What Every Instructor Should Know about Providing Feedback on Writing

(c) 2014 Jupiterimages

(c) 2014 Jupiterimages

By Chrissine Rios, KUWC ELL Support

Instructors teaching Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) know that writing and learning go together—writing is a method for acquiring content, and providing feedback on the writer’s purpose, ideas, and use of information helps students think more critically and write more substantively about the subject matter.

Yet sentence grammar and making meaning also go hand-in-hand, so feedback on sentence-level concerns also helps cultivate strong academic writers. English Language Learners, especially, need feedback that improves their command over the English language, and this means WAC instructors should be versed in sentence fundamentals, beginning with English word order.

English has a fixed, Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order.  

In a sentence, the subject comes first, the verb second, and if the sentence uses a transitive (action) verb, an object receives the action of the verb and completes the thought.


  • Astronomers discovered a new planet.
  • Children should not watch violence on television.
  • Bears hibernate.

Subjects can be nouns, noun phrases, infinitives, or gerunds:


Providing feedback on sentences with missing subjects and verbs:

A sentence without a subject or verb is often labeled a fragment and treated like a punctuation error whereas connecting the rogue phrase to the sentence before or after it will solve the problem. Unfortunately, all incomplete sentences aren’t as easily labeled or fixed as illustrated by these examples from an ELL graduate student paper:

  • During the first two weeks lost of Davis to the team.
  • With an expectation of having a project to be completed in eight weeks that normally would be longer.  
  • Jones under a time restraint of eight weeks, and low budget to accomplished product.

First, before commenting on any sentence, determine if it’s a pattern of error. Does it happen three or more times? If not, your feedback may not be needed. After a student has learned a new concept or strategy, it takes practice to make it a habit, let alone master it; meanwhile, mistakes happen. Pointing them out can deflate the student’s confidence and prevent further risk taking as trying something new, even if it’s the right way to do it, feels awkward and unnatural.

If it is a pattern of error, pick a representative sample and comment in the margin with the purpose of encouraging, instructing, and modeling a correction.

A sample comment might go something like this:

Writers use prepositional phrases to add details to a sentence as you have with “in eight weeks,” so you are on the right track with your details. However, prepositional phrases need to be attached to a main clause that has a subject and verb for the sentence to be complete and so readers know whom or what the sentence is about and what is happening.

Every sentence should therefore begin with a precise subject (usually a noun or noun phrase) and conjugated verb. 

Based on the details you have provided in the prepositional phrases throughout this passage, you are writing about an “expectation” for how long a project will take to complete, so as you revise, you may want to use “the expectation” or “the project” as the subject for the sentence.

Possible revisions [“modeling a correction” using the student’s wording as much as possible]:

  • The expectation was to have the project completed in ten weeks, although it normally takes longer.
  • The project was expected to take ten weeks to complete, although it would normally have taken longer.
  • The project should have taken longer than ten weeks to complete.

Notice that in each revision option, the sentence begins with a subject and a conjugated verb. As you revise, please double check that every sentence in your paper has a clearly stated subject and verb because missing sentence subjects and verbs make it hard for readers to understand what you mean. Please let me know if you have questions about these writing concepts. The Writing Center also has resources and tutors to help you with subjects and verbs.

In the next comment, more instruction could be given on verbs, as another pattern in this student’s paper is a mash-up of different verb forms, but in all, the comments would target no more than two or three issues. For a review of verb forms, click here, and feel free to share the resource with your students.

Although instructors do not need to become grammar experts to teach writing across the curriculum, feedback that targets specific writing and grammar concepts is more effective than a referral to the Writing Center for general “grammar help,” which can be ominous. Grammar is a large system of structures and concepts. If you aren’t sure what the specific problem is or how to articulate it, or if the issues are many, the subject and verb are good places to begin.

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