Strategies for Providing Substantive Feedback
in Language Arts in the Online Environment


Subject: Language Arts, English
Grade Level: Middle-High School
Type: Online Learning (Virtual Classroom)
Technology Used: Computer, Blackboard, Word Processing Software, Writing Revision Software

Julie Swartz
Julie Swartz


Providing students with appropriate and timely feedback when they are learning to write, and become successful in the writing process, can be very difficult for a classroom teacher. The difficulty resides in the lack of agreement amongst teachers and researchers on whether the focus of feedback should be on form or content (Fathman & Whalley, 1990). After determining whether to focus on form or content the teacher must then select the appropriate evaluation method. Many times there is no one method available to assess each student’s writing needs. Each student needs to have individualized attention, and the teacher needs to have enough time to provide the kind of substantive feedback that students need in order to be successful in a language arts curriculum.

The United States implemented the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001, and it required testing in reading, writing, and math. States were punishing districts throughout the U.S. because children were not writing with enough detail. Julie Swartz, online language arts teacher for Michigan Virtual School (MVS), claims that today’s students “almost write as if they are providing an outline.” Students are not providing enough detail in their discussion of topics, and are using fewer paragraphs in their writing.

In order to combat this issue and broaden children’s understanding about what they have written, teachers need to find ways to elevate student engagement with the content, as well as provide meaningful feedback that means something to the student. The feedback must provide students substantial information, so they can expand on their writing, develop a deeper understanding, and be able to engage in a thorough discussion about what they have written.


Julie has been teaching English/Language Arts for the MVS for approximately eight years, but she has 40 years of classroom teaching experience. As an online language arts teacher, Julie finds it important to discuss with students what they said in their writing. She indicated, “my job is to deepen and broaden their thinking, and [I] need to utilize tools that engage them.”

The market is full of tools that allow students to complete course content online or through various technology-mediated software. The problem with many of these tools, according to Julie, are that they don’t meet content expectations and they don’t provide a real-life person who can supply specific individualized feedback. Studies suggest that feedback, combined with positive reinforcement is a critical component of maximizing performance (Chapanis, 1964; Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979; Balcazar, Hopkins, & Suarez, 1985).


Throughout her years in teaching Julie has been able to develop and employ various strategies to provide her students with substantive feedback in her language arts classes. She has successfully transferred these strategies to the online environment for her students at MVS. She is also interested in trying to incorporate programs, like Harvard’s Project Zero, into her and other MVS courses. The goal of Project Zero is to “help create communities of reflective, independent learners; to enhance deep understanding within disciplines; and to promote critical and creative thinking” (Project Zero, 2009).

To implement these beliefs, Julie uses three different strategies for providing feedback for her students: (1) the comment feature in a word processor, (2) Quick Write comments, and (3) writing revision software. Her responses must follow MVS’s requirements for feedback response times, which indicate that students must receive a response within 24 hours of a message and receive feedback on their homework and assignments within 72 hours.

Comment Feature in Word Processor

The comment feature in a word processing program enables Julie to provide substantive feedback on students’ grammar, and writing and language mechanics. A rubric is used for each essay and is copied at the bottom of the students’ work.

English Language Arts Rubric

Remarks are provided at the end of the essay focusing on both the content and the assignment requirements.

Samples - Personal Narrative with Comments
Personal Narrative Sample
Personal Narrative Sample
Click on image to view PDF

It is important to note that substantive feedback can also be provided in the assignment feature in Blackboard or through an e-mail message.

Samples - Blackboard
Blackboard Sample
Blackboard Sample
Blackboard Sample
Blackboard Sample
Click on image to view PDF

However, MVS discourages the use of outside external e-mail systems with students because the virtual school would not possess a copy of those interactions.

Quick Writes

A “Quick Write is a literacy strategy designed to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning” (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2009). Students are provided short open-ended statements and given only a few minutes to complete them. As such, Quick Writes do not focus on writing mechanics, but rather on students’ thoughts and understanding and on the written expression of those ideas. In the Quick Write example provided, Julie asked the students about their feelings and provided them an opportunity to reflect on a situation that they had experienced.

