Check your writing

The pun is intentional. There are two elephants in the room with writing. Firstly, just as students hate planning their essays, they loathe to go back to them and check them when finished. How many of us have invigilated internal exams and had this dialogue with a student:

Student: Teacher, finished!

Teacher: Really? Have you checked your answers carefully?

Student: Yes!

Teacher: Oh… Well do it again!

The other elephant is all about us as teachers. If our students are doing writing every week, we have to do something with it to make that effort meaningful. If we don’t, our students will come to resent the writing, and eventually the English. But then does that mean hours of marking every week?.

It doesn’t need to. Here in this final section, we will explore some ways that we can train our students to check and correct their writing alongside different strategies and tools we can use to correct and mark it.

Getting students to check their work.

If you tell you students to check their writing, they will read it once (quickly) and probably change nothing. Instead, here are some ideas for getting students to check their writing.

As with all aspects of language teaching, we cannot expect students to be able to do these naturally. They will need lots of guidance in class time before we can expect them to do this more independently. I also strongly recommend that you and your students keep a portfolio of their writing. Every writing task, even micro-writing ones on paper or in the chat box, should be filed or saved here to serve both as a record of how students are developing in writing, and so that we can do subsequent correction activities with older pieces of work. If you aren’t using it already, Google Classroom or Edmodo are excellent for this purpose.

  • Find mistakes with x. If you’ve been working on perfect forms in recent weeks, why not ask your students to first underline all the examples of them in their writing (a great way of reminding students about the need to be ambitious), and then checking for their accuracy. It’s not enough to say ‘check your grammar’ – at least not at the start. The process of underlining the target language and later checking it is valuable.
  • Take a break! Try doing a micro-writing warmer task at the start of the class, and have students hide their answers for the time being. Towards the end of the class, get your students to read their writing again and correct it. We are much less likely to think critically about our work in the moment it’s finished, simply because we’re happy it’s finished. Coming back to it later means we’re more likely to view it critically.
  • Collaborative checking. This can work very well, especially with shorter texts (such as paragraphs). The golden rule is that you pair students with someone they know well and trust. If not, they’ll be too nervous or shy to make a criticism. First ask students to swap their writing and read it. When they’re finished, they tell their partner three things they liked and one that could be improved. Then they have another 3 minutes to underline all the things they think are mistakes. Finally, together, they work to correct the two pieces of writing.
  • Mistake diary. After you’ve handed back corrected writing, students should take some time to review the corrections and ask questions, and crucially they need to do something with those corrections. Old school teachers (or my old boss) would get them to write their mistakes out ten times. Seriously, this is still a thing. I on the other hand ask students to keep two types of mistake diaries. The first kind, which they keep in the back of their notebooks, is a table with three columns:
My mistakeWhy I made itThe correction
I have went to ParisUse present perfect with have + past participleI have been to Paris
I studied hard becouse I had an important exam.Spelling mistake because of how I think the word soundsBecause
Be – coz
You will need to closely monitor and correct these tables to make sure the ‘why I made it’ column is completed appropriately.
  • The second type of mistake diary is simply a list of the types of mistakes students frequently make. I recommend my students keep this in the inside back cover of their notebooks. If this is done well, and students use this list when checking their writing, they can be aware of the things that usually trip them up.
  • Write and highlight. A simple trick that also encourages students to write more slowly (important, since every teenager thinks and exam is a race). As they are writing, get them to highlight or underline words, phrases, or even sentences which they are unsure of or have some doubts about. In checking time, it is these parts of the writing they need to correct. When it’s your turn to look at their writing, take a careful look at these parts to determine what your learners are feeling insecure about.
  • Every other line. Hidden away in one of the bullet points in the Cambridge handbooks is this gem: if students are hand-writing their work, they should only use every other line. This makes it much easier to make correction and additions, and makes it easier for the examiner (or teacher) to read.

