Giving feedback on student writing - Should you correct your students’ work or simply mark it?
When looking at student writing, it is tempting to focus on the grammar and vocabulary that students use, rather than thinking about the whole process writing s a language skill. As with any productive skills work, writing involves a wide range of different language subskills, as well as knowledge of text organisation, how to connect ideas (cohesion), and how to plan and produce an effective piece for the reader.
Marking student writing can be a time-consuming process, and many teachers devote far too much time to correcting student mistakes, rather than offering guidance on how the students themselves can improve. In fact, the latter approach is a more efficient way of dealing with student writing, and takes a lot less time. So what is the difference between marking and correcting student work?
If we correct the errors in a student essay, we have to identify the problems one by one, think about what the student is trying to say, and find a more appropriate alternative. When we have found a better alternative, we then have to somehow communicate that to the student, which can be a messy process; crossing out, re-writing and adding notes and arrows to the text can make the student paper seem like a sea of red ink, which can be demotivating for the learner.
In addition, a teacher who painstakingly corrects all the accuracy issues in a piece of writing has essentially done the student’s job for them. Shouldn’t it be up to the learner to think about their mistakes and work on making them better? The alternative to teacher correction is to use a system of annotations which is understood by the students in the class, to make simple notes on the types of problem in each sentence. By underlining only the words or phrases where the problem occurs, and writing the annotations above the chunk of language, issues are highlighted to the student for more work.
Common problems and annotations are shown below:
MW = missing word
WW = wrong word (usually a vocabulary problem)
WO = word order (a syntax problem)
SS = sentence structure (a broader issue across a whole sentence)
VF = verb form (perhaps adding -ing or -ed, or changing from active to passive voice)
t = tense
/\ = something missing (along with the following word classes to add)
aux. = auxiliary, V = verb, prep. = preposition, N = noun, S = subject, O = object, pro. = pronoun, etc.
? = unclear meaning
Again, it is important that students understand these annotations, so it is worth taking 30 minutes to go through these, perhaps with an example piece of student writing, to demonstrate what these kinds of issue look like. Print out a copy of the annotations themselves and display it on the classroom wall for reference, and everyone will understand what they mean.
Another benefit of highlighting errors in this way rather than correcting work for students is that common problem areas are exposed in students’ writing, giving them an idea of what to focus on to improve their work, and giving you an idea of areas of language to focus on in future classes. If your learners’ work contains a lot of VF notes one week, then perhaps it is time to review some common verb forms in a coming class, as this is obviously an area of need.
This marking scheme can also be used to build student awareness of the process of drafting, editing and rewriting which leads to more effective writing skills development. Rather than simply handing back the student paper with a grade for them to stuff in their desk and forget about, why not return to their essays in the next lesson, and get them working together to improve their accuracy together based on your notes.
In summary, the annotation approach to marking writing provides more learning opportunities for students, saves time for the teacher and acts as a planning tool for you, as well as a developmental tool for the students. Bring this system into your writing feedback next time you set an extended writing task, and your students will be able to return to the work that they do and rewrite it to a much higher level of quality.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.