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Musical Papers: Engaging Students in Revising and Editing

By Mary Blow on September 28, 2010
  • Grades: 6–8


When a student writes a rough draft, they are demonstrating their level of independent writing. However, it is when a student engages in revising and editing that the real growth begins. It is not easy to engage students in the revising and editing processes. It is one of my toughest challenges. I have had students hand in replicas of their rough drafts, neatly written as final copies. Sound familiar? So, how did I get my students to walk into my classroom this week and ask if they could revise and edit for a second day in a row?





IMG_5167 Last week, I taught my students how to engage in "musical papers," a peer review process. It is like musical chairs, except I don’t remove a chair. While the music is playing, the students navigate around the room. When the music stops, the students stop, find a desk with a paper, and begin analyzing their classmate's paper. Middle school students love music; however, when I designed musical papers, I didn’t realize how powerful it would be. The students love getting out of their seats, bebopping around the room, and stopping long enough to evaluate each other’s writing. The key to success in musical papers is knowing your students’ taste in music. If you aren’t sure what they like, survey them. If you play music they like, they will engage.


50_writing_lessons_that_work_001 ESTABLISHING WRITING GOALS
I introduce musical papers when I first teach sentence structure. Sentences are short, which supports students of all abilities as they learn to engage in the peer review process. I provide the students with a list of editing symbols and a checklist: capital letters at the beginning of the sentence, detailed subjects, vivid predicates, and ending punctuation. I use the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing: ideas, voice, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions. The Traits of Writing give us a common language to use when discussing writing strengths and weaknesses. During writer's workshop, the mini-lesson focuses on an area of weakness that is present with my largest population of students. Scholastic publishes two great revising and editing mini-lesson resources that may help you in planning instruction that meets your students’ needs:

  1. 50 Writing Lessons That Work! by Carol Rawlings Miller
  2. Revision Mini-Lessons by Sarah J. Glasscock

When I conference with students, I provide additional individualized instruction. Whether it is a mini-lesson or an individualized lesson, students are responsible for demonstrating the new skill in their writing as well as previously learned skills. Whatever the lesson outcome, I provide explicit directions and a rubric or a checklist to guide my students in the peer review process.


Before engaging in musical papers, the students need peer review skills. I created a peer review editing checklist to guide them in using editing symbols during the review process, so they share a common language. They also need to know how to be effective and supportive reviewers, so the author is not offended and will continue to take risks in writing. Students also need training on how to receive constructive criticism. Annenberg offers a fabulous free online workshop that guides teachers through the writing workshop process, Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers. "Workshop 7: Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer," guides teachers in establishing a constructive and supportive peer-to-peer review. They also provide a free online video for additional support.


(Download musical papers lesson plan.)

Editing_marks_grade_3-6 Materials

  1. Student rough drafts
  2. My editing guide (grades 6–8) or Scholastic Printables editing symbols (Grades 3–6)
  3. Scotch tape (optional) 
  4. Colored pens and/or pencils
  5. Music, from CDs, YouTube, iTunes, Pandora (free customizable Internet radio station), etc.
  6. Timer
  7. Rubric or revision checklist


  1. Review the writing goals for the assignment.
  2. Review the rubric or revision checklist.
  3. Students clear off the desk and leave just the checklist and their papers on the desk. Taping them to the desk ensures that reviewers don’t accidentally take them.
  4. Give each student a colored pen or pencil and a copy of the editing symbols sheet for reference.
  5. All students stand and push in their chairs.    
  6. Model the direction that everyone will be traveling.
  7. When the music starts, the students walk around the room.
  8. When the music stops, they quickly find a seat at a desk.
  9. The teacher sets the timer and the students begin reviewing.
  10. The reviewer reads the paper and provides feedback using editing symbols. Before leaving the desk, each student signs his or her name as the reviewer.
  11. When the timer goes off, the students get up and push in their chairs.
  12. The music starts again and the students circulate to the music.
  13. Repeat steps 5–12 until each student has reviewed at three different papers.
  14. After the third review, students return to their own seats.
  15. Set the timer for a time that is appropriate for the length of the writing piece.
  16. Each student reads the reviewers’ comments. If they have any questions, the author has time to seek the reviewer for clarification,
  17. The authors revise and edit.
  18. When they finish, they whisper read their text, so they can hear the music of their words.


Flounder_student_sample When we finish musical papers, the students engage in whisper reading. This is a time for the authors to hear the music of the written language. At the middle school level, students are self-conscious, and therefore, reluctant to read their writing aloud. Whisper reading with their ears plugged alleviates their concerns because they don't have to speak loudly. If students make any corrections or use editing marks during whisper reading, they do not count against them. Pictured here are student samples of the SAT vocabulary sentences we used to train in peer reviewing. Notice how they provide positive feedback as well as constructive criticism.

Guerillas_&_buffoon_student_sampleWhen introducing whisper reading, I have every other student put their elbows on their desk, plug his or her ears, and read while their neighbor listens. This proves to them that others cannot hear them. The listener gives a thumbs up, indicating when they can hear the reader. The readers are surprised that their neighbors cannot hear them when their voice is so loud in their head. They also marvel at how many “silly” mistakes they find while they are reading, which makes me happy.

Comments (9)

If I had the chance to write Mary Blow, I will tell her the students will get better the more they do it. Before I got better, I took the Artist Way course with Julia Cameron for 2-3 years, I was a student and still learning from other books. But the Musical Papers is nice.

Thanks, Cathy. Another aspect I really like is that the students never know whose paper they will be reviewing. The get exposed to writing on different levels. ~Enjoy, Mary

Well that is what I call EFFECTIVE TEACHING. PEER REVIEW TRAINING and MUSICAL PAPERS LESSON are simply out of the world ideas for my students. This gonna work for me greatly. Thanks Thesis Papers

Thanks, Nora. I'd be happy to hear how it turns out. Be prepared to have a long list of song requests. ~Good Luck, Mary

Musical Papers! I LOVE THIS. I'm using this with my community college students next week!

Nicole, Thank you for sharing that. You are absolutely right. I teach my sixth graders that revision is like a consruction zone. You add, move, change, and delete text. I explain that editing is more like tuning a piano. The piano plays, but it needs refinement: check for spelling, capitals, grammar, etc. ~Mary

Hi Mary,

I think we need to distinctly teach our students the difference between revising and editing. These are two very different processes with very different purposes.

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