Thursday, 17 October 2013


This blog has been fermenting for a little while now. I wanted to share with you my thoughts on marking. They may go against the current grain a touch, but see what you think.

Why mark? Here is a list of reasons which I deliberately put in order of importance.

1.  To check pupils have done the work
2.  To show pupils you care about their work
3.  To check that they have understood the work
4.  To show them where they have gone wrong and done well
5.  To build your personal relationship with the pupil
6.  To give them more detailed feedback

You will note that I have put feedback last. The caveat I would add is that this varies with the age of the learner. Detailed feedback makes more sense with advanced students.

Let me elaborate.

Points 1 and 2 are key. the most important thing about homework is that it is done and that it is done with care and attention. Improvement in language skills comes with practice. The more practice pupils do, the more confident they become. If they know you are going to read their work and assess it on a regular basis they are more likely to take it seriously and put the time in. If you only collect work in to mark twice a term you will quickly discover tatty exercise books and sloppy work.

Point 3 is important for you as a teacher. You hopefully set work within the compass of students, not too easy, not too hard. You hope they don't make too many errors. If they do, it is likely the task was poorly set. If every pupil gets everything right, then it is at least possible that the work was too easy. Regular marking gives you the feedback on your teaching which you need.

Point 4 may be over-valued by many teachers. Corrections are useful, but in a sense, if there are errors, the damage is already done. The key thing is that the student has done the work and thought things through. As an aside, how much do you think you should correct? My answer to this is as follows: with the brightest pupils, be fussy and correct everything. Be hyper-critical with accuracy and range. This will encourage motivated pupils to do even better in future. It works! With weaker students, if they have produced something riddled with mistakes, then correct selectively, probably focusing on one important area such as verb errors. To smother a child's work in red (or green?) ink is discouraging and they are unlikely to go through every error carefully.

Point 5 is significant. In the hurly burly of lessons with 30 children it's not easy to find much one-to-one time. A well-chosen comment on a piece of work - a humorous remark, an acknowledgement of extra effort for example - unseen and unheard by others, can help you establish a personal relationship between you and the pupil. This can go a long way in the classroom.

Point 6 is flavour of the month, isn't it? Well, I would say that with most work done by younger pupils, detailed feedback of the kind "two stars and a wish" is probably over-kill. Very often a simple "well done" is enough, especially if they could not have done much more with the task. More detailed feedback may be worthwhile if there is a common pattern to errors: "take care over adjective endings - always go through them at the end"; "check every verb in future - is it in the right tense and does it have the right ending"; "in future try to add more detail to your work - use more adjectives and adverbs".

Advanced level work may need more detail too: "try to apply the rules on essay technique we went through - remember not to make key points in the introduction".

The point is this: your time is limited and you cannot write detailed feedback on all work unless you reduce its frequency. It is better for pupils to produce a lot, regularly, with less detailed feedback.

Should the feedback be in the target language. Sometimes, but a word or two in English will carry more psychological weight. Writing "cor!" or "amazing!" or "nice touch!" or "ouch!" in the margin will have a stronger re-inforcing effect than its equivalent in the target language. Remember that this is your chance to build a confidential rapport with the student. You will do that more effectively working in the mother tongue. With detailed feedback it must be clear too and using the target language may be confusing. Your comments in an exercise book are a tiny fraction of the comprehensible input your students get. Don't be obsessed with staying in TL all the time.

Red or green ink? Not an issue. Use any clear colour, but respect your school's policy.

Exercise books, lined paper or electronic work? I prefer exercise books for younger learners as you can easily check back on previous work to check for patterns of error or neatness. It's probably easier to catch up on missed work too. A-level students are used to lined paper and that's fine; you may be chasing them less for incomplete, rewritten or missing work. Electronically produced work is awkward to correct, but it is easy to write comments at the end of student blogs, for example. Many teachers report that errors are more numerous when work is typed. I agree.

What if work is totally inadequate? Don't pussy-foot on this; get them to do it again, maybe twice. They'll soon learn that you have high expectations and will most likely produce the goods in future.

Writing corrections? Probably a good idea, though I confess I usually neglected this. Why? Because I thought it was boring for them and preferred them to work on new things. How about giving them ten minutes every few eeks to go through old work and write corrections. It's a handy filler task.

Should I write grades on? Your department or school should have a policy on this. On balance I like grades and have written about this before. Make sure your pupils know what a grade means; e.g. A= among the best we see at this school. Free of error and, where relevant, with a good range of language. Grades are a handy shorthand for more detailed remarks. If you hear the argument that pupils only look at grades and then ignore comments, then the solution is to force them to spend three minutes reading through and writing corrections. I believe grades are often motivational. The best students hate dropping a little and weaker pupils are delighted when their grade goes up. Research suggests that grades may be less useful with less able children.

Be prepared to grade "tactically" too. A very quick student may be disappointed if you drop them to a B if their work is slightly less careful than usual. It is probable they will try extra hard next time. te converse applies. A weaker pupil may be delighted with a B and try harder next time.

Other codes, as well as grades, may be useful. V in the margin for verb, A for adjective etc. Or double underline major errors, single underline minor ones. Or how about just circling errors for students to correct themselves? This saves valuable time for you, but still shows students you have read their work carefully.

Should you show corrections on display work? Yes. You do not want inaccurate work on your wall. If a piece has too many errors, then the pupil can do it again.

Marking is the bane of a teacher's life, but language teachers can take some comfort in two things:

a)  It's a pleasure to mark really good work
b) You are not English or history teachers. Their marking really drains the brain and takes ages. We are just correcting error much of the time.

Please feel free to leave comments. Some of this was contentious.

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