Teaching Students Proofreading and Editing Skills
Good writing is as much about what is taken out of a text as it is about what goes into it.
For our students to become confident and proficient writers, they must develop their proofreading and editing skills.
Learning the various aspects of proofreading and editing takes time and lots of practice to refine. Students should be encouraged to automatically proofread and edit every piece of writing they produce to gain as much practice as possible.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the main concerns of good proofreading and editing and explore some activities that can be undertaken in the classroom to give your students the valuable practice they need.
WORK IN ‘EDITING ROUNDS’ TO BECOME A GREAT PROOFREADER
For most professional writers, their work is edited by another person. This is because it can be difficult for us to gain the distanced perspective necessary to detect our own errors.
For our students, however, this isn’t always possible. they will need to act as the editors of their own work in most instances.
To do this successfully it will be helpful for students to develop a clear and methodical approach to the proofreading and editing process.
Often, professional editors approach the editing task as a multi-layered one, with each layer known as a ‘round’.
Usually, three ‘rounds’ of editing will be enough to whip a piece of mediocre writing into good shape.
If it requires more, there’s usually a fundamental issue that needs addressing with either the writer or the editor’s competency.
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ASPECTS OF PROOFREADING AND EDITING
Each round of editing concerns itself with one or more aspects of the proofreading and editing process.
Sometimes these aspects are dealt with singularly in a round. Sometimes a round combines several aspects as the focus of that one round. This is up to the discretion of the editor themselves or, in this case, the student.
Many editors find it helpful to start with the big picture and work inwards to the small.
That is, the editor deals with the larger organisational textual aspects, before mining down into the finer details of the text in subsequent rounds.
It can be useful for students to consider the following aspects sequentially: text level, sentence level, word level, and finally the grammar, punctuation, and spelling level.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn as well as a few recommended activities to get students started on the road to becoming polished proofreaders and effective editors of their own work.
The specific criteria for editing at text level will depend to a large degree on the genre of writing.
Generally speaking, when looking at a piece of writing with a view to editing at this level, students will be looking at various organizational aspects of their work.
At text level, there are two key areas to consider: text features and text structure.
Here are some of the more common text features for students to consider. They are in the approximate order of appearance in a text, but bear in mind also that these will vary according to the genre of writing being edited:
- Headings and subheadings
- Table of contents
- Pictures, photos, illustrations etc
When checking the text features of their work, students should ensure that they have included each of the appropriate features and that they have also formatted these correctly.
Once this is done, students can then take a closer look at the text structure itself. Some considerations at this stage will include:
- Type of text (informational, persuasive, poetry, letter etc)
- Paragraph organisation
- Organizational patterns
- Introduction, body, conclusion
In the bullet points above, organizational patterns are closely related to the genre of the text; in other words, the purpose of the text. For example, is the text pattern designed to compare and contrast? Is it meant to convey a problem and solution? Cause and effect? Description? Sequence?
Compare and Contrast texts explore the similarities and differences between two things.
Problem and Solution texts examine a problem and recommend one or more possible solutions to that problem.
Cause and Effect texts look at what happened and why it happened.
Description lists the characteristics or features of a topic, idea, person, place, or thing.
Sequence is a text that lays out events in order or describes the steps to follow to do or make something.
Students should consider what the purpose of the text is and decide whether or not the pattern of the text fulfils that purpose. If it doesn’t, then restructuring will be necessary.
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Text Level Practice Activity:
Just as athletes isolate various skills to drill relevant to their particular sport, editing a piece of writing at text level requires a similar approach.
Choose one of the aspects above for students to focus on at a time and design an exercise that allows them to work on this specifically in isolation from all the other criteria.
When they’ve gained confidence in one area, then move on to another using a similar approach.
For example, if students are struggling with paragraphs, give them a copy of a well-written text that is laid out in well-structured paragraphs. Then, have the students work in groups to identify the reason the author decided to start a new paragraph in each instance.
When students can identify good reasons to start new paragraphs, they will be better able to edit their own work in this regard.
You may wish to support weaker students with a checklist to help them identify these reasons. The anocrym PPTT is an effective way to remember some of the main reasons for starting a new paragraph:
- Person – e.g. a new person is talking or character is introduced
- Place – e.g if the setting has changed
- Topic – e.g. a new topic is explored
- Time – e.g. a shift in time has occurred.
After the broad stroke structural organisation concerns have been addressed, the student is ready to take a closer look at the sentences that comprise the paragraphs.
Looking at sentences involves closely reading each sentence for coherence and fluency.
