When Marking Only Half of a Student’s Essay Makes the Most Sense.

Editing student

I learned an important lesson from one of my Writing class students. I originally thought that AJ was a pretty good writer, but the grammar on her second essay was a disaster. In class the next day, I showed her paper to her with all the grammar mistakes coded and asked her if she was surprised by them. With a look of embarrassment on her face, she said she wasn’t surprised because she hadn’t taken enough time to edit her paper.

This story about AJ is connected to a common myth about marking grammar on students’ papers: Students will feel discouraged if they see that they have a lot of grammar mistakes. Contrary to this myth, when I’ve asked students, “Do you want me to mark every grammar mistake on your essay or only the most serious errors?” I have found everyone has responded, “I want you to mark them all.” 

(See Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers for more about my survey of students’ attitude.)

However, the idea of marking all the grammar mistakes can present a dilemma for us Writing teachers. Are we just enabling students like AJ by, in essence, becoming their personal editor when, in fact, they could have found the majority of those mistakes on their own had they taken the time to proofread the essay?

(See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills for more about marking students’ grammar mistakes more effectively.)

This is how my experience with AJ changed how I approach marking grammar on essays.

Sometimes as we are marking some students’ essays, after going through the first couple of paragraphs, we quickly become aware that they have mistakes in almost every sentence, and the margins are becoming covered with codes. This was the situation I had with AJ’s essay.

I have found it most beneficial to those students like AJ to stop reading/marking the essay at this point (i.e., after the first couple of paragraphs) and return the essay to them and ask them to correct the coded mistakes that I had marked and then to carefully proofread the rest of his essay before returning it to me.

There are several reasons that I have found this approach to be effective.

First, this can be a wakeup call for the students. Some of them think that they don’t need to proofread and aren’t aware of how many mistakes they are making.

Second, they may have actually proofread their essay, but it’s hard for them to edit. By giving them marks on only the first paragraphs, they won’t be overwhelmed, and may notice some patterns in the types of mistakes that they are making.  Perhaps they had made a lot of verb tense mistakes. After correcting those that were marked, they will have a better idea about what to look for on the rest of the unmarked parts of their essay and could find the mistakes on their own. I’ve been amazed at how many mistakes students are able to correct on their own after they’ve had a chance to revise those on the first paragraphs.

Recommended follow-up steps

1) As I mentioned above, for students who edited their essays poorly, I return the essays with only the first paragraph mistakes coded. They try to correct those mistakes and try to revise the rest.

2) Then they conference with me (talk to me individually) about the corrections of the ones I had marked, and I can help them with any that they couldn’t find.  (See How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments)

3) Then I keep the essay and mark the mistakes on the rest of the essay outside of class.

4) The return the corrected essay to me; I mark the parapraphs that I hadn’t marked before; they correct the grammar mistakes and then conference again with me.

I have found that students like AJ rarely give me unedited essays in the future after they’ve experienced this approach. One reason is because they realize that they are eventually going to have to edit the paper. Another reason is that they notice that they are behind their classmates in the writing process.  The other students who hadn’t had so many mistakes received their essays back with marks on the entire essay, so they just needed one round of conferencing.

In sum, students overwhelming say that they want all the grammar mistakes on their papers marked, and there is a great benefit to students when Writing teacher do that. If we code mistakes that will challenge students properly and give them opportunities to correct the mistakes and conference with us, they will continue to have a positive attitude toward this step in the writing process.  However, we teachers just need to be careful not to enable students who are avoiding proofreading their papers.

David Kehe

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