice a new problem, fix it, and then continue reading from the change, thereby missing any new problem the second change created. Because it is so common, it is easy to make light of (an important distinction: rather than making them “wrong” for failing to backtrack again, I make them “normal,” laughing about how ‘everyone does that!') I clarify that no matter how many times they change the same spot, any change means then backtracking at least a full sentence. Only when they backtrack and then read through with no changes should they continue on.

So, the prime directives of 4 Step Proofreading are:
  • making any change immediately when the need is discovered, and 
  • backtracking a full sentence when continuing to read after any change is made 
...and do this during all four steps!

Step 1:

Student reads silently to themself (as described above, making changes and backtracking as they go, until they read it from beginning to end without making a change).

As the student does this, I am keeping a tally of the changes they make.

Step 2:

Student reads aloud.

This sometimes requires gentle calibration, because they need to read with a pace, volume, and accuracy that allow them to hear themselves. Students who feel like this is a foolish step because they have just proofread will often race through the text.

It is also important to read along because sometimes students infer and recite language that is closer to what they mean than what they have actually written. This means another chance to surprise them with positivity: they are not “wrong” or making a mistake in their reading; they may be saying what they had intended to say when they wrote it, so I always gently say, “Oh! You just said_____ but it doesn’t actually say that on the page yet. Is that what it should say? Which do you like better?” Students who rely heavily on contextual decoding will often correct syntactic and even diction errors subconsciously as they read aloud, so this is a valuable assessment tool as well as an “a-ha!” moment for many kids to notice one of the flaws in their self-checking.

Again, I keep a tally of the changes they make. Often the changes are at a more complex level now than in step one.

Between this step and step 3 is often the moment when students realize we are onto something. Most of the time, the student has felt very 'done' with proofreading after step one. Almost always, after step two, I show them two identical or nearly identical groups of tally marks from the first and second steps. They have literally doubled the number of errors caught and/or improvements made by taking this second step. For a 1-2 page paper, it varies widely but I find that there are usually 7-20 changes at each step, and, again, about the same number at each step. And this generally happens again at step 3!

Step 3:

Student reads along while a helper (tutor, teacher, peer, parent) reads it aloud, exactly as written.

This is my attempt to get students to take the lead when working with others on their own writing, to make their learning more durable and proactive. I tell them they will have to "train" whoever reads for them, or the helper is likely to make it hard for them to improve. They can be told all about 4 Step Proofreading, or the student can just let them know they need them to:

a. Read exactly what is on the page, without giving any suggestions or even making any faces or compliments.

b.Stop immediately when the student says to stop, and only start again when the student says where to start (for backtracking after a change). Don’t be offended if they bark “STOP!” a bunch of times or have you read the same sentence a bunch of times. It really helps.

When we do this, with me playing the trained robot-reader, amazingly, the student generally makes the same number of changes again that they made in steps one and two, which still surprises me and almost always startles the student. I like to emphasize at this point that I’m never one to tell the student what to do, i.e. "you must proofread this way from now on!" but I do point out that even doing just the second step or the second and third steps looks like it would have a major impact on the quality of the writing they turn in. Of course, why wouldn’t anyone do all four steps?! But if it ever feels like too much, I want them to know that doing as much as they can is still a win.

Step 4:

This is when we finally arrive at the more traditional kind of proofreading help. Get that person whom you think is a better writer than you to read your writing and make suggestions. Everyone is going to do this differently, of course, but I recommend a couple of guiding principles:

Just like in the first three steps, the student should stay proactive. Don’t just lay back and say, “Ok, I paid my dues in those first three steps. Now can you just fix me, for heaven’s sake, oh Writing Guru?” I say to try to stay reflective: what kinds of issue have you had trouble with in the past? How did they get fixed? If they come up again, try and figure out why. Don’t let the person offer corrections that you don’t understand. Figure out, or ask, what the problem is that is being solved, and how this change solves the problem. Collaborate as if you are the director whose vision is being shaped, and the other person is a technical expert, working with you to communicate what you want to communicate.

When proofreading for a peer or student, sequential corrections may be the hardest to learn from. If you correct a run-on in sentence one, verb agreement in sentence four, pronoun agreement in sentence eight, and a fragment in sentence eleven, the skills used to spot and then correct each kind of error are hopelessly diluted among the skills associated with the other kinds, and retention may be zero. This not only fosters dependence, but reinforces overwhelm and an incorrect sense of an imaginary but destructive rightness-to-wrongness ratio. For this reason, I approach peer-proofreading as follows:

I create a triage table and take notes as I go.

It looks like this:

I am usually really transparent about this, explaining to the student why we do
  • All Communication before Grammar, and all Grammar before Style
  • All of one type of error at a time, rather than than in the order the errors appear.

Often the “communication” box is just a place for some quick discussion: “When you say ‘____’ do you mean something like___?” If I’m correct, we move on. If not we puzzle out what would make it clearer, together. About 80% of the time it is just an instant smiley face, because I feel like I understand everything they are trying to say.

The great thing about addressing all occurrences of one type of correction at once is that each type can become a little micro-"I-We-You" lesson. 'I' describe how I found the first error of this type, what makes it incorrect, and how I might fix it (if there are multiple fixes, I defer to the student’s wishes--it’s their paper!). Then the student and I ('we') find and correct the next error of the same type together, and, if that goes well, the student ('you') corrects the third one of the same type independently. Of course, at each stage, flexibility to maximize success is key. It may be I-I-We, or We-We-You, or whatever else will foster successful, retainable progress. We may step out of the paper to do more exercises about the specific issue before coming back to address the last one in the paper, or we may also step out of the paper to do more practice or add the “I” and “We” steps for a type of error that only occurs once in the paper. Furthermore, we may do exclusively “I” steps, with the understanding that the student is going to do their best to remember what we do; this would happen because I can also see the need to backtrack more in-depth, perhaps to core phrase/clause/sentence-structure rules, or identifying parts of speech, in order for this type of error to become discernible to the student in the first place.

We do what works, as soon as we figure that out, together.

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