When it comes to improving the quality of student writing, highlighters are a powerful tool to teach students how to enhance their own writing. How? The answer lies in the purpose of a highlighter: to emphasize something of importance and value; to bring attention to what’s most significant.
By tasking students to highlight the words and phrases they think are most sophisticated, descriptive, vivid and precise in their writing*, they learn to be mindful of the quality of their writing (instead of solely focusing on just getting DONE with it) and are able to articulate what is impressive in other pieces they read.
As they highlight, advise them to ask themselves, “What is going to cause the reader to picture what I wrote about? What is the reader going to remember most from my piece? What words and phrases am I most proud of using?”
To build this self-reflection skill, first begin by reviewing samples of writing as a whole class. Discuss and analyze the words and phrases students offer as the strongest in the sample piece. Be sure to ask for their reasoning with questions such as, “Why did you choose that particular phrase? What about the word choice makes it impressive?”
Next, have students exchange their own writings with a partner with the task of highlighting the 3-5 strongest phrases and words in the writing. In a brief peer conference, students can share why they highlighted the different words and phrases as they read their partner’s piece. Never forget peer feedback is ten times more powerful to students than teacher feedback.
Also, before students turn in writing to you, whether it’s a sentence or an essay, frequently task them to highlight their most sophisticated words and phrases.
With future writings, the question “What would a reader highlight as they read my writing?” becomes more and more a part of their composition process, encouraging them to choose sophisticated, descriptive, vivid and precise words as they write. No writer wants to finish a piece of writing and feel there is nothing worth highlighting.
By simply drawing attention to word choice through these activities, students learn how to be mindful of the quality of their writing. Who knew highlighters could reinforce writing skills so powerfully?
*Writing with Design strongly recommends not using words like “best” to describe word choice, because “best” is too vague. Strong writers strive for sophistication, descriptiveness, vividness, and preciseness of language, so use those as the search parameters for evaluating word choice in writing.