We all know how it feels to pick up a piece of student work to grade and not even be able to read it because it’s so messy.
This can be frustrating because, not only is it difficult to decipher, we can’t crawl into a student’s hand and get them to print and draw clearer. I know, it would be so much easier if we could. Like, why can’t you stay inside the lines?!
I kid, I kid, But seriously. There are a lot of things we can do to help support kids who have messy work. While we can really try to help them with fine motor skills in the younger years, at a certain point we have to provide them with alternatives so that they can be successful as they get older.
Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to support students who have messy work.
Of course, technology is one of the very best things we can offer to students who have messy work. Unless they choose some wonky gibberish font, we can actually read it!
I personally love using Google read and write, or similar technology because it allows for speech to text and text to speech.
Our students often struggle with getting their ideas out because they just have so many! So letting them speak their ideas out and have the computer pick them up is fantastic!
The text to speech is also great because students can hear back what they’ve written to see if it makes sense. Because let’s be honest, if they’re just blurting out ideas, they may not make the most sense!
Giving students this opportunity to edit and figure out how to make sense of ideas is an important skill to work on. For many of our kids, this can take a lot of practice, but it’s well worth it to become adept at technology they’ll likely be using for years to come.
PROVIDE COPIES OF NOTES
If a student’s notes are extremely messy and disorganized, it will be very difficult for them to refer back to them for practice or studying.
If you’re able to, provide them with types notes of what you’re learning in class. Then, these will already be organized in a logical order and students can simply write their own added notes directly onto them.
I do this for all students when I create any type of power point presentation. I ask them who would like a printed copy of the slides, then I just print out that many and give them to those students before we begin. I also give them the option of having me share a copy of the slides with them; then if they’re more tech savvy they have a digital copy.
If you are teaching some classes with heavy lecture components, I provide all students with typed notes beforehand, then they can actually spend time listening, asking questions, and we can have class discussions. This is much better for them to remember and intake the information rather than madly copying notes off the whiteboard.
REDUCE WRITTEN WORK
In some classes, we require a lot of pen to paper written work as assignments for students. This can be extremely challenging for students with messy and disorganized work.
Not to mention how challenging it is for us to actually read and grade it!
If there is another way for students to show you what they’ve learning and that they’ve met competencies you’re looking for, allow them to do this.
For example, rather than writing a full paragraph, they could draw a picture and give you a few sentences. Or they could explain work orally. Videos are also a great way to demonstrate knowledge.
Of course, this can’t always be done, especially in English language arts classes. But, do what you can to work with the student. If the amount of written output isn’t the thing being assessed, let them demonstrate how much they know without the extra struggle of writing thrown in there.
TEACH ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS
Many students have never learned how to be organized and don’t know where to start. This is a skill which comes very naturally to some, while others couldn’t care less.
Many times, though, this is a skill that can be learned and honed with practice and repetition.
With support from a teacher, an organized peer, or another adult, such as an educational assistant, students can learn how to be organized.
When I’m teaching elementary, I like to start out the year with a cleaning and organization day once a week. Usually on a Friday or a Monday we’ll clean out our desks, cubbies, binders, and so on. I will explicitly teach students how to organize their papers, books, binders, desks and so on.
When students need a bit more support with this, I will sit with them and we work together. In junior high, I do this every couple of weeks or so with my homeroom. Again, if a student has significant trouble in this area, I will check on them more often and give them hands-on support.
The more support students get from an adult and when they are taught these skills, the easier it is for them to grow this skill in themselves as time passes.
GIVE REWARD POINTS
If students need a bit more of an incentive to stay organized and keep their things clean, try to reward these skills.
You can have a notebook check once a week, once a month, or so on at your own discretion. This can be counted toward their work habits/organization grade, if you have an organization unit in Health, or so on. If there’s nothing you can correlate this to for actual grades, you could create a reward system of your own or incorporate these into one you already have.
For example, I know a teacher who uses fake money as her classroom reward system. Once a month she creates a “store” in her classroom for students to buy things. Having an organized desk, notebook, or so one could grant a student a dollar or two for a reward.
USE RUBBER GRIPS
Sometimes students’ work is messy because they have difficulty with fine motor skills and handling tools such as pencils and pens. They may find it uncomfortable to hold a pencil, or their joints may tire after an extended time.
Something such as a rubber or squishy pencil grip can help this quite a bit.
There are a lot of different types of pencil grips which you can use, from the simple, cheap squishy ones, to more intricate ones with specific spots for each finger.
