Correcting Writing: Less Red Pen and a bit more Zen

Getting into the zone

So, you’ve got a stack of writing assignments on your desk.  You have a quick glance at the correction code you use with your students.  “Gr” for grammar errors, “P” for punctuation, “V” for vocabulary, “R” for register, etc.  The pressure’s on now.  The sooner you get these back to your students the better.  They’re anxious to see their grade and you want them to make corrections based on the code and notes you make as soon as possible.  You have a quick glance at the clock and estimate that if you spend X number of minutes per assignment you might even be able to get in some lunch before your next class.  So with a steaming cup of coffee at your side, and red pen in hand you dive in.  You’re in full-on correction mode.

Ruby red pens

A familiar scene.  We’ve all been there.  And when we finish up and hand them back to our students we’re likely to feel some real professional pride at our ability to be so efficient at our job (I got them all corrected in how long?).  Oftentimes though, for me at least, this is coupled by a nagging doubt that maybe I could have done just a little a bit better.

Cop or Coach?

Did my intentions to give meaningful, personal feedback take a back seat to my robo-corrector mentality as I plowed through assignment after assignment?  After all, the power of the red pen does tend to bring out the authoritarian in us, transforming us from the friendly coach we like to think of ourselves as into the grammar cop pulling over our students at the slightest infraction: “Were you aware that you are using a register unacceptable for this genre?  May I see your certification to operate at this level please?  Put your pencil down and back away from the desk slowly.”

There’s no quick fix for this dilemma.  It raises the very question of what it means to correct and how effective anything that we can do as teachers will be in improving our students’ written work.  Right now I won’t go into all of the controversy surrounding correction, how you focus it and how effective it ultimately is, but will assume that even if you haven’t researched the subject extensively you will have gathered from your own teaching experience that it is, at the very least, an area of intense debate with few easy answers.

A Zen moment

But I would like to suggest that perhaps we might start by taking our eyes off the stopwatch and getting out of grammar cop mode for a minute.  Easier said than done, I know, but any correction or assessment of student work should, in the best of all cases, be more of a Zen moment than a moment of tension.  It is, after all an opportunity for reflection, mindfulness if you will, of where student is in the learning process.  So take a deep breath and don’t forget the context: not only where you are now with this particular piece of writing but how you got here and where you are going.

So, remember all those steps you took getting your students ready to write, or how you motivated them emotionally to get involved in the task?  All of that comes into play now.  Put down the red pen for a moment and react to the person who wrote it.  You know, that person who normally sits at the back and who was involved in this process with you and the rest of the class.  How does what you’re reading on paper affect you first as an everyday reader?  How do you view it as a partner in the process?  Which ideas has the writer chosen to reflect upon and why?  How are they put together?  Did you notice that interesting phrase someone came up with in class a couple of days ago and how the writer has managed to include it here?  Does reading this bring a smile to your face?  Does it make you proud?

Putting on the teacher’s cap: Be fair and be effective.

Inevitably though, we need to get down to the nitty-gritty of correction.  But how?  For me this comes down to a number of issues, but key among them are being fair and being effective.

Fairness should have begun long before sitting down to mark the assignment.  It’s all about expectations, so at the very least it should have begun by designing a task which was appropriate to the level.  At a slightly higher level of implication it should form part of a syllabus which challenges the students adequately without making impossible demands on them.  Remember, your job as a teacher is often to push your learners, but if you push too hard you’ll break them.

Similarly if you’re going to be effective you have to know what is worth correcting now and what might be better left until later.  At different stages in their learning students are receptive to different types of language, different structures and functions.  Don’t expect them to improve by leaps and bounds all the time.  Progress often comes in baby steps.

But what practical steps can we take to make sure we are being fair and effective?  How are we to know if our expectations about what our students should be able to do are balanced and focused correctly at their level?

Familiarize yourself with learning objectives

For example, say I am going to give my pre-intermediate students a writing task where they need to request information.  Seems simple enough, but the level of difficulty is going to depend enormously on what information they ask for, who they are asking and in which context.  Taking a look at the Global Scale of English (GSE) descriptors for general adult learners I can see that it’s not reasonable to expect my students to do this until at least the beginning of A2+, or 36 on the GSE where I find the first descriptor along these lines:

Can ask for personal details in written form in a limited way.

If we throw the idea of register into the mix we probably wouldn’t even start dealing with this until B1 (46 on the GSE):

Can write a basic formal email/letter requesting information.

And obviously even this is a far cry from what you might expect of a C1 learner in terms of formality where the GSE informs us they should be able to “express themselves fluently in writing, adapting the level of formality to the context.”  In fact there are, in true baby-step fashion, a full 10 descriptors solely related to register separating the B1 statement I referenced earlier from this one at C1.

So what’s the take-away? 

In terms of setting the task the lesson should be fairly obvious.  Don’t make them reach for something they’re not ready for.  Make the task challenging but attainable.  And when you’re correcting think twice before uncapping that red pen.  You probably don’t even want to introduce the “R” for register into your correction code until perhaps B1+ when that concept is more firmly established, certainly not for your pre-intermediate students.

Until now it has been fairly difficult for teachers to really make use of descriptors or learning objectives for their day-to-day teaching or assessment of students, but free online tools like the GSE Teacher Toolkit make it far easier to search for these “can do” statements, by level, type of learner, skill and key words.  It even allows us to see the grammar and vocabulary items which will enable our students to complete different types of tasks.

So the next time you sit down to a pile of writing assignments to correct don’t knock over that cup of hot bean juice as you lunge for your red pen.  Take a deep breath.  Think about what you and your students have been doing to work towards this task.  Think about where you want them to be in a few months’ time.  Keep consulting the objectives you want them working on and keep referring back to them.  A few moments of mindfulness can bring some real clarity, and perhaps a bit of joy, to a task we often see as a chore.

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