Single Skill Revision

In my last Moving Writers post, Shokunin as Revision, I equated the revision process to the elements of artisan work. One of those elements was taking small steps for gradual growth.

A great reminder on maximizing the effectiveness of a writing conference with students? Focus on just one skill and one skill only. It is easy for students to want to rapidly check off the boxes of all their revision goals, but just as I’ve told myself many times…in this moment, let’s value depth over breadth. Let’s master this one skill really well, and then move on.

Previous Post | Revision as Shokunin

Fittingly, this post will focus on just that: single skill revision. We know that helping students focus on one skill at a time during revision can help them grow as attentive and reflective writers.

It’s no secret that single skill revision has been – and continues to be – a hallmark of high-quality writing instruction. The concept of laser-focused writing conferences stems from my foundation as a writing teacher.

I remember one of my first professional development experiences being a workshop, run by my curriculum supervisor, Dr. Alyssa Walloff, on how effective mini-writing conferences can be when the focus is solely on improving one writing skill (yes, just one skill!).

Undoubtedly, it has been a wonderful tip that has stayed with me and shaped my approach on supporting students through the revision process. In previous posts, I have shared others practices that suitably intertwine with this tactic of “zooming in” on one particular aspect of a student’s writing.

Benefits of Single Skill Revision

Remembering the benefits of single skill revision can anchor us in supporting our students during writing instruction, one step at a time.

So, what are these benefits again? Revising one skill at a time helps us to…

  • Individualize student revision.  
  • Reinforce our practice of modeling (followed by encouraging independent practice).
  • Teach our writers autonomy and long-term growth.  

Individualized Student Revision

To prepare for revision, students must first identify their priority areas on which to focus.

In a previous post, Four Reflective Activities That Lead to Meaningful Revision, I discussed how a set of reflective questions can aid students in thinking meaningfully about their writing.

Invite students to engage in metacognition about what to revise. Consider some questions you might ask your writers. For example…

  • What areas of your draft are you most proud of right now?
  • What are the top three areas of concern for your writing?
  • Prioritize those areas. What do you wish or need to change the most?
  • Which ones make the most sense to address first?  

Essentially, these questions are meant to guide students to pinpoint their major areas for revision, allowing them to easily pick one single skill to focus on at a time.

In addition, consider how crucial it is to give students the chance to think about the rationale and sensible order of what to revise first.

Reorganizing your paragraphs makes sense before fine-tuning the word choice, content clarity precedes detailed wordsmithing, solidifying the sequencing of ideas comes before locking down the transitions. Inviting students to consider their “priorities” helps pave a mental path for revision. These are simple and vital lessons students learn when they carefully review their writing.

Coupled with sets of reflective questions, revision checklists have become a common routine in my classroom to help writers practice metacognition. In my first Moving Writers post this school year, Top 5 Tools for Digital Revision Work, I wrote about encouraging students to keep “digital journals” full of writing reflection activities (revision checklists being one of them). This practice fits in nicely when students are thinking meaningfully about which skills to focus on first.

A student using a revision checklist to reflect on her draft. This student in particular communicated a few areas where she felt she needed to focus on, one by one: clarity in language, sentence variety, and tone analysis.

Revision checklists help students prioritize and consider where to start. Not only do these allow students to determine what their individual needs are, they also help students recognize how the revision work they engage in is so uniquely specific to their writing. Within these checklists, I will often remind students which previous lessons or resources would be helpful to revisit based on where they believe their work is.

Whether it be through reflective questions or checklists, the goal is for students to be the ones to individualize their own revision process. As challenging as it can be to figure out what those few priorities are initially, students begin to learn how important it is to pinpoint these areas easily and effectively.

Modeling and Independent Practice

Once students identify a skill with which to start, ask them to share their thoughts or questions in a focused conference or to notate it on their draft for you to look over with/for them.

Many of us are familiar with some variation of the proverb of “Give people a fish, feed them for a day. Teach people to fish, feed them for life.”  With the same kind of thinking, I explain to students that when they ask or confer about a skill area, they must ask questions that will allow me to 1.) provide them meaningful feedback for that part of their draft and 2.) model how to revise for similar concerns all throughout their draft.

Students identify the most vital concerns; I focus on providing feedback that goes a long way. This feedback generally models how to revise that one area with encouragement and advice on how to apply that type of revision universally throughout their draft. I like to view them as bite-sized mini-lessons that are individualized for my students. The best part? Essentially, based on their question, my students decide what that mini-lesson is.

For example, if a student asks about how to create a stronger transition in the beginning of her paper, how might I provide feedback that allows her to consider how to improve transitioning in more than one area of that piece? Or, if a student asks about word choice or phrasing in one area, in what way can I inspire him to consider how to evolve how he approaches diction and syntax in all other instances?  

An example: modeling the skill of “simplifying then sophisticating language” with a student during a mini-writing conference. Some of my tips to this student include the thought process behind initially saying what you mean for clarity and then rephrasing it for eloquence.
Another example of addressing a student’s concern of writing sounding repetitive. My priority was to explain how perhaps the repetition stems not from a phrasing concern but from a close reading concern, prompting the student to reexamine understanding of the text.

Considering all the ways it allows us to individualize revision instruction, single skill revision reinforces our habit of properly modeling writing for students and inviting them to practice independently to demonstrate learning.

Autonomy and Long-Term Growth

As students revise independently, over time, we begin to see them (slowly but surely) embracing the value of working on one skill at a time. I often emphasize to students how enchanting gradual growth can be. It creeps up on you; it surprises you. And then you start noticing here and there…how your habits as a writer begin to change and mature and bloom.

It’s rewarding and gratifying.

My spring semester students have recently been working on revising drafted writing, and I love seeing these moments of gradual growth in their thinking as writers.

A student making a revision to-do list shows me how writers are thinking deeply about their priorities during revision.
A student demonstrates how single skill revision has become a part of her process. The green indicates how this student did a read-through of her essay, focusing intently on where she needs clearer phrasing. Then, the yellow denotes a second read-through where she focuses on what word choice has been working for her. Not only do I see a writer contemplating areas for improvement, but I also see a writer diligently keeping note of which strengths and standout moments to continue doing (“continue strong word choice in the 2nd para”). Her notes on her writing allow me to see how she has been tackling areas for revision: one at a time.

In instances like these, when I start seeing students make more and more reflective notes and practicing habits such as prioritizing their needs, I see how they are becoming more autonomous and are increasing their routine of metacognition. These are the moments that tell me that students’ revision habits are paying off and resulting in independence and growth.

The Year of “Day by Day”

The recent state of our world has surely prompted all of us to relearn the value of compartmentalizing, taking it a day at a time, and focusing on what really matters. During this historic school year, I have found  vital facets of quality writing instruction resurfacing again and again. Persistent reminders of we support and nurture confident, thoughtful, and inventive writers.

While it can always be our mantra in any year, there is something poetic about relearning with our students – right here, right now – to take it “one thing at a time.”


How do you use single skill revision with students in your classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.

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