INTRODUCTION:  I teach freshman English, and for years I have tried to engage my students in the proofreading process.  The results, however, have been less than satisfying.  At the mention of “proofreading,” they become squirrelly, and the idea of “errors” reminds them they aren’t good enough.  To remedy the problem, I have developed a lively proofreading activity that teaches the need for precise communication, creates tips on proofreading, encourages peer review, improves writing (and grades), and tackles the problem of writing errors in a fun, active, and positive way.  Plus, it makes my job of grading easier.  This activity is appropriate for any class where polished writing is required.


  • To motivate students to proofread
  • To develop proofreading skills and habits
  • To develop peer and college support networks
  • To improve student writing


  • Students come to class with their essay on the day it’s due
  • Chalk and chalkboard
  • Pencils
  • A bag of small prizes (Post-its, pens, candy, gum, old textbooks, notepads, whatever you can find)


1.  Three Questions (10-15 minutes)

A. Before students hand in their papers, form groups of three or four.  Say: “I am going to write three questions on the board.  I would like you to come up with as many answers as possible to the questions.”  Write the first question: “Why is writing correct Standard English important?”  Then instruct them to discuss possible answers with their partners for two minutes.  Challenge them to think deeply: “Who cares if there’s a typo, a spelling error, a comma in the wrong place?  What does it really matter?”  Afterward, solicit answers and discuss as a whole group. 

B. Write the next question: “Why do we make errors?”  Explain: “If we know that we would benefit from writing correct Standard English in college, then why don’t we?  Discuss with your partners.”  After two minutes, solicit reasons.

C. Write the final question: “How do we get rid of errors?”  After two minutes, solicit answers.  Push responses to go beyond the obvious.  TIP: Use examples of your own writing errors throughout this discussion. 

In each of the questions above, attempt to draw out practical answers from your students. For example, “Writing Standard English is important because it can help you get a good job.”

2.  Proofreading (10-15 minutes)

A. Collect students’ final drafts and say, “Now, we’re going to do two things: we’re going to proofread our papers and,” say with excitement, “we’re going to have a contest with prizes!”  (Don’t tell them what the contest is; let the suspense build.)  “First, the proofreading.  We’re going to proofread each other’s essays in a very specific way.”

B. On the blackboard, draw the outline of a page showing margins and a paragraph inside the margins.  Then write a misspelled word within the paragraph.  Explain: “If you see an error…and by error I mean punctuation, grammar, spelling, typo, missing word, extra word, etc….then, in pencil, place a small question mark in the margin on the line where the error occurs.  Do not correct or indicate where the error is except by the question mark in the margin.  That way, when the writer gets his paper back, he’ll see the question mark in the margin and know you’ve spotted an error on the line adjacent to the question mark.  By finding the error himself, he will sharpen his proofreading skills better than if you’d merely corrected the error.”  Emphasize that they are not editing for style issues, only errors. If multiple errors occur on the line, then multiple question marks go on the line.

C.  Randomly distribute essays, along with pencils to those who need them.  Repeat the question mark instruction.  Then tell them: “If you are not 100% sure there’s an error, raise your hand and I’ll help you decide.  When you receive the essay, begin.”  Help those who have questions.  Lavish compliments when errors are found.

3.  Contest (15-20 minutes)

A. After five minutes, tell them to stop.  Say: “Remember I said we were going to have a contest?  It’s time.”  Find two people who have calculators.  Explain to the class: “In a moment, each one of you will count the question marks you’ve recorded.  Then we’ll add up all the question marks for the entire class.  The contest is to see who can guess the closest to the total number of question marks we’ve all put down.  Prizes go to the top three winners!”  (Exaggerate how great the prizes are; this adds to the game-show effect.)

B. Start on one side of the room and ask each student to guess how many total question marks the class has made.  Write each number on the board in the order of the seating arrangement, so you’ll know which number belongs to each student.

C. Then tell the students to count the errors in the papers they are proofing. Go around the room having the students say his or her number.  Have the students with the calculators add the numbers and give the total count.  Circle the top three winners. 

D. Make a big show of the awards—“cheesy game show host” works—as though the prizes are really special.  After you review the prizes, allow first place the first choice, second place, second choice, etc.  Once the prizes are awarded, point out the number of errors that were found in just five minutes.  “Imagine how many more we could find in ten minutes.  Keep proofing.  When you finish, raise your hand and I’ll get you another essay.”  Continue the proofreading until each essay has been read at least twice.

4.  Correcting (10-15 minutes)

A. Return essays to their authors.  Comfort those with lots of question marks by saying some of the question marks may be wrong or repetitive errors. 

B. For students who don’t have a lot of question marks, caution that it doesn’t mean errors are not present. 

C. Instruct them to erase question marks as they make corrections, and to be careful they are correcting the error and not making a new error.  Encourage them to help one another and to ask for your help.  

5.  Offer (5 minutes)

A. Make this offer: “If you are ready to turn in your essay, then I’ll collect it at the end of the period.  However, if you’d like more time to get rid of the errors, I will give you until next week to turn in your essay, without a late penalty.” 

B. Collect essays if turned in.  Or collect the following week. 


This proofreading activity works beautifully.  The answers to the three questions that begin the activity first seem obvious.  Some of the groups stopped their discussion early, but I prompted them that there were deeper insights to be found.  For example, that our language represents where we’re from and that for many groups, language acts as a gatekeeper at school and work.  Inevitably, in the class discussion of these prompts, where and how we learned language, the differences between written and spoken words, the motivation we have “to get it right,” and the many methods of correcting errors came out.

