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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 37

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Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can models, critique, and descriptive feedback help my students produce high-quality writing?

Now more than ever, with the introduction of rigorous college- and career-ready standards, students need models of work that meets standards, and they need structured opportunities for critique and descriptive feedback so that they can produce work that meets the standards. Students and teachers alike will benefit from seeing—sometimes even holding in their hands—examples of what they are aiming for. The standards themselves do not create a picture of what students are aiming for. They are typically dry, technical descriptions. When a Common Core State Standard (CCSS) requires that students “use organization that is appropriate to task and purpose” or “use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events,” what does that mean? What does that look like?

The video below is not from a lesson in the curriculum, but it’s useful to watch if you are unsure what a critique lesson using a model looks like.

EL Education's Ron Berger leads a group critique lesson with students from the Presumpscot School in Portland, ME. The third-graders use a piece of student writing as a model from which to identify criteria for a quality story.

Once a student participates in a group critique lesson like the one shown in the video—using a strong model—she will know how to approach her own work with greater clarity. Because this class has generated a list of the qualities of good writing (e.g., word choice, details), students are better able to incorporate those qualities into their own writing.

And when the time comes to revise their work, teachers and students can refer to the list of attributes of good writing and approach the revision process with an eye toward matching their work to those qualities. With a clear list of attributes to reference, feedback can be more targeted and necessary revisions become more clear to students. All of these practices—critique, descriptive feedback, and the use of models—give students a vision of quality so that they know what they are aiming for.

Building a Mindset of Continuous Improvement

Critique and descriptive feedback help students understand that all work, learning, and performance can be improved. We can tell students that their potential to learn is great, but they won’t believe it, especially in areas in which they don’t feel confident, until they actually see themselves improve. There is nothing that does this more effectively than when students work through multiple drafts, rehearsals, or practices and end up creating work or performing at a level that is beyond what they thought possible. Participating in critique, developing the criteria for high-quality work, and giving, receiving, and using feedback promotes a growth mindset and teaches students the value of effort and revision. Natalie’s Grasshopper below is a great example of the power of a mindset of continuous improvement.

Developing a Positive Classroom Culture That Will Allow Critique and Descriptive Feedback to Flourish

In the curriculum, there are many opportunities for students to engage in peer critique in which they give each other descriptive feedback on their work. To be most effective, these practices require deliberate and sustained attention to emotional safety, and depend on skills of collaboration. An essential starting point for critique and descriptive feedback in any classroom is ensuring that the guidelines BE KIND, BE SPECIFIC, and BE HELPFUL are the backbone of every class. Formal and informal feedback and critique flow from these. Safety and encouragement, as well as structure and clear learning targets, will set students up for success.

Just about everyone has a feedback nightmare, a time when they felt hurt or judged by someone’s feedback or criticism. Some students are particularly vulnerable, especially if they have not experienced much school success and have received many messages of negative criticism (both implicit and explicit). School and classroom guidelines must be carefully built and reinforced, but individual feedback also must be tailored and shaped with the particular student in mind. There is not a template or cookie-cutter approach that will work for every student.

This kind of safety can be hard to monitor. You must be vigilant and firm, especially when building a classroom culture with a new group. Very young students often don’t realize that their comments may be perceived as mean. They can be candid even when it’s hurtful to others and need to learn how to word things carefully. Sometimes older students may intentionally, but subtly, undermine a peer’s work, such as complimenting work with a sarcastic tone or facial expression. It is imperative that you stop the critique the moment problems happen, deal firmly with unkind or untruthful comments or tone, and reestablish norms. Eventually, students will trust and reinforce the norms themselves. The curriculum’s consistent emphasis on habits of character, particularly work to become ethical people and work to become effective learners, will both create the conditions for and reinforce these efforts. 

We’ll be back next week with more specifics about how models are used in the curriculum. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about models, critique, and descriptive feedback in general, check out the PD Pack for Leaders of Their Own Learning, especially Chapter 4

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: