A transactional view of composition instruction: The rhetorical effects of teacher written comments on eight tenth graders and the revision of their essays

Date of Completion

January 1996


Education, Language and Literature|Education, Tests and Measurements|Education, Secondary|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




Teaching has been described as a rhetorical art (Grant-Davie & Shapiro, 1987; Lindemann, 1983), a verbal performance designed to evoke specific positive responses from an audience of students. Composition teachers almost universally employ written comments in order to encourage revision and facilitate improvement in student writing. Unfortunately, teacher comments seldom work as intended (Dohrer, 1991; MacDonald, 1991). They can even have a distinctly negative effect, not only on student willingness to revise an individual piece but also on student attitudes towards writing in general (Cleary, 1991a).^ Founded in composition research, motivation studies, and transactional theory, this "collective case study" (Stake, 1994) explored the nature and effects of the transaction which occurs when a teacher's written comments are read and experienced by students. The inquiry focused on eight students in a mixed ability, tenth grade English class, selected by the teacher on the basis of their "coachability," that is, their demonstrated willingness and ability to use her feedback in the process of revision. The "transactional cycle" was analyzed as each participant encountered a series of teacher comments written on drafts of a literature based essay she assigned the class.^ The methodology involved audiotaping of 30 semi-structured and in-depth interviews and inductive analysis of data from observations, tape transcripts, student drafts, and other documents. Within and across individual case narratives, comparisons were made between intent and interpretation of comments, and between responses of more and less coachable students. Individual comments were coded and analyzed according to number, location, focus, mode, and efficacy. The result is a fuller understanding of how teacher written feedback works and how it might be more effective.^ Cross-case findings highlighted the common characteristics among the transactions, and the effects of comments in various modes. Teacher and student expectations, the student concept of revision, student-teacher relationships, and comment mode were all factors influencing the outcomes. The development of a commenting theory and strategy for each student proved highly effective. Over 70% of teacher comments prompted revisions, with 56% achieving effects the teacher intended. Most frequently used and most effective were probing/prompting comments (questions) with response and efficacy ratings of 76% and 62%, respectively. ^