Correcting writing: 8 practical ideas

Correcting students’ writing is something we do on a very regular basis. And the feedback we give depends on many factors. For example, with more creative writing (e.g. compositions, reviews, stories, etc.) we will clearly want to demonstrate our interest in the content, apart from just using our red pen. Depending on the level and the assigned task, we might want to zoom in only on certain mistakes and ignore others (e.g. correct use of past simple). However, whichever method of correcting and marking we choose, learners need to be trained and eased into it step by step. 

Below I’ve listed some of the most popular correction techniques (I use error and mistake interchangeably here):

  1. Using symbols:

    Most teachers use correction codes which can be written either above the mistake or on the margins. They make correcting neater and more organised and might be less intimidating than random comments. They also give the students some guidance how to correct the mistakes, which is crucial if they’re ever going to improve and avoid these mistakes in the future (see point 8 for ideas how to further develop self-correcting skills). Different teachers use different symbols. So I’d love to see yours, especially if you think they might work better than the ones below, which are the ones I use:

    • W = Wrong Word, e.g. It depends of (W) the weather.
    • WF = Word Form, e.g. The film was very bored. (WF)
    • VF = Verb Form, e.g. She play (VF) the piano.
    • SP = Spelling, e.g. My speling (SP) is really bad.
    • P = Punctuation, e.g. However (P) we stayed home.
    • WO = Word Order, e.g. It’s a house beautiful (WO)
    • \?/ = A missing word, e.g. He went to \?/ pub.
  2. Marking criteria:

    You might feel it’s important to establish clear, fair and unambiguous marking criteria, especially if you need the grade as part of the continuous assessment (in many schools I worked for this was the case). They make your marking fairer and much quicker, once you’re in the swing of things. It is also easy for students to see which areas they did well on, and which they need to still improve. Obviously, when you have an exam prep course, you should use the same criteria as used on the exam. In my GE courses I use the same criteria as the one used for IELTS: TA (Task achievement), CC (Cohesion and Coherence) , LR (Lexical Resource) and GRA (Grammatical range and accuracy). Each is graded from 1 to 5 and gives 20 in total. 13 is usually the pass mark, i.e. 3 on our scale. The obvious disadvantage of using marking criteria in GE classes is that you might create a situation in which the students write for the grade, and not for pleasure or self-improvement. Some might also be discouraged if they fail. So if you don’t need to give grades for writing as part of the assessment, you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons and decide whether using marking criteria would be appropriate for this particular group or individual.

  3. Reformulation: 

    T reformulates/rewrites student’s writing, keeping the main idea but upgrading the language. You should be careful not to go to far beyond the student’s level. S analyses the original and the reformulation, comparing the two, and notices and audits the differences in language, style, cohesion, etc. Then S queries the new language. Apart from aiding acquisition through noticing, it allows the teacher to go beyond word level into sentence and paragraph level (or at least this is the theory). In practice, my main problem with it is that you really need to train students in it to make it work. The whole noticing business can be a very tricky thing for most learners. And frankly, I haven’t really seen it work acquisition miracles. The last obvious disadvantage is that it involves a lot of work on the teacher’s part. But if you haven’t tried it, I recommend you give it a go, especially in a 1-1 setting. What’s your experience been like with reformulation?

  4. Peer correction:

    This can be done as part of the writing process (i.e. after the first draft). Peer correction raises group cohesion, encourages monitoring others and thus helps improve self–monitoring. Students might also be more motivated to respond to peer feedback. To build a positive vibe around peer correction, try first encouraging the students to give only positive comments, slowly easing them into the idea of correcting their partner’s mistakes. To make it more focused, consider using some categories or frames. Harmer (2007) suggests these: My immediate reactions to your writing are…, I like the part…, I’m not sure about…, The specific language errors I’ve noticed are…  

  5. Selective marking:

    As mentioned in the introduction, you might consider zooming in only on certain points (e.g. linking, lexis for reviewing films, etc.). It reduces your work load (YEY!!), decreases the number of mistakes (less intimidating/demotivating for students) and prompts the learners to pay special attention to the parts you will mark them on. You can tell them when you assign a writing that this time you will only focus on a specific language point, which you for example practised in class. Also consider only marking them on the point(s) which were identified as issues in their previous writing.

  6. Responding/commenting:

    We tell the student what we’ve liked and what needs to be improved (the goal). Students might find it more useful and less intimidating than a lot of correction symbols in red all over their work. It is especially useful if the student is going to do a rewrite. I usually write at least 3 positive and 3 negative comments below their work. I also try to react to the content of their work whenever possible, so that the student knows I appreciate their effort and care about what they wrote.

  7. Using colours:

    I tend to use green and red. With green I tick or underline the parts which are correct, particularly impressive or simply interesting. For example, you might underline correctly used linkers, which students were asked to use in their writing. Or some nice collocations or vocabulary items. Or the parts that are really well written, have interesting content, etc. This shows the student you appreciate their effort and also tells the student that there are many positive things about their work. The red is for mistakes. I use the same colours when giving comments, i.e. green for positive ones, and red for ‘to improve’. I know some teachers also use yellow/orange for mistakes (i.e. slips) and red for errors (i.e. things the student doesn’t know).

  8. Scaffolding self-correction:

    Ideally, we’d like our students to spot and correct the mistakes themselves. But this takes time and scaffolding. I usually first start with the symbols above the errors. This gives students quite a lot of guidance, as they know which word is wrong and what’s wrong with it, i.e. that the verb is in the incorrect form. Once they get better and are able to correct, I underline the mistakes, but write the symbols on the margin next to the line rather than above the words. The next step is to remove the symbols all together and only underline errors. Then, you only indicate which lines contain errors, and perhaps how many there are. Finally, you can ask your students to find, for example 5 grammar mistakes and X number of misspelled words, etc. Of course, you don’t always need to follow all the steps with all students. You’ll see how quickly they’re getting better at correcting and limit scaffolding accordingly. To improve students’ proofreading skills you might also consider using some of the 10 proofreading tips I wrote about previously.

    If you use any other correction techniques, please comment below. I’d love to hear your ideas.

    In one of the future posts I’m going to write about different activities which can be used in class deal with the mistakes students made in their writing.

    For now, you might find these books useful:

    • The Practice of English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer, Longman 2007 (Chapter 8) 
    • Writing, Tricia Hedge, OUP 2003
    • How to Teach Writing, Jeremy Harmer, Pearson 2004
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7 thoughts on “Correcting writing: 8 practical ideas

  1. I agree with most everything. With peer correction I offer it as extra credit. They get a detailed worksheet and have to folow the steps. For example, “Underline the topic sentences. Do they all relate to the thesis? If so, how? ________________ Are they debatable? If yes, what's the other side? ___________________ Are they specific? If yes (or no) try to make it more specific

    This can also apply to grammar, “Hi-light all the conjunctions. Is the proper punctuation being used?”

    By giving them really specific steps they tend to find more erros, thus helping their peer more.

  2. Hi Carissa and thanks for commenting 🙂
    I really like your idea. This is what I was getting at when I wrote: “consider using some categories or frames”. Could I use the examples you gave above in the blog and refer to you? I think people would find it very useful.
    BTW, there are a few typos in your comment: see Anonymous' comment below.

  3. Thanks for pointing out. Typos happen to all of us all too often. I've found that my spelling's become pretty bad recently, and unless I really pay attention, I start completely relying on spell-checkers.
    What do you think about the ideas described in the post?

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