When I told the class we were going to proofread, many groaned.  They saw their essays as finished and didn’t want anyone writing on them.  The small, penciled question marks made the proofreading notation less permanent, and that appeased those who were “certain” their essays were error free.  Once we were into the proofing, I constantly answered questions for students who were unsure if an error had occurred.  I listened to descriptions of why they thought it was an error, and when they were right, I complimented them.  Sometimes they knew something was wrong but didn’t know why; in those cases I articulated the problem and complimented them.  And when there was no error, I often could tell them that their instinct was correct, but that in the case before them it was more stylistically weak than “incorrect.”  For the most part, the students read closely.  Sometimes when I knew a student was having a hard time finding errors, I would read with the student and point out errors that I noticed.  If a student finished, I would look over the essay as I was handing it to another student. 

The break for the contest surprised the students.  They welcomed it with smiles and laughter.  Every student guessed, and when the total number of errors was given (123 in one class and 97 in another), I noted surprise from the students.  The awards ceremony was quite humorous, and when we were through with the contest, the point of why we were doing this was made clear by the number of errors: “We found 123 errors in five minutes.  Imagine what we can find in the next ten minutes.”  The students returned to the proofreading willingly.

After the essays were handed back to the original owners, I saw students trying to find the errors represented by the question marks: they made corrections, they raised their hands for my help, they helped each other.  I noted that some students with a lot of errors appeared worried, overwhelmed even, so I tried to allay their fears (these students were usually those I would need to work with closely throughout the term if they were to succeed) and offer additional help (conferences, tutors). 

At the end of these two classes, only five out of forty students turned in their essays.  Some turned in their essays the next class, and the rest turned in their essays the following week.  Most students printed a new draft after the proofreading. 


When compared to the question-mark-riddled “final” draft that we proofread, the final version showed many corrected errors.  In some essays, dozens of errors were eliminated.  Because of the corrections, the writing was clearer and grades were higher.  A few students sometimes made what they thought were corrections, and therefore added to the errors on their papers.  But this was rare.  One student didn’t correct any of the question marks, and his paper suffered as a result.  In cases where I could see the student was having a difficult time correcting errors, I asked the student to set up a conference with me so we could work on a strategy to improve his or her success.

I repeated this activity (minus introductory discussions and the game) for the five essays we wrote that term in both my Communications I classes.  At the end of the term, I administered a survey to the two classes to determine what the students’ opinions were of the proofreading activity.  Of the 28 students who answered, here are the results:

  • 26 thought the activity helped them earn a higher essay grade; 2 didn’t
  • 24 corrected the errors after the proofreading; 3 didn’t, 1 sometimes
  • 24 thought using the question marks caused them to look more carefully for their errors than if the errors had been simply corrected; 4 chose “other”
  • 22 thought they became better proofreaders; 3 didn’t, 3 chose “other”
  • 22 recommended the activity for other teachers (history, social sciences, etc.) who use writing in their curriculum; 5 didn’t, 1 chose “other.”
  • 26 recommended writing teachers use the activity in Com I and Com II; 1 didn’t, 1 chose “other.”

In the final question, I asked the students to give their thoughts in a short-answer format.  The comments were overwhelmingly positive:

  • “I truly believe it is a great way to make you examine your work more carefully.  There are plenty of sources to get help in understanding what you might have done wrong . . . teacher, learning labs, grammar books, etc.”
  •  “I realized my papers could have been better [. . .] I loved the proofreading and extended deadline!!!”
  • “[The extended deadline] gave me time to proofread myself and use a writing tutor to correct any mistakes I overlooked.”
  • “The proofreading activity taught me to look for errors in my paper (from the ?s) and find them to help others, causing me to become a better proofreader.  At the same time, it relieved a little bit of stress knowing that I could fix it.”
  • “[. . . the proofreading activity] brings out the best in everyone.  Helps people correct their papers and improve on proofreading for future courses.”
  • “It could possibly be the reason I will pass.”
  • “It gave students a chance to go over minor details one last time.  Boosted confidence in writing without rushing into it.”
  • “I really liked the proofreading activity because it gave me an opportunity to help others achieve a better grade.”

Two comments reveal why the activity may not have been as useful to some:

“Personally, it did not help me very much,” one student wrote.  This student—according to question 8, which asked about class grades—was earning an “A” in the course.  The student may have had mostly correct essays.  The student adds, though, “but I do know that it helps other people dramatically.” 

Another student wrote “Proofreading is helpful in some ways, but when students don’t know grammar and punctuation, then it doesn’t help, or when they just mark on the paper to make it seem as though they are working.”  This comment implies two things: (1) once students are handed back their question-marked filled essay, they may be unsure how to fix it and (2) during the proofreading, some may feel intimidated that they can’t find any errors.  Both of these issues are something we need to be sensitive to when facilitating the activity.  For these students I try to help them during the proofreading activity, finding and explaining errors, and recognizing their successes when they do find mistakes.  Also, after the proofreading, if someone has a lot of question marks, I find it helpful to suggest a follow-up conference.


Like my students, I also benefited from this activity.  First, it gave me insight into why each student made writing errors—lack of proofreading skills, time, focus, unaware of rules, etc.  It also gave me numerous individual teaching moments, in class and in follow-up conferences.  An unexpected benefit was not having all the essays turned in on the due date.  Not being bombarded with 40 papers at once was psychologically appealing to me.  Those who handed in their work the first day received their graded essays back the next class.  Spreading out the grading eased the pressure I felt to return their work promptly.  Also, I saved time by not having to respond to as many errors.  From my perspective, this activity benefited all parties.  It takes time, but teachers—no matter what discipline—who want polished writing from their students will find the returns for their efforts are well worth the class time spent.

–Mark McBride, Faculty, Communications & Coordinator, College Success, Eastern Florida State College, FL 

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