Trends in SLW: Electronic Forms of Response

It’s a never-ending issue for anyone who teaches writing: How do I provide my students with enough feedback that they can learn and improve their skills without spending so much time that I can’t do anything else in my life? Images of red pens and cryptic codes scrawled in the margins reflect common response practices that almost all of us experienced as students and that many of us have utilized in our own teaching of writing.

In this post, I share a few electronic tools that might make response to writing more efficient and effective.

Microsoft Word: Track Changes and Comments

Tried-and-true tools for electronically submitted assignments are Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments. Turn on Track Changes and you can edit (adding, deleting, or modifying text) and show readers what changes you made. Although similar to what teachers often do with a pen, this tool lets students accept or reject changes. In Comments, we can highlight text and write notes in the margin of the document. An advantage of both tools over handwriting is that the typed comments are completely legible and could be copied into a translation program should students not understand what you are asking.

Google Docs

More recently, Google Docs has brought the same features onto the internet. Google Docs’ “Suggesting” mode, like Word’s Track Changes feature, allows teachers to mark up electronic documents. An improvement over their Word counterparts, these tools allow students to see comments on the same document they have been working with (avoiding the confusion of emailing multiple versions of a document back and forth). In addition, teachers and students can have a written dialogue in the comments, allowing students to negotiate their intended meanings. Google Docs can be used for peer response as well, where the teacher can follow students’ commentary.

iPad Tools

Grouling (2018) explored ways that iPad tools could change how teachers provide comments on student writing. Using the tools available in Notability, teachers could write on student texts with a stylus or type in comments, moving the process toward personalized handwritten comments. Using the stylus allowed teachers to circle and underline parts of the text in ways that could not be accomplished with the more limited tools in Word, for example. Other apps that allow similar annotations on PDF documents from tablets include pdf-notes for iPadUPAD, iAnnotate, and qPDF Notes (some of these apps also allow for audio commentary).

Audio Commentary

Audio commentary can further engage students who dislike written commentary. For example, Ahern-Dodson and Reisinger (2017) used a PDF annotating program that allows for typed and handwritten commentary, while the teacher recorded audio comments as mp3 files. They found that a teacher produced three times as many words in her audio comments as in written comments, using a more conversational tone, asking more questions, and providing more options (rather than commands) to student writers. Analysis showed that the audio comments engaged more with the writer than text alone. Students also preferred the audio comments over written comments. Some PDF readers allow audio comments (such as in Adobe Acrobat or Preview), as do some PDF annotation apps, like DocAS Lite.

Teachers are discovering many other exciting new approaches to providing feedback on their students’ writing. Have you tried screencasting your commentary, for example? Share your ideas in the comments!


 Ahern-Dodson, J., & Reisinger, D. (2017). Moving beyond corrective feedback: (Re)engaging with student writing in L2 through audio response. Journal of Response to Writing, 3(1). Retrieved from

Grouling, J. (2018). The genre of teacher comments from hard-copy to iPad. Journal of Response to Writing, 4(1). Retrieved from

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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2 Responses to Trends in SLW: Electronic Forms of Response

  1. Laura H Porter says:

    I recently discovered Screencastify which is a great audio recorder that makes a video of the screen as you talk, so you can highlight changes and provide commentary for students to review. Recordings come to your Google Drive, where they can be shared with students. The free version allows up to 50 recordings/ month, max 10 minutes/ video. Students have really liked getting feedback this way!!!

  2. Excellent resources listed here, Betsy. I find that posting comments on google docs is helpful if there are other teachers, parents, tutors, afterschool programs etc. that work with the students. In that way, all participants can see what I am looking for in subsequent revisions. In response to your question, I have found Screencastify, which is a google chrome extension, currently my most useful tool for responding to the writing of my middle school long-term ELs. It is easy to use and I can respond to a student’s work in less time than if I was responding in writing. For my students at least, it is more effective than audio, or even one to one conferences. The best part is the student can watch and listen to it as many times as they need to. In addition, they will have a record of screencasts of your response to their writing and can see patterns in their own writing which I think will develop greater autonomy in the long run.

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