While ideally, it is best to have a second pair of eyes when reading for meaning, the student writer doesn’t have that privilege and must do their best to approach their work with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible.
This is why it’s a good idea to let a text ‘rest’ overnight, before reading at the sentence level. The intervening time can help give a student the necessary distance for a fresh perspective on the work.
Another good technique to help gain this distance is to have students read their work out loud. This forces the student to read more slowly, giving more time for them to pick up on any errors in the writing.
Sentence Level Practice Activity:
One of the most common difficulties our students face in their writing is staying focused.
Frequently, after a strong beginning, a student’s sentence can fall apart. Too often sentences are allowed to meander and waffle until the reader finds themself hopelessly lost in a maze of half expressed thoughts and ideas.
A helpful rule of thumb for our students to follow is that when they are expressing a complex idea, they should break the idea down into several shorter sentences to aid clarity.
Conversely, when expressing a simpler idea, students can use a single, longer, more grammatically sophisticated sentence structure.
After explaining this to students, task them to edit a piece of their own writing to reflect this new understanding.
When editing a text at word level students will concern themselves primarily with word choice.
They will ask themselves if the individual word selected is appropriate for the meaning they intended to convey. If it isn’t, can they think of a better choice?
Another thing students should look out for is whether or not they have overused a particular word.
Many of us have pet words and phrases we use over and over again. Often, we aren’t even aware they are our favorites. Students should keep an eagle eye out for repetitive use of their go-to words and phases.
Word Level Practice Activity:
This is a great activity to help students recognize words and phrases that they overuse.
First, students open a document they’ve word-processed in Microsoft Word, Google Docs or similar software.
Scanning through the text, they identify a word that they use frequently. Using the ‘Find’ or ‘Search’ function, they identify and highlight all the uses of this word in their document.
Finally, students use a thesaurus to identify suitable alternatives to some of the uses of their pet word or phrase.
This activity will not only provide them with suitable alternatives for well-worn words and phrases, but it will broaden their active vocabulary and bring color and interest to their writing as a whole.
Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling
Now, after editing at text, sentence, and word level, the final edit will concern itself with the minutiae of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
This final edit is what is usually meant when we talk about ‘proofreading’. It’s the final round of the editorial cycle.
These days our students have many technological tools to help them in this process when they are word processing their work.
Grammar and spell checkers are commonplace features for a lot of word processing software, with several of these able to check punctuation too.
Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling Level Practice Activity:
While the above tools can be a real boon in helping our students ensure accurate grammar, punctuation, and spelling in their work, they can also hinder their learning when they are relied on too much.
Just as muscles atrophy with lack of use, so too do our error detection faculties when we delegate the task too frequently to some electronic tool or other.
We want our students to not only know when something is wrong, but also why it is wrong. In other words, we want our students to learn from their mistakes.
To ensure they develop this essential knowledge, encourage students to identify grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes using the appropriate software or tools.
When they have done this, instruct them to choose one grammatical error, one punctuation error, and a spelling mistake and learn the correct form and why they were initially wrong. This will help ensure they don’t repeat the same mistake again in future work.
WRITING CHECKLISTS FOR ALL TEXT TYPES
The Teacher’s Role in the Student Editing Process
While students do need to gain the technical knowledge to be able to edit and proofread their own work competently, there are lots of other ways in which we need to support them to become effective self-editors.
Not the least of these lies in communicating clear expectations when setting written tasks. A clearly written writing prompt can often be re-engineered into an editing checklist tool by the student.
In fact, when you communicate the criteria for the various writing genres in your lessons, take the opportunity to point out to the students that these lists of criteria can serve as editing tools by which they can check their completed work.
Also, as your students master the basics of composition, be sure to keep them challenged. Encourage them to be forever on a quest to improve their abilities in moulding the written word.
For example, if they are consistently producing well-organized pieces of writing, free from spelling mistakes and grammatical errors such as verb tense consistency for example, then it’s time to shift the focus towards more subtle areas of composition, such as using the active voice over the passive.
For while it’s perfectly possible to be technically correct using the passive voice, the active voice usually produces much more powerful writing.
Finally, as a teacher, you still have a role as an editor. While the aim of the process is to make yourself as redundant as some of the words in a poorly written text, your students will most likely still rely on you as their FINAL final editor.
Be sure when offering written feedback on a piece of writing that you provide specific guidance on areas they can improve upon their writing, whether at text level, sentence level, word level, or at the nuts and bolts level of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
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Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.