Ratiocination: A Powerfully Simple Tool for Editing

Bonus: Grammar lessons in authentic context.

Materials needed are 2 colored pencils or markers, and writing samples.
Prep time: minimal

Ratiocination is the process of exact, thorough, logical thinking. It is powerful for all writers because it focuses on the language usage instead of the content. Why I like it for struggling writers and English language learners? Many struggling writers do not want to go back and edit because the thought overwhelms them. For English language learners, they do not know language forms to self-edit accurately. Ratiocination is a systematic, step-by-step process that makes language usage visual. As a teacher, I love it because I can have my students focus on specific elements. As a writer, I love it because it is not a demand to change anything, simply calling attention to it so that I can think about its effect in my writing.

Sample Ratiocination Steps:
  1. Circle all of the “to be” verbs – I later extend this to all helping verbs
  2. Make a wavy line under repeated words
  3. Underline each sentence (alternate colors)
  4. Bracket the first word in each sentence
  5. Draw an arrow from subject to predicate
  6. Put “it” in a triangle
  7. X through vague words: very, got, get, nice, bad, good, stuff, thing, awesome, wonderful, so, etc.



Typically, when I start with my English language learners I have them underline every sentence in alternating colors first. This just helps them visual sentence length. I have had 12th graders come up to me in the past with an essay written with only a period at the end. They never realized they did it until we did this step and they never changed colors. While this is a little extreme, it helps with cases that are more moderate too. Then it leads to the discussion about the effects of short and long sentences. This also helps writers hone in on fragments and run-ons.

For a struggling reader/writer, you can discuss sentence length with low linguistic demand because they can see the colors.

The second thing I typically start with English learners is drawing arrows from subject to verbs. Subject verb agreement is one of those things that can be tricky for language learners, revising for it is just conscious practice.

When I modeled this for my high school students, there was always an initial frustration at its openness. All their lives someone had told them what to write, and how to revise and edit, and they never had to think about it. They wanted me to do all the work. I would mark something and they would say, well that means you have to change it. Sometimes I would, sometimes I would say, no, I really like what that does here.

 To illustrate this further, when we read something, if there was an excellent example of writer’s craft, we would ratiocinate their writing. Once again, this helped them read as writers. When we would come across repetition, anaphora and epistrophe in writing and I asked why the writer did it, I would get generic and thoughtless responses of the author wanted to emphasize that. While yes, that is true, there is no thinking involved.

When we looked at Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we ratiocinated and students discovered anaphora in phrases like “I have a dream,” “Now is the time,” “Let freedom ring,” “free at last,” “we can never be satisfied.”

Students revised the speech in groups to remove the anaphora and compared it to the original. When we voted on which sounded better read aloud we almost always chose the original, because of the flow and the rhythm created.

I had my students interview adults around the school and in their lives about what they remembered from the speech, hearing it or studying it in school. After collecting results - outside of the arguably most famous part that my children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of the skin but of the content of their character – people unanimously remembered the repeated phrases and few other specifics. 

This just helped illustrate the purpose of a rather abstract idea. It also got them to think beyond just standard thoughtless responses.


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