Yuck. I hate grading writing. I love teaching it, but the grading is awful. So many questions – do I correct all errors or just some? Should I correct the error, or just mark it? Should I just summarize a student’s mistakes at the bottom and have them find their own errors and correct them? What if the grammar is terrible, but the essay structure is also wrong? They’re going to have to rewrite the whole essay, so is it even worthwhile to mention the grammar mistakes?
And the biggest question of all: does any of it actually make any difference at all? There are linguists who argue strongly against corrective feedback. With all due respect to the linguists, that’s a really bad idea. But one I’m inclined to agree with when I’m feeling lazy or my students have written particularly bad essays.
Here are my thoughts after a few years of teaching:
1. Students say they want feedback, but many ignore it. Or how else can I explain the fact that they make the same mistakes over and over again?
2. Some students are afraid to make mistakes. I always explain that mistakes are okay because they show me that the student is learning.
3. Some students are not afraid to make mistakes. In other words, they pay no attention to what they write and make careless errors constantly. I find this comes as a result of thinking “this is just an ESL class, not a real class.” So, I make them write online or share what they write with their classmates. It’s amazing how when their audience expands, they try a little harder.
4. Students get easily overwhelmed, particularly at low levels. So, I limit my corrective feedback at those levels to just what we’ve discussed in class or what I can reasonably expect them to know.
5. Students get too cocky, especially at high levels. I often teach students who feel that they don’t need my class; their writing is fine. So, at high levels, I mark a lot of mistakes. Maybe not everything (I don’t care if they don’t use the right preposition), but enough to let them know they still have a lot to learn and pay attention to.
6. I never correct their mistakes. I use abbreviations instead: “wf” means “word form error,” “vt” means “verb tense error.” They have to figure out how to make the corrections on their own.
7. I hold a LOT of conferences. I’ve found that I accomplish more in a 10-minute, one-on-one session with a student than I do in an hour of class time with 15 students. I feel no guilt in canceling class for conferences. They really seem to learn more, and they work harder.
8. Eventually, I stop marking the mistakes at all. Especially for more advanced students, I feel that we reach a point where I have made them aware of their patterns of error. They know their trouble spots, and I should be able to say “subject-verb agreement was a problem again,” without having to mark every subject-verb agreement error.
Today, I will be collecting the second draft of my students’ first essays. We’ll see what they’ve learned so far.