Do you remember getting papers back from your English or composition teachers that were covered in red ink? Did you take the time to decode each individual marking, consider every error, and diligently redraft your paper until it was flawless? Really? You did? Because I remember scanning for my grade, then fixing the mistakes marked by symbols as disinterestedly as if they were math problems—but only when revisions were required. The most frustrating part was that I made mistakes when I knew the correct rule, but somehow I just tapped the wrong key or picked the wrong word.
Many years later, I tried writing a narrative in Chinese characters. My teacher understood what I wanted to say, which gave me a sense of accomplishment, but once again I got a piece of paper returned with many red marks. Even though my teacher took the time to go over each correction with me, I felt so overwhelmed that I was hesitant to try writing anything in Chinese characters again.
These experiences made me consider how I handle written feedback for my students. My inner editor is tempted to cover their papers in red marks while I think of how to explain the errors, but then I remember the frustration and overwhelmed feelings I experienced and I wondered if there was a better way. So I did some research and reflected on my own instructional practices to learn that writing teachers should:
- Not correct everything at once. Instead of marking every error, I decided to make one form an objective of the lesson and teach it along with the content. For example, when working with Spanish speakers who were taught different rules for capitalization, I’d take time to explain the rules for capitalization during the lesson and make it clear that would be the focus of the written assessment through a rubric or other announced grading criteria. This sort of “restrictive editing” can help students to monitor those particular areas (Balderrama & Diaz-Rico 2005).
- Focus on errors, not mistakes. Anyone can make mistakes, such as a misspelled word or the wrong use of “your” or “their” when it is used correctly a few sentences down. But when you see this done consistently, you’re looking at an error. You can solve this directly by showing the student what the error is and explaining the rule, or indirectly by commenting on how there is a problem and letting the student find it (Ferris 2005). In my experience, though, direct feedback works best on all but the more advanced language learners, as they often simply don’t know the rule.
- Mark locally, read globally. Once you’re done focusing on the errors you’re trying to help the students solve, consider if the writing is actually effective for communication. Think about if the information answers the question, if you can understand what the student means, if points are supported, and if it’s organized overall. It may be worth your time to allow some “local errors” that don’t affect how well the reader can understand the point so you can focus on the “global errors” (Ferris 2005).
- Make revision part of the assignment. The overall goal is to have students monitor their own output instead of proving to them that you can be a critical editor. If you can, have students submit first and even second drafts of essays or other writing projects, it may even help to make global errors a priority the first time and then focus on the local errors for a draft before the final submission. That will allow you to see how much progress they are making when it comes to monitoring their errors and possibly alleviate the stress that comes from “all or nothing” grades.
- Be supportive with your feedback. Before writing out your corrections, remember how daunting it can be to write in your nonnative language. This is a good time to add a few comments about what the student is doing right, particularly if students start to monitor what used to be tricky errors. They may never see lots of red marks as good things, but you don’t want them to dread being overwhelmed or harshly criticized for their hard work.
Balderrama, M. V., & Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2005). Teaching performance expectations for educating English learners. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Ferris, D. R. (2005). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.