Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills

editing with codes

Learning to be a self-editor

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Some student’s reactions to this technique that teachers use to mark their assignments:

“I like this technique because it helps me apply what I learn to future writing.”
“This technique makes correcting essays like a puzzle.  It’s actually fun.”
“I’m not stressed when I see red marks.  I know that it’s going to be an interesting challenge.”

Because this technique gives students a chance to discover their grammar errors, we have found students have greatly improved their self-editing skills.  And self-editing skills will be of great value to them as move beyond ESL courses.

Here is a description of the technique along with a handout exercise that will introduce students to it.

To illustrate the technique, I’ll juxtapose it (Type 2 below) with a commonly used one (Type 1 below) for identifying grammar errors on assignments.

Type 1: Teacher directly indicates the mistakes.  Less effective for self-editing-skills development:
                                                                                                                                                                              NF                        VT
I have three friend who have help me a lot.  When I have 
           +comma                         +prep
problems they are always stand me.

As you can see, the student has missed the opportunity to discover his mistakes.  To revise this, the student doesn’t need to apply editing skills since the teacher had directly indicated what needs to be changed.  When the student corrects this, we don’t know if he had made the mistake because he hadn’t proof-read it carefully or if he has a lack on grammar knowledge.

Type 2: Teacher gives hints in the margin.  Most effective for self-editing skills:

NF / VT                    I have three friend who have help me a lot.  When I have

+ Comma / -W        problem they are always stand me.               +prep          

By putting codes (hints) in the margin, the teacher has given the student a chance to find the errors on his own.   If the student is able to do this, we can feel quite confident that the mistake was caused by poor editing or proof-reading rather than a lack of grammar knowledge.

What if the students can’t find their mistakes with the hints?

When conferencing with the student, the teacher gives additional hints to lead the student to the mistake.  For example, let’s say the student can’t find the NF (noun form) mistake in the first line.  The teacher could say, “Underline the nouns in this line.”  After he underlines “friend,” the teacher could ask, “Do you have one or more than one friend?”  99.9 % of the time the student will realize that he needs to change to “friends.”

After several of us teachers changed from directly indicating the mistake above the word to giving hints in the margin, we noticed a great improvement in students’ ability to self-edit.

Also, we found students interest in using the hints to correct their mistakes increased.   It’s often amusing to see their reaction when they ask for an addition hint and then realize that they could have found it on their own.  “Oh, no.  That was a foolish mistake.  I should have found that.”   It’s almost as if they feel like they missed a chance to score points in a game.”

Finally, I should mention that many of us teachers have used the codes-in-the-margin technique successfully with students from high-beginners to advanced.

As with any new technique, thought, an introductory exercise is vital.  Attached here is an introductory exercise that I use with higher-level students.  Feel free to use it with yours.  Correct coded grammar mistakes Exercise

For more information about conferencing techniques using hints and leading students to discover their errors, see How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments

Also, for a technique for giving POSITIVE comments on essays, see Writing class: Easy, focused, POSITVE feedback on essays.

David Kehe

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