Sandy Millin - Giving students feedback on their writing

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to marking writing, including, but not limited to, using correction codes, correcting everything myself and voice-recording corrections.

In the past couple of years, I’ve experimented with a new approach, and I finally feel like I’ve hit upon something which works.

In the Cambridge DELTA exam, Paper One Task Five, you have to look at a piece of learner-produced writing or speaking, identify 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses of the text, providing an example for each, then choose one weakness to prioritise for follow-up work. My new method is inspired by this approach of prioritizing areas. Both my intermediate teen and upper intermediate adult students seem to have responded well to it.

At our school, we mark higher-level work out of twenty, with five marks each for content, target reader (including genre and formality), accuracy and range of language. Recently I have started putting together criteria for each area and going through these with students before they do any work which will be assessed. Here is an example for a report to be written by upper intermediate students.

I take several passes at each piece of writing I mark, using a system a little like this:

  1. Read first for a general impression, to give a target reader mark.
  2. Next, put a tick in the left-hand margin for each point students have made. Compare these points against the rubric. Use this to give a content mark, with the highest mark going to students who have sufficiently expanded on all of their ideas.
  3. Tick any particularly effective phrasing within the text, as well as any language which you know the student is experimenting with even if they haven’t got it quite right. This contributes to the range mark.
  4. Underline/draw arrows for any mistakes students have made. Don’t correct it yet!
  5. Once you have an overview of all of the mistakes, choose three priority areas, for example spellings, missing words, and prepositions, or wrong words, word forms, and subject-verb agreement. For each area, choose a highlighter colour, and highlight all of the relevant mistakes.
  6. Correct anything else. This is also when I rephrase anything which I think the student could have expressed differently.
  7. Write a comment for the student, including clear information about what they could do to improve their mark in each area. When you write about accuracy, include a list of the three areas that you have prioritized, and highlight them in the relevant colours.
  8. Give the work back to your student and ask them to correct the highlighted errors.
  9. Make sure you get it back from them (!) and look at it a second time.
  10. This time when you give it back, go through any errors the student was unable to correct.

You can see an excerpt from one of these pieces of writing here. And here is my comment on the work:

Since I started to mark work in this way, I have found that students are much more likely to engage with my corrections, and to ask about how to improve their writing in general. They also seem more likely to implement the corrections from one piece of work to the next. Most importantly, it doesn’t take much longer than any system I used before: only 10-15 minutes per text, depending on the handwriting!

How do you mark your students' writing? Do you use a similar approach? Does the system Sandy describes sound like something that would work well for you? 

Average: 5 (1 vote)

Submitted by Rob Dahling on Wed, 06/07/2017 - 13:31


For myself, I deal with longer writing pieces (1000+ words), so this seems a little labour intensive to apply to anything more than maybe 300 words (depending on the number of students one has to mark). I teach in Chinese Higher Education, so all my students are Uni students and to be honest, it doesn't matter how I mark their papers. I identify mistakes and the nature of the mistakes, point out shortcomings in critical thinking, provide feedback on their major errors (whether it is three or five or two or whatever) and, if the student is having serious difficulty, will note that they should come and speak with me about their writing problems. The students, on the other hand, don't care about the feedback. The only thing they care about is the mark. Which is why, after about three years of teaching writing (been doing it for seven), I stopped giving the students marks on their papers in the vague hopes they would pay attention to their errors and stop making the same ones. In the end, it comes down to the individual student - some come for help and want to improve their writing, while others don't care (but this can lead to a discussion of the Chinese Education System, and we just don't need to go there).

Submitted by P J Reddy on Wed, 07/12/2017 - 02:24


Thank Sandy for the insights in providing feedback on writing. If we have low strength your approach may works but in case of large classes it may not possible for a teacher to give feedback to every student. In my Indian context the average class size is 50 and providing feedback within alloted time is not possible. Always teachers concentrating on few Students and neglecting others. In Telangana state of India we are following Discourse Oriented Pedagogy where teacher provide inputs before they start any writing. The students have to write individually taking help of inputs in whole class interaction after that they work in groups and share each other and every one will contribute something so collaboratively they prepare one draft. Then they will present in the class. Then teacher will ask one group to present their writing which they written on chart. Then teacher will display the indicators related to particular writing i.e related to format and related language. Teacher also present one draft and read in the class. With this students gets lots of inputs for editing. Now, teacher invite the other groups to give feedback to improve the writing of the group that presented. Lot of brainstorming will happen and appropriate feedback will be considered and accordingly changes made in writing. Thematic editing, syntactic, morphological and editing related functuation marks also taken up. This will helpful to students in gaining proper feedback on their writing. Once this process complete then teacher ask individual to check their own writing and make necessary changes. If this happen frequently students get proper idea of to redraft and minimise errors in third writing. In this process teacher need lot of patience and need 90minutes time. Writing and feedback (editing) should go at one stretch. This is giving good results. Teacher efficiency is more important in this process. This is how we are addressing the feedback in writing. Thank you

Submitted by lfrey on Thu, 07/20/2017 - 18:41


Thanks for your approach to writing feedback. I'm going to try the idea of 3 priority areas. I congratulate you for giving 10+ min. to each piece. PJ gave good ideas for lg. groups. Not many EFL teachers who earn the equivalent of $5 USD/hr teaching 23+ students can spend the proper amount of time for feedback to students who do care about improving. I am always in a turmoil about "having a life" or giving my best to my learners.

Submitted by C O Connor on Tue, 11/13/2018 - 22:13


Thank you Sandy for a very interesting piece. It's great to see a well laid out marking system that another teacher is using successfully. I feel that good feedback is essential to help learners to improve their writing and your system seems logical and easy to use. Well done! I look forward to reading more of your work.

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