I conducted a survey of 26 students to find out how they felt about getting red marks, which indicated grammar mistakes, on their writing assignments. I was motivated to do this after some colleagues had told me students get upset or dejected when they see these, so they only marked a few mistakes, and one even changed to a different color, thinking that, like her, students associated red marks with something negative.
Three types of marks on students papers
When I give students feedback on their writing assignments, I want them to notice three things:
- Good writing points. These are ideas, details, examples, expressions, sentence styles, grammar that they did well. I underline these in GREEN to indicate good. (See Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique for more details.)
- Weak grammar points. These are grammar mistakes or wordings that they should revise to improve their papers. I try to indicate these in a way that seem like a puzzle that can be stimulating for students to discover. I use RED to indicate these. (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills for more details.)
- Places to improve content. These are places where students could improve their papers by adding details and/or including examples. I use BLUE to indicate these. (See “Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays and The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates for more details.)
The survey question to students: If you could only have one type of mark on your papers, which one would you choose?
If those colleagues who thought students were upset by red marks (grammar mistakes) were right, then it would seem that the students would not choose that option, and in fact, probably prefer the Green (good parts) option. Spoiler Alert: that didn’t happen.
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) Essay Evaluation Form
Imagine that you read Mari’s essay in which she developed her ideas exactly the way that you had hoped she would. But her grammar was very weak and even caused some confusion. You are torn about what grade to give her. You know that her grammar skills are not strong enough to succeed at the next level, so you don’t want to mislead her. But you also don’t want to discourage her since her content was so good.
What grade should you give Mari?
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.
Feeling euphoria from flow
Early in my career, I had a whisper conversation with two of my novice colleagues. We had often heard several of our other colleague lament the fact that they had just picked up a set of essays and would have to spend several hours marking them. To them, it seemed drudgery, and they assumed all of us felt the same. In private, the two novice colleagues and I were a bit surprised and relieved to find that we actually enjoyed the process of marking our students essays and giving them feedback. We weren’t weird for feeling this way. Over 35 years later, I still find this a rewarding experience. One of the reasons is that it allows me an opportunity to experience flow.
A well-known research psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (he has humorously explained that his name is pronounced “chicks send me high”) has described this state as having several characteristics. Amazingly, in our job as ESL instructors, we often get to experience this.
Look at what happens when we are checking a set of essays and how that activity can lead to the euphoric experience of flow:
“Wow!” can be expected from professional writing not students’ writing.
An English Comp instructor told me that after reading a student’s essay, she wants to think, “Wow! These are amazing ideas.” I’ve also met ESL writing instructors who also looked at her students’ writing in a similar way. She wanted them to write about “something significant.” She wanted to be entertained. She wanted to learn something new.
Actually, those are not what we are trying to accomplish in our ESL writing courses. And even if they were the goals, how could they ever be honestly evaluated? I’ve witnessed a conversation between two instructors in which one of them was in total amazement about one of her student’s essays. In it, the student, who was African, described how happy the people in her village were and how people there did not experience depression even though they were some of the poorest people on earth. The other instructor yawned and said, “I already knew all that.”
After I read an essay, I might say, “Wow!” but it’s not because of the student’s profound ideas. It’s because s/he used a technique in a way that really help explain his/her idea.
What we’re looking for in essays is how well they are using writing techniques. These are tools that we can teach students, that they can apply to other writing tasks, and that we can evaluate.
Needless to say, we don’t just list the techniques and expect students to apply them. The art of teaching ESL is leading students to learning the techniques so they can have them available in their “tool box.”
Here a just a few of the writing techniques that we can teach our students:
Dependent and Independent Clause
My students are always quite surprised when I tell them this true story about subordination*. Several years ago, I taught Academic ESL at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). I had discussions with the chair of the English Dept. about how they determine which students (American and International) are qualified to take English 101 Composition. Not surprisingly, he said all new students write a placement essay. But this is the surprising part: the readers/evaluators do NOT consider the idea-development, nor the paragraph organization, nor the grammar. Instead they looked for only one aspect: whether or not the writer could use subordination (dependent and independent clauses) correctly. Their research found that that one aspect was the most reliable predictor about which students would be successful in English Comp.
A learning opportunity
In October 2016, Tiffany Martínez, a Latina student at Suffolk University in Boston, was accused of plagiarism by her sociology professor in front of the entire class. Huffington Post plagiarism story What caused him to be suspicious? The word “hence.” On her paper, he circled the place where she had written the word “hence” and wrote in the margin, “This is not your word.”
In my many years as an ESL instructor, I’ve witnessed instructors over-reacting in suspected plagiarism situations. It seems as if those instructors were taking it personally, feeling like they were being disrespected. Too often instructors seem to see it as a “gotcha” opportunity.