Check your work!

How to check your writing effectively.

Teachers often tell their students of the importance of checking their work.

“Always check your work.”
“Make sure you leave enough time to check your answers.”
“Don’t forget to read back what you’ve written.”

But telling has very little effect when students don’t know what it means or how to do it properly.

What mostly results from this insistence is that students spend time simply scanning over what they’ve written with no direction and little effect.

So how can we help  our learners make their self-checking more impactful?

An image of a red pen marking corrections in a typed text.

3 Tips for Better Checking

1. Take a break

One of the main reasons that self-checking is so often ineffective is that when we think we’re reading our work, we’re actually not. Instead of reading your work, you’re actually just remembering it. This means that, though your eyes are moving across the page, you’re really just recalling what you know you wrote. Or rather, what you intended to write. Your perfect intentions obscure the imperfect result. This is why you miss so many errors when checking your work, even though you might be much better at picking up errors in somebody else’s writing.

One way to overcome this is to take a break between writing and checking. At the very least, when you finish writing something, you should go and have a coffee or a cup of tea. Even better if you can go for a walk or spend some time on another task. Best of all, leave it until the next day. Of course, we often don’t have that sort of time available to wait before, for example, sending an urgent email or submitting a report to a deadline. But the key principle is to give yourself long enough to essentially forget what you wrote. This way, when you read your work, you’ll be doing so with fresh eyes and actually processing what’s on the page.

2. Read aloud

Partly an extension to the previous point and partly something different, reading your work aloud is much more effective than reading silently. 

So much of reading is prediction. Whenever an effective reader tackles an unfamiliar text, the way they’re able to read fairly quickly is by predicting (subconsciously) what’s coming. So when we read, we only really half-read. This is how a text can sometimes surprise you by taking an unexpected turn, or why the following sentences are so jarring:

“The old man the boat.”

“the florist sent the flowers blushed.”

Apart from in examples like these, which take a sharp and drastic turn mid-sentence, our predictive approach to reading means that we can gloss over a lot. This is useful when you’re reading a poorly written text, because you can overlook inaccuracies to piece together the intended meaning. But when you’re checking your own work, it can directly undermine your efforts!

When you read aloud, you’re (almost) forced to slow down and read each word individually. I say almost because our prediction can still override our reading even when reading aloud, but not quite as much.

The other reason that reading aloud is an effective approach to checking is because it allows you to not just read your work but to hear it as well. Often, we notice errors in language because something “just doesn’t sound right”. Reading aloud engages your auditory processing in the endeavour alongside your visual processing. 

3. Search, don’t sweep

Often, the instruction to “check your work” leads to a rather aimless act of scanning—looking without looking. This is because the student doesn’t really know what he is looking for. Self-checking is much more effective when it is directed. 

Students should be encouraged not merely to “check their work” but to “look for” specific errors and elements. Learners might be advised to look for known, common spelling errors, misused articles, disagreeing verbs and tenses, run on sentences, etc. Ideally, teachers will help individual learners identify their most frequent mistakes and devise a shortlist of errors to look out for. It’s a good idea, I think, to have around three targets when checking. This turns a quick scan into a dedicated search and is likely to yield much better results.

This approach also allows the learner to be more self-aware, both of focus areas and of progress. If a learner specifically looks for articles every time he checks his work, and over time notices that the errors are decreasing in frequency, then he will be able to measure progress and might eventually decide to pick a different area to focus on. Fixing one thing at a time this way is a reliable method for long-term improvement in writing.

Strategies for Checking in Exams

It is leading up to exams that students are perhaps most frequently and most passionately reminded to check their work. Unfortunately, some of the tips suggested above are not so useful in an exam setting. Probably the most valuable of the three tips above is the first one, but of course formal exams are typically characterised by time limits. Students can’t afford to take a break from their work before checking it when the clock is ticking away. And reading aloud is expressly forbidden under normal exam conditions, where absolutely silence is expected at all times, enforced by watchful invigilators. Even without such rules, reading aloud in an exam would be distracting to he other students and thus inconsiderate anyway.

So what can be done to overcome these limitations? Here are two more suggestions in lieu of taking breaks and reading aloud:

1. Read backwards

Among the most impressive things I have ever seen is Chris Martin of the band Coldplay learning the lyrics to his song The Scientist in reverse, so that he could record the song backwards and have the video played back-to-front. Fortunately for you, that is not what I mean here.

The value of taking a break is to overcome the problem of remembering instead of reading. As you read through a piece, you tend to ignore what is actually on the paper in black and white and recite what you thought you had written instead. Taking a break allows you to forget what you wrote. When you don’t have time for a break, you need to find another way to impede your memory of the text.

One thing you can do is read each paragraph individually from the last to the first or else in a random order, so that you do not get into the flow of what you initially wrote.

2. Perform (silently)

Though you cannot read aloud in an exam, you can attempt to capture the same benefits by putting some performance into your silent reading. Silly as it may seem, reading in your head with a dramatic intonation or even an accent can help you slow down and read each individual word rather than just scanning over the surface of the text. Try a regional accent or the voice of a character from your favourite film.

At least, if nothing else, it will inject a little fun into the proceedings!

What works for you?

These are tips I give to my learners and strategies I try to use myself as a writer. But there are certain to be other suggestions out there from both learners and teachers.

Leave your self-check strategies in the comments below…

Next Article: Take notes!

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