The goal of this article is to share a process that explicitly teaches ELs how to use a framework to revise their writing.  After drafting, I encourage students to revise their work to improve the clarity, connections between ideas, organization, and development of the ideas.  This is known as substantive editing.  

The other form of editing is copy editing were students focus on the grammar, syntax, mechanics, and spelling within the text.  Because these are two clear distinct actions, I teach them separately.  The next blog post will be focused on teaching copy editing to ELs.

Research Says

Learning language is a highly social experience (Vygotsky, 1978), and research has suggested that children acquire language best at home when parents create a situation where the children and parents have a shared experience (Halliday, 1978; Painter, 2000; Martin & Rose, 2012).

Schools can also create shared social contexts where students and teachers’ interactions lead to language development. Because writing is an invisible task, teachers can use this opportunity to create a social interaction where educators guide ELs through the writing process.  An example of a shared interaction is modeling (Gibbons, 2009).  It provides a scaffold that explicitly teaches skills and content.

Research suggests that when students receive clear, explicit instruction, their performance improves, especially on standardized assessments (Short, Echevarría, & Richards-Tutor, 2011).  Lastly, Hattie’s extensive meta-analysis indicates that teacher clarity when teaching is one of the top 10 teaching practices that have a positive impact on student achievement (Hattie, 2012).

The revision framework that I’ll share later in this post will include all these research points: learning language through a shared interactions, providing clear explicit instruction through modeling, and teaching ELs to think metacognitively about their learning.

Past Practices

Mistake # 1: The Check List. I used to provide a checklist for students to ensure that their ideas were connected and clear, body paragraphs supported the thesis, introductions contextualized and hooked the readers, and conclusions provided reflections on their new insights. Students confidently – and mindlessly – checked off all the items on the list.  They stapled the checklist to their pieces and submitted the work for my evaluation.

This process did more to kill trees than to teach revision skills.  That’s because a checklist is a poor substitution for actual teacher instruction and modelingTwitter .  

Mistake # 2: Peer-revision. This is a slightly better practice than the “Checklist” model because students can help each other identify places that are confusing.  I would assign students in pairs to read each other’s text and give feedback.  They exchanged writings, read their peer’s text independently, provided “feedback”, and then returned it to their partner.  

The partner would decide which feedback to incorporate, make the appropriate revisions, and then submit the work. Upon reevaluation, students’ writing was marginally better than with the “Checklist” model, but again, I was completely disappointed with the quality of writing and thinking.  I wanted them to make connections between ideas, form inferences, and use evidence to support their claims.  

Peer revising does not usually produce this level of critical thinking.  It was simply an activity done instead of a learning experience.

The reason is because I had assumed that the students had the knowledge of what to was worthy of being revised.  How can a student who hasn’t yet mastered that skill provide feedback that would support another student’s writing? We must explicitly teach the revision process instead of delegating it to studentsTwitter .

I’ll show you how below.

Current Practices

An Analogy for Revising. As literate adults, we know that we have to write badly to write well, and that revising transforms poorly-written texts into well-crafted, intentional ones.  My ELs, however, often think that once they have written the last word, the next step is to submit the work.

Therefore, before even teaching a revision strategy, I use an analogy to reveal the importance of revising.  I have students to pretend that they are going to a school dance, and they want to have a nice outfit.  Then I ask students their process for deciding their outfit.

They often say that they rummage through their closet and drawers, pull out an array of items, try them on, evaluate the look before a mirror or a friend, and swap clothing items until they look like a star.

Selecting items for a look is just like revising ideas in a text. You have to pull everything out, rearrange it, and put it back before you have a workable, finished product. You’re focused on the different items complement each other to create a whole look and style rather than focusing on the accessories.  The purpose is also the same: to make something better.

STAR Revision

The practice that I am currently using to model the revision process is called “STAR Revision, ” from Kelly Gallagher’s book, Teaching Adolescent Writers(2006).  Gallagher is the Yoda of adolescent literacy, and has significantly influenced my teaching practice.  I’m a fan for life! The following is a graphic of the STAR Revision framework:

STAR revision with ELLs

If you have been following these writing instruction articles, I have described a process of getting students to analyze the writing prompt, how to organize ideas through mind mapping, and how to deconstruct the writing genre in order to empower ELs to compose their own text.  The ELs are now ready to substantive revisions to their writing.  

