Ten out of ten

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Marking is often seen as dull and repetitious - but that's only because the approach is wrong. Gerald Haigh offers some encouragement

Marking, says the folklore, is what teachers have instead of a social life. Some teachers are slaves to it, returning to their piles of books and folders every evening and for long sessions at the weekend. It would not be so bad were the work always absorbing and professionally demanding. Too often, however, it is transformed into mere drudgery by the perceived need to correct endlessly repeated trivial errors. There is a dreadful feeling that the effort is out of all proportion to any educational gain.

Part of the trouble is that marking has always been done for more than one audience. One important reader, for example, is the headteacher, who will see prompt and thorough marking as a measure of teacher competence. Another is the child's parents, who will want to see every error recognised and corrected, and an appropriate comment written down. Any perceived slackness might be a cause for complaint. And somewhere among all of this there is the child, who will, the teacher hopes, be motivated, encouraged and occasionally chastened.

These various purposes are often in conflict, and one result can be to push teachers into practices which are of doubtful educational value. They have always known, for example, that to cover a struggling child's writing in red ink may look like diligence but is probably educationally counter-productive. They suspect, too, that when children are given their marked work back, they do not, on the whole, carefully study and digest their teacher's corrections and comments. And yet despite these doubts, the drudgery continues.

What can be done to make things better? First and foremost, there has to be a whole-school marking policy which, these days, will be closely allied to the assessment policy. It will lay down the overall philosophy - and in doing so will both guide and protect those teachers who feel pressured by, for example, parental expectations. The policy in use at Crawley Ridge Junior, in Camberley, Surrey (one of the Chief Inspector's named good schools), for example, begins: "We believe that every piece of writing should be marked according to its purpose and the ability and level of each child."

This sentence alone, when you think about it, clarifies areas which for many teachers remain hazy. It implies, for example, that if you have set a piece of work for one purpose, you will not then mark it according to entirely different criteria. It suggests also that you will not do a demolition job on a less able child's work. The policy goes on to differentiate between "secretarial" marking, which is to do with the correction of structural errors, and "developmental" marking which focuses on the refinement of meaning. It is "secretarial" marking, of course - effectively proof reading - which can be time-consuming and depressing both for the teacher and the child.

The Crawley Ridge policy looks for a more positive approach by suggesting a number of techniques, most notably that of teaching children to edit their own work first. "Before a teacher addresses a child's work there should be evidence that the child has read through this work themselves, identifying possible errors." (The school teaches children to use a colour-code system, with highlighter pens, in editing their draft work. This enables the teacher to see just what editing and re-writing the pupil has done.) Other pointers include "use selective marking, focusing on one or two aspects", "give cues rather than corrections", "use differentiated comments according to the ability of the child." The document also lays down an agreed set of symbols and abbreviations - a "common agreed marking code . . . adopted by us all".

The policy goes hand in hand with the school's practice of using "assessment sheets" for classroom tasks. These have spaces for comments by pupil, teacher and parent, and they mean, for one thing, that parents are not having to pick up all their information from their children's exercise books - they are much clearer about the way in which their children's work is being assessed. The sheets also reinforce the idea that each classroom task must have a clear purpose which then provides the basis for assessment.

You've got to hand it to them

Some pointers for good practice in marking, culled from a number of heads and teachers.

* Plan your work with the marking load in mind. Long sessions of writing may keep the pupils out of trouble in class, but they will also keep you out of trouble on Saturday night.

* In any case, there is a mistaken culture in schools which says that learning has not taken place unless the child has written something down. Other reinforcements, such as discussion, drama, or brief pupil presentations can be just as effective at times.

* The best way to mark is with the pupil beside you. You cannot always do this, especially when classes are large, but once you realise just how effective it can be, you should be able to find ways of giving more classroom time to it, moving from desk to desk as the children work.

* Be sure that you and the pupils know the purpose of every piece of work they do. Make this clear in your written planning. Then mark with that purpose in mind.

* Try to get away from the traditional system whereby the children give you unrevised and uncorrected work which you then heavily annotate and give back. Teach your pupils to edit and correct their own work, perhaps working in pairs or groups. Not only do they become very good at this, but they learn much more than they would from looking at your corrections.

* If the work given in to you has already been revised and edited by the pupil, it will be much more rewarding to read and mark. Not only that, but your additional comments will be accepted by the pupil within this generally developmental context, and stand a real chance of moving the work forward.

* In many cases there is no need to provide a correction. It is enough simply to point out that there is a mistake, perhaps of a particular kind. "Cues rather than corrections" as the Crawley Ridge policy has it.

* If a child continually gives you work which requires demoralisingly heavy correction, consider that the problem probably lies with the task and that the answer is to do with proper differentiation.

* Similarly, if a child gives in page after page of perfect work, do not just be content to write, "Samantha, your work is always excellent." Consider that Samantha deserves and needs to be challenged to the point of making mistakes. Again, this is a matter of differentiation.

* Be positive, encouraging and precise in your comments. Do not write "You could do better" - point out just what needs to be done. Then always notice, and give praise, when a child has made the improvement you asked for.

* If there is no school marking policy, suggest that there should be one. Apart from anything else, the Office for Standards in Education will pick up inconsistencies.

* The traditional view that marking should be promptly and thoughtfully done holds good. Slipshod or late marking tells pupils that their work is not valued.

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