A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing

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Since Christmas, I have adapted my English teaching by introducing a culture of redrafting into my lessons. It is impossible to ask students to redraft every single written offering – time constraints do not allow – but it is relatively straightforward, especially if you bring homework into the mix, to make it a regular part of the learning cycle. When you consider that a professional writer – or even a layperson such as an educational blogger! – will edit and redraft rigourously and automatically, it is quite an embarrassment that eight years into my career the teaching of the process is still relatively new to me.

My reading of US teacher Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence inspired me to move towards this approach. Berger presents an idealistic image of students working as craftsmen, critiquing one another’s work and producing multiple redrafts – with excellent work the eventual result.

Although Berger’s vision is very laudable, there are a number of questions I am still grappling with. What follows are my reflections.

First off, redrafting motivates students. You might expect to hear moans of, “I’ve finished, why have I got to do it again?” ad-nauseum. In truth, I have asked over one-hundred students to redraft at least two pieces of work in the past three months, and only once have I had a complaint. It’s difficult to pin down a reason for this positivity, but I have a number of hunches: all are given more than one shot at success, all have an opportunity to feel pride and satisfaction, high expectations are made crystal clear and, let’s be honest, it is usually easier to write the second draft than the first.

Although motivation is desirable, I think students should learn from the process too. The first and second draft of a piece of writing require different kinds of thinking. To help explain my thinking, I am going to use cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s simple diagram of the human ‘working memory’ (taken from Why Don’t Students Like School).

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The ‘working memory’ holds the things we are thinking about at any given time. ‘Long-term memory’, on the other hand, is the ‘vast storehouse’ in which we house our knowledge of the world. Imagine my students are completing an essay on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the first draft, the students will be using information from the environment (see diagram): this might be the play text itself, their notes, an essay plan, a model example, task directions, written targets from their previous writing task, etc. In their long-term memories, ideally, will be factual knowledge (from the language, plot and themes of the play right down to how to spell ‘Capulet’) and procedural knowledge (how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, etc.). Unfortunately, working memory has limited space – our mind is said to be able to hold between 5 – 9 items at one time, known as ‘cognitive load’. As students are writing their first drafts, pressure will inevitably be put on the working memory. If you struggle to spell ‘Capulet’ – i.e. it is not stored in your long-term memory – you will either have to plough-on, guessing how to spell it, or focus attention on this and other spellings. Perhaps, as a result, you will not have enough room in your working memory to also clearly explain Shakespeare’s use of metaphoric language. It’s difficult to think of multiple things at once. Either way, the first draft will be lacking, especially for the weaker writer with less stored in long-term memory.

The great advantage of writing a second draft is that as the bulk of the essay is now written, it becomes available in the immediate environment, and thus lessens the strain on the working memory. Some of the problems with cognitive load are now circumvented.  It is, therefore, much easier for a student to make telling improvements while editing and redrafting because they do not have to hold so much information at one time and can now isolate their attention.

I am aware that the above is an over-simplification of the complex role of the working-memory. There is still much we do not understand about the human brain. However, I think it usefully represents how hard it is for students to make meaningful improvements to writing skill when they are knee-deep in difficult content.

Of course, as part of the redrafting process it is essential that time is built in for individual reflection, editing and proofreading before the second draft is started. It is important that students do write out a second draft from beginning to end. As well as the thrill of seeing your once-scrawled efforts becoming something more refined, the repetition itself might also be crucial to long-term learning. I have just finished reading Graham Nuthall’s brilliant The Hidden Lives of Learners. Nuthall’s fascinating research found that to learn and remember a concept, students must encounter it in its entirety ‘on at least three different occasions’. This is intriguing. Could the redrafting process become integral to learning by providing students with a further opportunity to revisit the key concepts they have studied?

One of the problems I have faced is that some students equate redrafting with ‘writing it up in best’. We can all very easily copy or type out our own writing tidily without engaging with its content. For a handful of students with weak literacy skills, this kind of handwriting and spelling practice is probably very useful. For the majority, it is unlikely that they will engage usefully with the key concepts again through this approach. I have had many a bright student return me, with a sheepish grin, a carbon-copy of the original draft.

