Written Feedback: Using Color-Coded Comments

Anyone who teaches writing most likely has something to say about responding to student writing. Some might like it and others hate it; some might find it effective while others think it’s pointless. But whatever the views and opinions are, I believe all writing teachers would agree with Dana Ferris that response to student writing is “one of the most challenging aspects of the writing instructor’s job” (Ferris, 2007, p. 165).

The research base in this area is comprehensive and contains a variety of inquiry directions, the most common of which are related to types of feedback—explicit or implicit, direct or indirect, focused or unfocused, written or oral. Strictly speaking, studies on all these various types of feedback pursue one major goal—to make it effective for students.

I’d like to share an approach that I found helpful for my students. It’s based on the idea of categorizing response comments, and it’s super simple. I came up with this idea when I realized that sometimes students confuse the purpose of a particular comment, and, as a result, they make a wrong revision or simply ignore the comment altogether. For example, a frequent comment that many teachers make, “Could you try explaining it differently?”, can be understood by students as “There is something wrong with my grammar/sentence structure” or as “The meaning of this sentence is not clear.” Then there are also so-called “reader’s comments,”or, in other words, our reactions to the text, which normally don’t call for any action on the part of the writer, as they are simply “thinking aloud” comments; these might confuse students as the students might assume that the commented part requires revision.

So, I came up with the following classification. I classified my comments into four major categories. I also color-coded each of these categories to make it more visual for students:

C—content (green)
O—organization (purple)
L—language (blue)
R—reader’s remark (yellow)

The choice of colors is arbitrary, of course, and you can create your own color combinations. Here is the definition of each category that I share with students:

C: Content (green): Comments that relate to the content of your essay, usually suggesting some revisions/additions in the content (e.g., ideas, supporting details).

O: Organization (purple): Comments about organization (e.g., flow of your ideas, paragraph structure, transition words)

L: Language (blue): Comments that relate to linguistic elements of your writing, such as grammar and word choice.

R: Reader’s remark (yellow): Comments that I make as a reader, not as a teacher. They are my “thinking aloud” comments, my reactions to your ideas. These comments do not require any action from you.

I found that this simple categorization not only helps students understand the “point” of each comment, but it also helps them identify the most frequent problems in their writing. That is, if the draft contains lots of purple “O” comments, this means they have to focus on organization of their ideas. And once again, the visual component of this classification is an advantage.

Here is an example of a student draft with teacher color-coded comments in the margins.

Please feel free to share ideas and strategies that you use when responding to student writing.


Ferris, D. (2007). Preparing teachers to respond to student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16(3), 165-193.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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