“Why Did You _____?”: Ask Students to Annotate Their Own Writing

We are thrilled to share a new contributing voice today, Marcus Luther! We spied his smart tweets about student reflection in writing and begged him to write something for us!

Marcus is currently in his eleventh year as a public high school English teacher. He teaches 10th grade English and AP Literature in Keizer, OR, but he spent his first eight years teaching in rural Arkansas, where he was recognized as a regional finalist for Arkansas Teacher of the Year in 2019. 

Marcus has been locked into a career as a public school teacher ever since his 5th grade teacher Mrs. Walker envisioned that path for him—with so many teachers, coaches, and mentors (and now more than anything the students themselves!) having reaffirmed the rightness of that career choice ever since Mrs. Walker’s proclamation on the last day of 5th grade. 
When he’s not chasing around his two sons and grading essays, Marcus is the co-host of The Broken Copier Substack, where he contributes to both podcasts and writings on all things education. You can find him on Twitter @MarcusLuther6.

If you’re in education, February can be rough. 

For many of us, a ton of energy is expended trying to get students to finish strong as the first semester comes to a close…only to have to deal with the near-immediate turnaround into the second semester.

Like a marathon runner getting handed a water bottle after collapsing past the finish line and then being asked, “okay, so let’s make sure these next 26.2 miles get off to a strong start, right?”

Students feel this, without question, but so do teachers

This is why at the midpoint of the year I’m reluctant to lean into any deeper, systemic changes in my classroom. Not only is the ship already set in a certain direction, but those types of substantive changes take time and energy as a teacher that, quite frankly, I don’t typically have enough of in February. (Or March, in case you were wondering.)

But quick solutions and improvements? Sign me up.

So here’s one quick change I think you can make to help students think more about their own writing that will make it better while also make their thinking visible to you as the teacher: 

Ask them to add comments/annotations about why they made the choices that they did. 

I’ve been doing this with three quick additions to writing prompts lately—both informal and formal ones!—that ask students to annotate their own writing and explain the purpose in their own choices as a writer. 

I’ll share three different ways I do this within this post along with examples from students who have been showing out with this new system, and then I’ll also include a reflection on why I believe norming such practices is more important than ever in our classrooms as writing instructors.


Especially when students have been conditioned to write “within a box” for so long, the functionality of individual sentences can be obscured—along with the agency students have in choosing not just what they want to write but also how they want to organize their ideas.

A goal of mine going into this year was to help students exert more agency in this “how,” so a critical step was leaning into meta-reflection (as I detailed in a longer post here as far as my thinking)—and one of the first and most effective strategies has been to ask students frequently to identify and explain the choice of a particular sentence within their writing.

This does not just have to be with formal essays, either! Rather, I’ve found it helpful even in brief constructed responses, as you can see here from a student’s single-paragraph exit ticket:

This small step of asking students to identify and reflect upon the purpose of a single sentence in each writing submission has become a norm in our classroom—and in doing so, has elevated the way students think about their own writing on a consistent basis.


In trying to build on our focus on sentences and their function within larger paragraphs this year, I added in a new component to our meta-reflection practices: identify and explain your best word/phrase. 

I was hesitant to include this at first, as far too often students hear “best” and just pick their longest, sometimes-thesaurus-discovered word and do not consider the way the word itself—as opposed to alternative words they could have used—shifts their meaning.

However, we have framed as much as possible this year around the idea of author’s choice and impact and, consequently, this makes for an easy transition to student-writing: why did you choose that precise word (or phrase) and how does it impact the meaning?

Yes, this is a great reflection for students to go through after longer pieces of formal writing (“There are so many words to choose from, Mr. Luther!”) but it also makes for a fantastic addition to shorter responses for students of all levels—and also can be a natural entry point for peer-to-peer reflection: “Highlight the word you found most impactful in your peer’s writing and explain why?” 

Yet another reason why this overall shift towards self-annotation is so important: it lays the path towards a better collective conversation around writing in the classroom.


I’ll be completely honest in sometimes feeling like “choosing a great title” can be overrated as a writing strategy, especially after dealing with students refusing to start working on a piece of writing until they manifest the “perfect title” onto their blank document… 

However, having students decide on a title after they’ve finished writing (or reading something, for that matter!) opens the door to very purposeful reflection—so I’ve begun having students add titles to almost everything they write.

And then explaining why they chose the title that they did.

Similar to “best word” above, too, this creates a clear pathway to collaborative reflection, as you can have a students’ classmates read “title-less” writing samples and add their own titles before it is returned to the original writer, who can then consider the different ways their peers encountered their own words and ideas. 


With anything new in the classroom, there will be some stumbling out of the gate—and, being completely honest, the teacher is usually the one with the faceplant.

But, as Sir Alfred of Batman lore famously asked, “why do we fall?”

So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

Not all student self-annotations were successful on the first attempt; and even as it has become a regular practice in our room, there are myriad peaks as well as valleys as far as outcomes.

Still, the collective growth that comes from a whole-class norm, followed by modeling and celebrating student exemplars, is quite clear to me at this point.

In our classroom, when students write they have become used to having to also explain the thinking that went into their writing.

That, I believe, is where we need to all be headed.

Hopefully this post offered three quick-and-immediate ways to do that, but of course feel free to share your own ideas! Just as a classroom is better when it is moving collaboratively towards growth, as writing teachers we need to continue to lean on each other for ideas and strategies so we can help students move where they need to go in an ever-changing landscape of the written word. 

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