Questions in commentary serve a three-fold purpose. First, they place the teacher in the more friendlier role of a coach than a critic. Second, they let students know that their teacher is interested in their writing. Third, they require and encourage writers to think. To elaborate on the first purpose, commentary in the form of questions projects a different tone from imperatives. Consider the two comments "Could you develop this idea?" and "Develop this idea." Both refer to the same writing problem but the tone of the former is more supportive. Questions rather than demands suggest to students that their teacher is there to help them learn besides being their evaluator. Commenting with a supportive tone also shows respect for students who are in the process of learning how to write more effectively. Also, phrasing commentary in the form of questions indirectly suggests the necessity for a change and keeps writers in control. They choose whether or not to answer the questions raised by their teachers and their writing remains their own. When acknowledging imperative comments, however, students place themselves in an almost obedient role and fix what their teachers see as wrong in the paper.
Forming commentary into questions communicates a teacher's interest in the student's writing. Sensing a teacher's interest from the commentary is important to some students. Most student writers at some point in their experience create something that they are extremely proud of, something which is the product of hard work and hard thinking. Because of the effort put into the paper, the student is interested in how the teacher will respond and react to the ideas, hopefully positively, and "positively" does not necessarily translate to receiving an A grade. When the teacher returns the paper the comments pertain to only grammatical issues, nothing or very little concerning the content, almost as if the comments could appear on a paper about a different topic. This situation is quite disappointing to a motivated and interested writer. Connors and Lunsford look to this behavior of teachers with disappointment: "Just as students invent the university every time they write, teachers invent not only a student writer but a responder every time they comment" (214). Teachers construct themselves as a general and objective judge and their comments appear disinterested. A teacher needs to assume the role of an interested reader and respond to each assignment individually, easily achieved by asking text-specific questions. (Click here to see an example of text-specific questions)
The third purpose of phrasing commentary as questions instead of imperatives is that questions require and encourage the writer to think. Imperatives are limiting; their linguistic structure contains a beginning and an ending. A comment I wrote in my first commentary exercise in 376 reads, "Avoid clichés." This tells the student the cliché needs to be deleted. Period. A facilitative approach to this comment would be:
You may want to consider avoiding clichés such as 'short and sweet' in a formal, persuasive essay. Expressing an idea originally is oftentimes more effective. Can you think of a way to describe this idea in your own words?
This comment does three things unlike the former: one, it lets the student rightfully maintain control, by giving her the option to revise; two, it explains why clichés are inappropriate for a persuasive essay; three, it does not stop with the last punctuation mark, but continues, engaging the writer into thinking how she might express the idea originally in her paper and perhaps into thinking more generally about the theory of why original expression is more effective than clichés. Questions, especially open-ended, are interactive. They require students to seriously work with existing ideas in their writing as well incorporate new ideas.
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