Step 1: Select a text for revision

I ask for one student to volunteer just one paragraph of their composition for me to model STAR revision. Because we write on Google Drive, it’s simple to project the student’s text onto the board.  The student volunteer and I sit side-by-side for the peer revision.  I am modeling the behavior that I want my students to follow while they are peer revising.  The other students form a fishbowl around me.  I expect them to be able to describe the process after the modeling.  

Step 2: Model only 1 aspect of STAR revision

I explain to the student that when one revises, they are essentially doing four tasks: Substituting, Taking out, Adding, and Rearraning.  I post a paper chart on the wall containing this information to serve as a reminder.

Since I do not want to overwhelm my students, I only focus on teaching one task when I begin the process – in this case, substitution.  I explain to the student that I am going to look for just three things to substitute:

  1. Overused words
  2. Pronouns and proper nouns
  3. Unclear verbs and descriptions

There are more things we can add to this list, but again, I try not to overwhelm students with too much to think about when trying a new skill. I then begin to read aloud the paragraph with the student and pay careful attention to the three items we identified.  

When I see something that I can substitute, I will stop and add it as a comment on their text.  Then we continue onto the next sentence until the end of the paragraph.  

Step 3: Practice Peer-Revising

Now it’s time to gradually release some responsibility to students.  I have the ELs meet in pairs to practice the revision process focusing on “substituting” just like I modeled.  We want students to practice the skill immediately after the modeling to reduce teacher talk-time.  I allow the process to teach the students, and I’m simple design learning experiences where ELs participate in the process.

Step 4: Metacognitive Thinking

Once I notice that most pairs have finished revising one paragraph, I have them stop and do a Quick Write (QW) to reflect on the process of the “substituting” part of the STAR revision process. The QW gives them a minute to step-back and reflect holistically on the process.  It’s important to train ELs to think about their learning in order to internalize the skills and processes that were taught.

We then share in pairs and then report back to the whole class to share our insights and reinforce the process.

Step 5: Teach another aspect of STAR

I repeat the process of modeling revision, but this time, we focus on the next aspect of STAR.  However, I do not ask the same student who volunteered before because I don’t want anyone to feel like his or her writing is of poor quality.  

Then, students change partners to have “new eyes” review their texts. By the end of this process, each EL has had their text revised at least four times.  ELs also have had an opportunity to practice the skill of revision four times while the teacher is present to monitor and guide through any issues.

Yes, it takes a long a while to do, but STAR revision is a good investment of time because this process really internalizes the concept of revision.  It becomes a transferable skill that can be called upon when completing writing tasks in different classes.

STAR Revision works because the teacher takes the time to model the steps for students and the students are able to practice their skills and reflect upon what they’ve learned.  Revision no longer remains an invisible skill because the things we look for when revising are clearly defined and easily corrected.

Below is a poster that details all of the elements of STAR revision.  Please feel free to download it and share it with your students and colleagues.

  1. Revision is an invisible process.
  2. Modeling can make it more visible to ELLs.
  3. Space out practice to allow for internalization of the skill.
Next Post

I hope this process makes revising more visible for your ELs.  I struggled for years to figure out an ELL-friendly approach to teach a skill that is so crucial to their academic lives.  The STAR process offers hope.  Now I can say, “I want you to revise your work with a friend” without feeling guilty.

Come back next week to learn how I teach copy editing to ELs.  

STAR revision with ELLs


Gallagher, K. (2006). Teaching adolescent writers. Portland, Me: Stenhouse.

Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners academic literacy and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language as a Social Semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Martin, J.R., & Rose, D. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the sydney school. Bristol: Equinox.

Painter, C. (2000). Researching first language development in children. In Unsworth [Ed.], Researching language in schools and communities: Functional linguistic perspectives (. 65-86).

Short, D., Echevarría, J., & Richards-Tutor, C. (2011). Research on academic literacy development in sheltered instruction classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 15(3), 363–380.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.