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.
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.