When it comes to reading a text, how many times have we told our learners to focus on gist, on general meaning rather than on isolated unknown words, and how many times have we designed or used activities that encourage to do just that?
In practice, how often do we focus on general meaning when we read their texts?
I realised most of the time I don’t do that. I may read the text once to check if it’s on task, but then I dive in and go straight for any inaccuracies I notice: missing article, wrong past tense or the omnipresent yet forgiven by SLA studies third person s. Only, I prefer green to red pen: green looks less threatening and stands out more than black or blue.
Mind you, that’s not quite my intention when I am handed in the piece of paper: it’s just that my eyes go straight for “inaccuracies”, as we like to call them, and my hand follows, green pen and all. Well, recently I have stopped to look at my learners’ faces when they notice me putting signs on their work: I can often see struggle and disappointment, in the form of timid smiles.
The learning process does have these moments, but I am willing to question the ways we go through correction and argue that we should treat learners’ texts in the same way as other texts we read for personal interest, before rushing to mark them.
While it is clearly not possible to compare an authentic, well-written text with an EFL learner’s because the latter will inevitably have some inaccuracies – which might make it more difficult for readers to understand – by focussing on content and meaning before addressing accuracy we give learners’ texts the same dignity we give to authentic, well-written texts.
In other words, we move from a “mmmh…let’s see what I understand from this, let’s see what needs correcting”, to a “let’s see what this person wants to communicate” kind of attitude.
The shift is from the text to the message and – ultimately – this improves the quality of the teacher-learner relationship and – in turn – learning.
In this post I would like to suggest a marking framework that encourages both teachers and learners to focus on the quality of written texts rather than on the quantity of mistakes, while raising awareness of the impact of mistakes on communication. I also suggest to use colours following a traffic-light kind of code: green for positive points, red for points that require attention, and orange for slips. As we read from left to right, green will be noticed first.
When I tried this with my students, I received positive feedback: they reported feeling more encouraged and appreciated the clarity of the layout. This feature, and the use of colours, should also facilitate feedback from learners with dyslexia or specific learning difficulties, as the parts of the text that need paying attention are highlighted more clearly on the page.
In Practice: a Framework for Marking Written Texts using green, red and…orange.
Take a moment to think: what do you imagine our learners will write in the text? You know them, and you know the topic so you will be able to make a guess.
- Skim the text and notice: focus on the parts you understand. What is the main message?
- Read the text again: which parts are unclear? Simply notice. Try not to pay too much attention to language at this stage. You may take notes on a separate piece of paper to simplify the next correction stages.
- Read the text once more, this time focussing on text structure: Where has the text been laid out appropriately?
What words or expressions make the text easy to understand?
Mark them with a green ✓ on the left margin to highlight effective language use.
- Now focus on inaccurate language. On the right margin, mark any point that needs correcting with a red ✗. For any inaccuracies you simply wish learners to notice (e.g. slips or spelling mistakes), you may also want to use orange: On the left margin if you think they will not affect the mark, or on the right if you think learners did not spend enough time proofreading their text. The page will look like this:
| Text text text … text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text
Text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …text text text …
- Finally, read the whole text quickly and write a short comment on the impact it had on you as a reader and on the areas that need revising, for instance:
“The points about your experience in the UK are very clear, but sometimes I didn’t understand when things happened: revise present and past simple”.
- If you need to assess the piece of writing on the spot, for instance after a mock exam, mark it according to the given criteria. If this is a first attempt, ask learners to edit writing and tell them you will assess it next time – or even later if necessary – because you want to see what they have learnt from feedback.
Note for Teachers:
The aim of the approach suggested above is to establish a marking routine that values the learners’ efforts and promotes the willingness to communicate through a text rather than just carry out a task.
At first glance, this procedure may look more suitable for 1:1 courses than for groups or large classes. With bigger classes, however, you may want to try going through steps 3 and 4 highlighting just a couple of points that need revising and a couple that were used confidently: no need to hunt for every single missing third person –s or misused article!
You will know that inaccuracies tend to be repeated and small ones will hardly ever impede communication.
If you have time constraints, you might want to use peer correction.
As is the case with reading, you will get faster with practice. Consider 10 minutes per text for 1:1 or small groups when you are just starting using the framework, and a maximum of 5 minutes per text as you become more confident, or when you need to mark more writing.
A final note on using a marking code:
Marking codes can be tricky: a single mistake can include, say, spelling and grammar. Then again, what do we mean by grammar? Take verbs for instance. Wrong tense? Wrong aspect? Wrong use of auxiliary verb? Which of these inaccuracies actually affect the quality of the sentence and – ultimately – of the text? Establishing a code may be useful to help learners identify any language that needs revising, but it may lead them to focus on single language items rather than on the bigger picture, i.e. on finding alternative ways (not necessarily correct, at least in the early stages) to convey meaning. It’s a sensible thing to choose which language points need revising according to our learners and to our teaching context.
Finally, a big thanks to Tom Wogan from Cambridge English Spain for suggesting writing on the margin, and Richard Twigg from International House Milan and Cambridge English for highlighting the importance of text layout!