Give students a few different styles to try out and see which one they prefer. They may need to try out quite a few to find one that works for them. And, hey, maybe none will work, as long as you try to see if there is something you can do to support them.
ALLOW USE OF A SCRIBE
I avoid using a scribe when I can, because I feel like students are missing out on building organization and editing skills. However, sometimes they’re the best option.
Many of my students don’t have the articulation skills to use speech to text, so a scribe is a better option for them.
Be careful about using a scribe because students may become too reliant on them, and if you are not the person scribing, you don’t necessarily know how much support the scribe has given them.
This is a tool which will require you to use a lot of judgement for how much and how little support to give. You never want to deny a student a support they need, but you also don’t want to over-support and have them learn any type of helplessness. I suggest always being the scribe when you can, and don’t scribe for a student unless they absolutely need it.
As a child becomes more independent, I will often start their sentences for them, but then let them finish it, until they can eventually write primarily on their own. Of course, this will look different for all students, and some may always require the use of a scribe, depending on any learning differences they may have. Use your professional discretion as you provide this support.
GRADE FOR CONTENT
Make sure that when you are assessing student work, you are not docking any grades for work that is messy. Even when we have the full intention of only grading for content, we can sometimes subliminally grade messy work lower simply because it appears “worse”.
Try to be very cognizant of this bias that you may have while grading and ensure you are looking specifically for content.
Of course, there are some subjects, like art where this isn’t going to be as easy. If you’re assigning something like a poster project for Science, try to focus primarily on the actual content included and if there are any diagrams, drawings, or so on, look for what they’re telling you instead of what they look like.
If you can, try to allow students to not have to print or draw on some assignments, especially those with a visual element. This will help to focus specifically on content.
USE ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT
I mentioned reducing the amount of written work required for some students above and touched on utilizing alternative assignments and tasks for showing competency.
Unless you are specifically grading organization and the aesthetics of an assignment, there are many ways you can assess a student without having them have to physically write.
Try having students tell you what they know orally, or create something like a radio advertisement or a podcast. Then, you can tell if they know the content without having them writing it out.
Students can create a presentation or a play. Or, if they’re nervous to present in front of the class, they can record and make a film, commercial, trailer, or so on.
You could allow students to take photographs or find them on the internet rather than drawing. They can type versus use pen to paper. They can use graphic organizers to help organize.
There are so many possibilities.
Of course, remember that we don’t want to over support. These can be used until kids start to develop their skills. If we’re over supporting, they may take much longer to develop skills like organization and editing.
DO NOT PENALIZE MESSY WORK
If a student is having a hard time with messy work, they may start to feel badly about themselves and avoid work.
Or, if it becomes physically painful for them if they have a diagnosis such as DCD, they may again avoid work.
Don’t get obsessive about how their work looks. Instead, praise any output they are able to make. And, as they begin to improve and write more and more, continue to praise them and point out their growth.
Students may mix up cursive and printing, they may write letters backwards, they may skip lone, or write right over them.
There’s lots of silly, messy errors that we could penalize and point out if we wanted to, but that’s not something to focus on as they begin to emerge as writers. Let them begin to get more comfortable with writing, then start to add on extra skills they can begin to work on.
If we focus too much on what they’re doing incorrectly, they’re not going to want to write at all, and then we’ve got a bigger problem on our hand than messy work!
ALLOW SHORTER ASSIGNMENTS
Having to write and produce long assignments can be very tiring and overwhelming for a student who is messy and disorganized.
They may not yet be ready to produce work that’s as lengthy as their peers. That’s okay, as long as they’re still working toward building those skills.
While you have the whole class write a five paragraph essay, you may have another student do a three paragraph one, focusing on just one point, an introduction, and a conclusion.
As they build up the skills and knowledge around how to defend a point, open, and close an essay, then they are working toward eventually adding more supporting paragraphs.
If you’re providing this support, make sure you are still having student build necessary skills and create quality work. Just because something is shorter doesn’t mean it should be “worse”; they still need to focus on content and shouldn’t be given dumbed-down work.
PROVIDE EXTRA TIME
Finally, many students may need extra time in order to create work that is more legible and organized.
If and where you can, provide these students with extra time to complete assignments, tests, projects, and so forth.
When these students receive extra time, they still need to be using it wisely. They may need support from an adult or another organized student. And if they’re not using time wisely, make sure you let them know that it’s a privilege to be getting extra time during class. You can easily take it away and have them complete their work at recess, during lunch, or at home.
So, what do you think about these tips? Are they useful? Did I miss anything you find works really well? Let me know!
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