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Marked improvement

Shirley Clarke reveals how her development of a new way of marking pupils' work can have dramatic benefits

Marking pupils' work has been, for generations of teachers, formulaic: correct the spelling and grammar, write comments and give a grade. If the work is particularly good, teachers may bestow a reward such as a gold star.

This might seem fair enough, a sensible and time-honoured way to give feedback on pupils' progress. Yet this way of marking has drawbacks - and there is another, better way.

One of the disadvantages of traditional marking is that pupils are set up to be compared constantly to one another. Those who do well can become complacent and those who do not may become demoralised and demotivated.

Another drawback is that any tip for improvement the teacher writes on the work depends on the pupil understanding and remembering it in later and different contexts.

For some years I have been working with teachers across the country to develop "focused marking", a method that overcomes these problems. The feedback from the trials has been extremely positive, often combined with significant improvements in children's confidence, writing and test results.

A Year 6 teacher in Tower Hamlets, London, achieved writing results of 53 per cent at level 4, with the rest gaining level 5, earning the school a DfES Achievement Award. The teacher attributed most of her success to "focused marking".

Other teachers have commented that the approach has caused a shift in their marking orientation, so that they now look for what children have done well rather than what they have done wrong.

There are three steps in "focused marking": 11Highlight or circle three places where each child has most closely matched the learning intention. These can be individual words or whole sentences.

22Underline or mark with an asterisk one place where the work could be closer to the learning intention. At the foot of the work write an improvement suggestion. If, for example, the learning intention was for the pupil to develop an effective characterisation of a friend, the teacher could write:

* a reminder prompt ("Say more about the friend's character");

* a scaffolded prompt ("Describe one time when he demonstrated why he was a good friend, for instance when you were upset about something"); or

* an example prompt ("He is a good friend because he never talks about me behind my back").

3Give the children back their work and allow them five to 10 minutes (depending on the context and their age) to make the small, focused improvement underneath your improvement suggestion. Encourage them to read the part of their work that incorporates the improvement to a partner.

To begin with, the teacher marks one or two pieces of work per child a week in this way. The teacher incorporates this way of marking into a whole-class session or guided writing groups.

Gradually, the teacher hands over control to the children. First, they are asked to highlight their own three successes in meeting the learning intention. Next, they identify one aspect of their work that could be improved.

The last stage is where everything takes place within the course of a lesson or homework session. Children are asked, either individually or in pairs, to identify the successes and the area that can be improved, and they make the improvement straight away. Constant review, with the recognition of personal success and improvement, becomes an automatic process for teachers and pupils and is embedded in the structure of a lesson. Improvements are internalised by students and are more likely to be applied in future work.

What makes this approach different is its specificity and its timing: success and improvements alike are focused on a particular learning intention rather than generalities, and the improvement is made on that piece of work rather than remembered for a later context. As Black and Wiliam pointed out in their report Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment: "For assessment to be formative the feedback information has to be used."

Shirley Clarke is an associate of the Institute of Education, University of London.More detail about marking can be found in her books Unlocking Formative Assessment and Enriching Feedback, both Hodder amp; Stoughton Educational Division paperbacks, pound;14.99 each. Details about Shirley Clarke's courses can be found on; email: shirleyclarke@wi.rr.comInside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam is available for pound;3 from the Publications Section, Department of Education and Professional Studies, King's College London; Tel: 020 7848 3189. With thanks to Carolyn Lyndsay from St Elizabeth primary school in Tower Hamlets, London.

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