Responding vs. Proofreading:

Roles for Responding to Student Writing

One way to help us think about the role we play when we respond to our students' writing is to define our roles as responders. Here are some possible roles we as teachers can play when we respond to our students' writing:

Examiner: The "teacher as examiner" is looking for a correct answer-a specific answer that the teacher already knows. Often in quizzes or short answer exams the teacher plays the role of examiner. The examiner role can be limiting for both the student and the teacher because there is no dialogue between the writer and responder. The student is writing to display what she knows to an examiner, not to communicate to a reader.

Proofreader: A teacher playing the role of proofreader focuses on sentence-level correctness in her response. All experienced writers proofread their text, but merely proofreading student writing gives them the impression that surface correctness is more important than critical thinking or developing and supporting ideas. Most writers would be frustrated by readers who only respond to grammar and mechanics and don't respond to their ideas, unless they are turning in a final draft of a manuscript to an editor.

Interested Reader
: An "interested reader" is the role we play when we read texts for pleasure and for our own purposes, and the kind of readers we most often imagine when we write. Interested readers are not focused on just criticizing and judging writers or marking errors in grammar, but interested readers do evaluate what they're reading and think about where they agree or disagree with the author. Interested readers are looking for what is working well in a piece of writing, and not just what isn't working. A text that has repeated errors in grammar and mechanics that interfere with communication will certainly bother even the most interested reader, but grammar won't be the focus of an interested reader's response to a text unless surface errors are so overwhelming that the text isn't comprehensible. 

Representative of a Discourse Community: As college teachers we are helping initiate students to the ways of thinking and making meaning in our discipline, and one stance we can take when we respond is as representatives of our "discourse communities"—the rhetorical communities of readers and writers in our discipline. In this role our primary responsibility as responders is to help student learn to make and support arguments in ways that are appropriate for our field, to conduct discipline-specific inquiry and research, and to integrate and synthesize other scholars' ideas and research. Correct citation of sources or the correct use of edited English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is a part of communicating in our disciplines, but most of use would agree that the quality of our thinking and research is more important in our own work as scholars than the surface correctness of our prose.

Wider Audience: One way to get out of the "teacher as examiner" rut is to ask students to write for a hypothetical wider audience, and to role-play that wider audience when you respond. For example, students could write reports to government organizations or a company's Board of Directors, feature articles for magazines or newspapers, book reviews for journals or, manuals or brochures aimed at the wider public, or Web sites with resources for future students. In each of these scenarios, the teacher can respond as the intended audience, and create a rhetorical situation that's much more engaging than the student writing to the "teacher as examiner." 

I would argue that the most helpful roles teachers can play as responders to student writing are the kinds of roles we expect from readers of our own scholarly and public writing. We write for interested readers, or to communicate with other scholars in our discourse communities, or to inform or persuade a wider audience beyond academia. We would be discouraged by a journal editor who only marked grammatical errors on an article we submitted, and we would consider pedantic a book reviewer who focused her comments on typos or grammar errors in the novel she was reviewing. Teaching our students the importance of editing and proofreading in order to communicate effectively to an audience is a part of what we do as responders, but I would argue that responding to the quality of our students' thinking is our primary responsibility as readers of our students' writing and representatives of our disciplines.


Dan Melzer

University Reading and Writing Coordinator