Tips for Correcting Student Writing

Our time is precious, and marking large pieces of writing takes up a lot of it. Nevertheless, it strikes me that time management is something that very few teachers are good at; I recently met a Director of Studies who spends 30 minutes marking each piece of writing she receives. I’m sure that her students are getting really detailed an thorough feedback on their write, and that’s great for them. What I’m not sure about it whether those students would take 30 minutes of their time to use that writing feedback to their advantage, and I’m certain that DoS could put those 12 hours a week to much better use.

This isn’t to say that detailed corrections aren’t useful, but just as we vary the types of activities and interactions in a class to keep our students engaged, so we can vary the form of feedback we give them. Here are some feedback techniques that I frequently use to good effect:

  • “This time, I’ll be correcting errors with X and Y.” I do this with writing and speaking feedback on a regular basis, as I believe that informing students what they’re being assessed on helps them focus on developing their language skills in specific and achievable ways.
  • Use Google Docs to give effective feedback quickly. I’ve been using Google Classroom with my adolescent and adult classes since 2015, and the deciding factor was the ease with which I can give feedback using Google Docs. On Classroom you assign some writing and students have the option of sending it to you in many formats, although Google Docs offers the most features. When it’s submitted, as the teacher you can highlight and comment on specific things (good for pointing out style issues, or trying to guide students to self-correct) or you can rewrite the student’s work. This will appear as a suggested edit for the student to see. Students can then review all your comments and revisions and click a tick to accept them. Remember that all members of the Google Classroom group can see work, edits, and comments, so I tend to use the private message function to send individual feedback and marks.
  • Use a correction code to encourage students to self correct. Many teachers believe that simply ‘correcting’ students’ work in unhelpful, as they might read these comments but probably not do anything with them. A correction code can help with this, at least in theory. Instead of the teacher writing in the corrections themselves, they highlight or underline the mistake and leave a code to identify the type of mistake (or highlight in different colours if doing this digitally. For example, WR = wrong word GR = grammar issue WO = word order R = register (formality) Sp = Spelling error / / = add a word here ? = I don’t understand. If you are to use this type of correction, remember to give students ample time to work through the corrections – best done with a trusted partner whilst the teacher is monitoring or available to answer questions.
  • Use Jing to record a video with corrections. If your students have completed their work digitally, the free Jing app for Windows or Mac lets you record videos of what you’re doing on your computer screen (or just a part of it) So why not open up the document in Word or Acrobat, click record, and talk your students through their word and your suggestions. Often it’s easier for us to explain corrections to students in spoken English, and many students enjoy the extra chance for listening practice. The added benefit of Jing is that videos are limited to five minutes (after which the video automatically gets uploaded to the cloud), so correcting a single piece of writing takes a maximum of ten minutes.
  • Become familiar with the assessment scales for your exam. There’s no getting around the fact that if your students are to sit an exam, they will want to know how they are progressing with the level and what score their writing might get in the test. The Cambridge handbooks for teachers have lots of examples of student writing and the types of marks they would be getting, and this is a good place for you to start if you’re new to the assessment scales. There are also lesson plans and guides that you can use with your students to make them aware of these scales – remember we always need to make sure our students know how they’re being assessed.
  • Use the assessment scales to give feedback. This can be more challenging, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with or confidence about the exam. There’s always a risk that as teachers we give generous marks and give students a false sense of security about their exam success. Nevertheless, using these assessment scales can give students a clear idea of their strengths and weaknesses relevant to the test. I use student-friendly ones, highlighting where on the scale I think students have performed and giving comments about what they can do to improve next time. Towards the end of a course, when students are familiar with these scales, I ask them to complete one of these self-assessment forms as they checking they work. I highlight the answers myself, and then discuss the disparities with students in tutorials. It’s lengthy and laborious – I’ll maybe do it twice in a course – but it’s definitely worth it!
  • Don’t (always) give a mark. Simply put, often students will bypass all your dutiful corrections and focus on their mark. So don’t give one (all the time). Students are probably going to be frustrated with no indication of their achievement, however, so consider giving an emoji instead!

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