How I teach - Motivational marking that tallies up

9th January 2015 at 00:00
A competitive self-assessment task can challenge pupils to improve their writing skills

When I return an assessed piece of work to my students, they immediately turn to the final page, look at their marks and then begin comparing them to everyone else's. No one bothers to read my constructive comments, even if I used a "friendly" green pen; they either ignore my notes or complain that I scribbled on their work.

It's an unfortunate fact that, for many students, once their work has been marked that's it - they move on. Efforts to convince them of the need to edit, improve and redraft often push them close to mutiny. To combat this, I decided to try a new way of encouraging my class of reluctant writers to look closely at their strengths and weaknesses and set themselves some personalised targets for improvement.

I started by asking them to write a response to a short piece of text we had studied. We planned the work as a class and then the students began to write in silence, working under timed conditions. Once they had handed in their responses, I highlighted the errors in each piece, focusing on spelling, punctuation, verb tense, sentence structure, paragraphing, subject-verb agreement and expression - the elements of good writing that we had already studied. I created a table that listed these elements in one column and, in an adjacent column, provided an abbreviation for each ("sp" for spelling, "p" for punctuation and so on). A third, larger column had the heading "Tally".

I handed the class their highlighted work and a copy of the table; there was no grade or level and certainly no comments. I also made sure that there wasn't too much highlighting for the writers who were struggling - I didn't want the exercise to be completely disheartening.

Next I asked the students to identify each highlighted error and write the correct abbreviation next to it, then tally up their mistakes in the table. I encouraged them to work with a partner - students are often more than happy to point out the mistakes of others.

They took to this task with surprising eagerness; I think it was because there was something of the role of detective about it, plus a competitive edge as they compared tallies with their partners. When the students had finished, their tallies allowed them to clearly see the areas where they had made the least and most errors. I asked them to write their strengths and weaknesses underneath the table and set themselves two or three targets for improvement. I suggested that each target start with: "I will read through my work carefully."

When it came to redrafting and correcting the errors, I gave the class the option of typing up their work and once again encouraged them to work in pairs.

The exercise saved me marking time, placed accountability on the students themselves, and provided them with a concrete appraisal of their abilities. Of course, once they had finished their final draft they couldn't wait to find out what mark they had got.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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