That First Marked Piece of Writing

The first piece of writing you mark is, I think, the most important one you will mark all year. Do it right and you can set a path for some valuable feedback and great improvement in the writing of your students. Do it wrong and you could cause confusion and tension for the rest of the year. In that opening term eagerness to impress, the energetic burst of work which you allow yourself before tiredness and disillusion begin to set in, it is very easy to return marked writing too soon. It’s worth taking time over it though.

As an English teacher there is nothing which overwhelms me more than the marking load which, despite my attempts to time it better, seems to arrive from every class on the same day. Potentially one hundred and fifty students will hand work to me which needs my attention. Each one needs me to give feedback which will help them to improve. So I have to play the long game here. Correcting every error in a piece of writing will not make someone a better writer. Depending on the success criteria of the task, technical details will be the last thing I look at. Of course I want them to be technically efficient writers but I’ll address the needs of the content first.

One of the most effective pieces of advice I’ve gleaned is from Kelly Gallagher’s book, ‘Teaching Adolescent Writers’. Reading and assessing students’ written work during the process of writing is far more effective than waiting until they finish. Much of existing practice suggests that many students, especially in the upper school, are given written tasks to take away as homework. What we are in effect doing there is closing off some excellent opportunities for real assessment. Assessing the process rather than the outcome is far more valuable than a comment or, even worse, a grade on a piece of writing. Roll your sleeves up and get down into it with them.

As much as we’d like to mark everything, self-preservation is really important. You need a life. This is when true peer assessment come into play.  Students need to be shown how to do this properly. Too often they are handed a list of criteria and asked to tick boxes. That might lighten your workload but it teaches them nothing. See Dylan William’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ for some fantastic strategies. (This book is essential reading and I must write a post about it exclusively.)

If there is a Departmental or, hopefully, a school correction code then you must use it when you correct the technical weaknesses in writing. Often it is slapped up on the wall and pointed to occasionally or hidden in a homework diary. Have them keep it open on their desks and teach them how to use it right away.  They will begin to see it as a natural extension of their work and it will serve them well throughout their school lives.

You will also need to keep reminding yourself why you are marking this writing. It will be school policy; it certainly should be departmental policy; you may well do it to get it out of the way before the next pile of marking comes in. But you are marking this in order to help the student improve. If your feedback is not geared towards future improvement, if it is not solely based on the previously agreed success criteria, if your words remind the student of how poor they have done, it will all have been a waste of time. ‘This is what you did well.’ ‘This is where you need to improve.’ Be specific. ‘Can you explain this metaphor more clearly, please?’ ‘How many question marks should be in this paragraph?’ ‘Which character have you missed from this list?’ The student knows exactly how to improve the piece.

And, there’s the rub. Nothing makes me angrier than teachers who say they have no time to spend on allowing students to rewrite work. You have to move on. So you find yourself writing the same thing on essay after essay, jotter after jotter. Why don’t they learn? Because you haven’t given them the time or support to do so. Marking work is the only time you can teach kids to learn from their mistakes, perhaps the greatest way to learn. Time spent on it makes it clear that you are interested in them getting better.  It can be an important link to parents. As Phil Beadle rightly states in his book ‘How to Teach’:

‘Nothing  speaks louder to an observer or parent of your uselessness than an exercise book containing loads of work and no marking. It is genuinely offensive to them, and for good reason.’

Someone once said that you should treat students as if their parents were in the room. Can you say the same about their written work?

Beadle, Phil 2010 ‘How to Teach’  (Crown House Publishing, Carmarthen)

Gallagher, Kelly 2006 ‘Teaching Adolescent Writers’ ( Stenhouse Publishers, Portland Maine)

Wiliam, Dylan 2011 ‘Embedded Formative assessment’  (Solution Tree Press, Bloomington)

2 thoughts on “That First Marked Piece of Writing

  1. I like what you said about giving students time to rewrite. When you give intentional in-class time for reviewing and rewriting, students will tend to look carefully over comments. Bonus if you are able to conference with all of the students.

    In contrast, one might mark all the papers well and then send them home. I shudder to consider the percentage of students who take time to read the comments (however thoughtful) that you write.

    • Thanks Janet
      First of all can I thank you for your regular comments on my blog. I become very lax in replying but I do take on board everything you say.
      I think if we were being honest, as English Teachers it may be terrifying how little impact our feedback has sometimes. If we all put our hands up and admitted that we could begin to change things. But, as Dylan wiliam says, change is hard.
      Have a great day,

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