I was in a school recently chatting to a teacher and I keep going over something they said. I can’t get it out of my head so I thought I would write a cheeky blog and see if I could pick it apart.
I don’t give writing homework because then I just have loads of writing to mark.
I think we’ve all expressed similar sentiments over the years. After all, when you factor in planning time and post-lesson reflections, and CPD, and admin, a large pile of writing submissions doesn’t seem super appealing. And, while I was obviously frustrated that this issue was stopping students from getting writing practice and feedback (more on this later), it wasn’t this sentiment that stuck in my mind. It was the word “mark”.
Below are the questions, I would like to consider in this post. In the discussion that follows, I am considering General English classes as opposed to specific writing courses, EAP, or Exam Skills classes.
- What do we actually mean by “mark” when it comes to a piece of writing?
- Should we be marking our students’ writing?
- What feedback should we be giving them to encourage development?
- Can we somehow save ourselves from doing all the work?
What do we mean by “mark”?
I think what the teacher and our industry in general means by marking a piece of writing is one of two things.
- Highlighting and correcting the student’s errors.
- Indicating errors and the type of errors and encouraging the student to correct them, or rewrite it without errors.
When I was a slightly younger man, I was learning Spanish, and I was a proper beginner. Outside of “hola” and “una copa de vino por favor”, I was pretty useless. I decided to start by learning some key verbs I might want to use, and seeing as how I liked writing I chose to write a story. It was not a good story by any stretch of the imagination but man, I was proud of it. “Andy y los Animales” it was called. A single paragraph about Andy and the myriad animals he had, allowing me to use a range of verbs and a lexical set of animals I’d just learnt.
Like any good student, I wanted some feedback so I gave it to my then girlfriend to mark. Well, Jesus, I have never been so demotivated in my life. I got a back a paragraph covered in green (she’d been kind enough not to use red) underlines and corrections. Some errors she’d left for me to correct. What did I do? I thanked her, popped it in the back of my notebook, never looked at it again, and went off to eat jamon and queso in an attempt to quash the feelings of demotivation I had. To this day I haven’t written another story in Spanish. Sad but true.
What did I want in that moment? I’m not entirely sure but I think I wanted some positivity and something manageable that I could improve upon.
If you take the marking approach to writing feedback, take a minute to reflect on these questions:
- Have you ever received similar feedback to the story above? How did you feel? What action did you take? Was it developmental?
- When you mark your students’ work, do they take it on board? Do they submit corrections or rewrites?
Should we be marking our students’ writing?
I think it is clear from the story above, where my feelings lie but I want to think about this from another side. When we correct our students’ errors, are we actually marking or are we editing? I would argue the latter. Editing is a specific skill and something that people pay for. What do our students pay us for? It’s not an editing service. I would say they pay us to help them develop their English language, and learning skills. When we mark or edit, do we achieve this? I would argue no.
What kind of feedback do students want?
Well, that depends on the task itself. Before any feedback is given, everyone in the class (including the teacher) needs to be clear on the point of the exercise.
Writing for Fluency
If the aim is to encourage a love for writing, or merely to encourage students to write more, then feedback should reflect that. One example of this would be asking students to write a message and then replying to that message naturally without highlighting errors. Development can come later by identifying common writing skills or linguistic issues and dealing with them in class at a later point.
Writing as a vehicle for language
Very often writing is used as a vehicle to test language that has been learnt in a lesson or over a number of lessons. Feedback in this situation only needs to focus on the language that has been learnt and should not on other areas of writing or language that arise. Again, these can be focused on in later lessons. As this is all learnt language, there should be no need for a teacher to correct the language. There is an expectation from learners that they are being assessed on their use of specific language and that they will have to correct it. The content is more or less meaningless as long as the language is used correctly.
Practising a specific writing skill
If a specific skill has been developed in class, then obviously writing practice is the way to asses it. Maybe the teacher has taught their students about referencing, avoiding repetition, organising a text, writing a cohesive text, writing an effective paragraph, or any other writing skill. In this situation, the feedback can focus entirely on how successful the student has been with this skill.
Can we save ourselves some work?
I still understand the teacher who doesn’t want to set writing. They were starting from the point of view that their job is to edit their students’ work, or facilitate an edit by highlighting all the errors. However, as seen above, if the aim is to engage students and see development in a specific area, then feedback can be focused and doesn’t have to be extensive.
That said, even when it’s focused, feedback still takes thought and time. And, it is flawed as the responsibility is still on the teacher to identify any issues. Don’t we want our learners to be identifying their own issues and dealing with them before the piece of writing gets to the teacher?
Creating an extra line of feedback.
As mentioned above, the key to setting up a writing task effectively is that everyone knows what is expected of them in the task and what feedback they will receive. In the examples given above, a single area of language or a single skill are being practised/assessed. However, very often teachers will want to practise a number of different skills and language points at once, in a single cohesive piece of writing.
The fact remains, clarity of expectations is key. Clear success criteria enable students to assess their own writing and that of their partner’s before it reaches the teacher. Imagine a class in which students have learnt to write an essay on the environment. They have learnt to organise an essay, to write topic sentences for each paragraph, and to use sign-posting so that it is easy to follow. They have also learnt a range of lexical chunks related to the environment. In this class, the teacher provides their learners with the success criteria below:
Because of the clarity of the criteria, students can assess their work and their partner’s, giving each other feedback and upgrading their writing before handing it in. This can happen inside class time, making it even more likely that rewrites and edits will occur…and it saves a bit of time outside, which is always nice.
Sometimes we all get wrapped up in this is what we do and this is what it’s called. I think it is important that we challenge these norms and if they don’t hold up, then it’s time to put them in the bin. Is there a place for marking? Probably, but I’m not sure it’s a General English classroom. We’re teachers, not editors.