So how will I combat this problem in future? Well, one idea is that students should be made accountable for their improvements. By stipulating that they must make regular improvements, and that these improvements must be highlighted, there is no hiding place. By simply asking students to make one change per sentence, or another arbitrary requirement, there becomes no option but to engage with meaning. On top of this, they could note not just where they have responded to teacher feedback, but where they have made autonomous changes of their own too. Of course, this also makes marking easy – I will need only look at the highlighted sections, not the piece in its entirety. In some cases, where the first draft is of a high quality, students might bypass the redraft completely and transfer their knowledge to a completely different extension task.

Redrafting brings with it marking implications. The idea that we might have to wade through two drafts rather than one is more than off-putting. My solution has been ‘rolling live feedback’. As students are writing, I call them up to my desk one-by-one to read through their drafts. Taking into account that feedback can be useful at any point in the drafting process and that kids tend to work at different speeds, I have found this a very successful strategy. It is a useful differentiation tool too: quantity, timing and style of feedback can be tailored accordingly.  In fact, it leads to less after-lesson marking, not more. I also find that it is important to make them aware that I have deliberately left errors for them to find. That way I avoid students coming to the assumption that everything left unmarked is correct and in no need of change!

Another problem I have encountered is the flippant ‘it’s only a first draft; it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes’ mentality. This, however, has a flip side. Students are more likely to take risks if they know that they can have a second bite of the cherry.

The ‘depth-versus-breadth’ conundrum is still a concern, and will be more so with the tougher, content-rich GCSEs due to be implemented from 2015. From an anecdotal standpoint, I am convinced that depth is of greater importance than breadth; however, I am not convinced that Ron Berger’s ‘minimum of four drafts’ and ‘it’s only finished when it’s an A’ are always a wise use of time. Be that as it may, I have seen higher quality work across the ability range in the last three months than I have seen in the previous eight years. For that reason I am going to continue with my strategy.

In summary, suggestions going forward are as follows:

1. Ensure students understand redrafting in terms of the ‘ethic of excellence’ AND possible advantages to memory/learning.

2. Make sure students are made accountable for both self-instigated and teacher-instigated improvements.

3. Consider alternatives to redrafting for very able students by considering how they can transfer their knowledge to another task.

4. Keep up a constant dialogue about, and modelling of, the practicalities and meta-cognitive processes involved in editing and redrafting.

5. Consider whether there might be benefits to memory from spacing out the redrafts.

6. Ensure that I help students cope with the fact that excellence is often elusive.

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10 thoughts on “A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing

  1. Pingback: A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing | Tommy found a real book.

  2. Good stuff, Andy – and I absolutely agree that proof-reading and editing/redrafting are really important skills, as long as students don’t think this means scribble a rough version and then neaten it up, as you say. They also have to get the message that each draft has to be properly checked and corrected before it’s given to the teacher – I’ve returned drafts which are full of mistakes and made the point that I’M not the proof-reader – they have to do that before a piece of work (including a first draft) is ready to be handed in.

    I also think there’s a danger of getting into the habit of producing too many drafts, though. I remember when a head counselling a Year 11 girl who was getting very stressed about workload, and when we sat down and discussed what she was currently trying to get through she said she was working on her ‘sixth draft’ of a Drama assignment. I spoke to the Drama dept and said I didn’t think that was sustainable, for the pupils or for the staff. For one thing the students had lost the momentum, (it was a LONG time since the first draft) and for another they were trying to achieve ‘perfection’ and nothing less was good enough. I take issue with Ron Berger on this, especially being a deputy and then a head in girls’ schools with many perfectionist pupils. We do have to know when good enough is good enough and move on to something else.

    What do you think?

    • Hi Jill

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that multiple redrafting has its downside too; as you say, momentum can easily be lost in the desire for perfection.

      The demographic I teach has far fewer perfectionist types than the girls you mention! I teach many students – boys in particular – whose routine classwork can be scrappy and rushed. I’ve had some genuine breakthrough moments through introducing a redrafting culture.

      My belief is that two drafts is usually sufficient and any more can be counter-productive. As with all teaching strategies, it probably needs to be used with sensitivity and knowledge of individual personalities in mind.

      As for getting them to edit for mistakes before the teacher marks it – I totally agree!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Andy

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