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On marking and feedback

Ofsted have just given guidance to their inspectors that they should not be evaluating the marking of student work.

In 2013 I wrote a blog about marking and in The Language Teacher Toolkit we included a section about marking, partly based on that blog. I'd like to come back to the issue now.

Marking takes us a very considerable part of language teachers' lives, although, if it's any consolation, perhaps less so than the lives of our colleagues who teach English or history. Why do we mark? How much time should we spend on it? How should we do it?

My starting point is this: the main aim of marking is to make sure that students have done their work. Far more important than feedback is the simple point that students have to do the work in the first place, taking as much time and care as possible. My experience, and it may be yours, was that you could not trust a significant number of students to do their work properly unless they knew you would be checking it, reading it carefully, correcting it and, yes, grading it - although I suspect the careful checking was more important than the grading.

Many pupils want to please their teacher and one key way they can do this is by impressing you with their written classwork and homework. If you don't mark their work regularly, they will spend less time and inevitably make less progress. There is research on this (google John Hattie), but actually we are in the realm of common sense here.

However, you only have so many hours in the week, so you have to mark quickly and not spend too long writing detailed comments. If the alternative is to set less work and mark it more slowly amd meticulously, it is a less desirable one in my view. Less work = less input = less recycling = less progress.

So what about making life easier by marking work in class? This is a great idea for some types of exercise, but bear in mind three points. Firstly, that type of exercise (grammar drill, gap-fill, comprehension matching task etc) has its limitations and can be easily copied. Pupils cheat. Secondly, going through and ticking an exercise in class is a bit routine and boring; I often felt I could be doing something more interesting.  Thirdly, if you do too much marking in class, some pupils may start to take their work less seriously because they know you won't be reading it personally. But yes, overall, quick marking in class is worthwhile, recycles language practised at home and, crucially, saves you time.

Taking books or papers in regularly for marking is hugely important for you as a teacher. It really shows you how carefully students are working and what they are finding easier and harder. You'll see who the careful, neat writers are; who goes the extra mile by looking things up; who has taken in what you did in class. Furthermore, it's your personal, private means of two-way communication with each student. You can give confidential praise and advice, admonish, build up a rapport, encourages them to want to impress you even more next time. All this helps you maintain good classroom control too, as each student knows that you know them and care about their progress. If you are intimately acquainted with students' written work, you can make subtle reference to it in class, building your relationship further.

That's all very well, but it takes time, I hear you say! Well, why not correct selectively, use underlinings/circles and get students to self -correct, use codes, don't write too much at the end and don't bother with systems like "two stars and a wish"? In England Ofsted have no preferred marking method. Remember that the key point is that the students did the work carefully and knew you would mark it. Two minutes a book may be more than enough for intermediate students. With experience you learn to go fast. If students know your standards are high, they will also write more neatly, making your task quicker. If work is too scruffy, don't accept it. If they have to write it out twice, they will be less inclined to hand in scruffy work in the future. No excuses.

Grading is a contentious issue and you may simply have to apply your school's or department's policy. On balance, I was in favour of it. High performing pupils were motivated by maintaining high grades. To get a lower grade can be a loss of face which they will want to put right next time. You can even use this to inspire pupils to better effort and performance. Similarly, you can grade tactically with lower-performing pupils - give them a merited higher grade and they will be delighted and hopefully want to keep up that standard. If your grading is criterion-referenced in some way, so much the better.

What about the old problem "They only look at the grade, not my corrections?" That's easy to fix. Just allocate a little time for written corrections to be done. Alternatively, if, like me, you found that a bit dull, make it a part of a homework or save up corrections for a 15 minute session in a later lesson. This forces pupils to go over earlier work and recycle language.

So, in sum: mark a lot, take in books, mark quickly, build those relationships.

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