The use of Quick Writes reflects Julie’s belief that technology-mediated software doesn’t provide a real-life person who can supply individualized feedback and that online teachers need to utilize other pedagogical strategies. The Quick Writes allowed students to reflect on previous situations and things they have learned in the past, and Julie was able to provide personalized feedback for each student’s response. The activity also helps to build the online relationship between the student and teacher.

Samples - Quick Write
Quick Write Sample
Quick Write Sample
Click on image to view PDF

Over the past twelve months, Julie has altered her use of the Quick Writes in her course. Due to the amount of writing the students were completing, Julie felt it would be better incorporated if she had students relate each assignment to something from their own life experiences. Students now write a paragraph or two offering opinions, examples, description, observations, experiences, etc. as appropriate for all of their writing assignments. Julie tries to choose topics that will connect them to the overall lesson, as a way to build upon the students' existing schema. This allows Julie to use the principles of the Quick Write in a slightly different manner.

Writing Revision Software

Writing revision software is a tool that students can use before they submit work. Julie expressed that, “it allows them to plop in their work and then, for example, analyzes and calculates all of the sentences that begin with the word well.” The software is intuitive and enables students to see, on their own, where a majority of their errors are originating. Using the software provided students have an opportunity to fix any errors before submitting their work to the teacher.

The writing revision software used at MVS is part of the SAS Curriculum Pathways educational arm. At present, Julie does not require her students to use it. However, she is in the process of incorporating it into several of her courses. She plans to have students use this revision software for every essay assignment in her courses, allowing students to consider making suggested changes before submitting their assignment. Julie also believes non-ELA instructors would benefit from using the revision editor with their students; as the demand for non-ELA teachers to focus on writing increases, and many may not have effective strategies to help students revise their writing.


While the importance placed on writing has increased in recent years (Yore, Hand & Prain, 1999), less time is spent on writing instruction (Hurwitz & Hurwitz, 2004; National Commission on Writing, 2003) and students continue to score poorly on writing assessments (US Department of Education, 2007). Interestingly, a survey of employers who hire high school graduates reported that 73% found the writing skills of these employees to be “poor” or “fair” (Public Agenda, 2002). This was likely due to the fact that only 49% of high school seniors reported to completing writing assignments of three pages or greater in length. The systematic approach to writing exhibited by Julie is one way to use the tools provided by the online environment to address these issues and focus on improving students’ ability to express themselves in the written format.


Balcazar, F., Hopkins, F., & Suarez, W. (1985). A critical objective view of performance feedback. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 7(3-4), 65-89.

Chapanis, A. (1964). Knowledge of performance as an incentive in repetitive monotonous tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 48, 263-267.

Fathman, A.K. & Whalley, E. (1990). Teacher response to student writing: focus on form versus content. In B. Kroll (Ed.), Second language writing: Research insights for the classroom (178-190). Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Hurwitz, N. & Hurwitz, S. (2004). Words on paper. American School Board Journal, 191(3), 17-26. Retrieved from

Ilgen, D.R., Fisher, C.D., & Taylor, M.S. (1979). Consequences of individual feedback on behavior in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 64(4), 361. Louisiana Public Broadcasting. (2009). Literacy strategies: The Quick Write. Baton Rouge, LA. Retrieved from

National Commission of Writing. (2003). The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Entrance Examination Board. Retrieved from

Project Zero. (2009). History of Project Zero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from

Public Agenda. (2002). What happened to the three “Rs”? New York: Author. Retrieved from

US Department of Education. (2007). The nation’s report card. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Yore, L.D., Hand, B., & Prain, V. (1999). Writing to learn science: Breakthroughs, barriers, & promises. Paper presented at the international conference of the Association for Educating Teachers in Science, Austin, TX (Eric Document Reproduction Service No.



Wayne State University
Instructional Technology at Wayne State University
Michigan Virtual School