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January 01, 2006

Marking Students' Writing - A Considered Approach

Antony C. Spear
Aichi Gakuin University

1. Micro Considerations
The question of how to mark a student’s written work, or, more precisely, what to mark and how to mark it, has provoked some debate. The overriding importance of the question of what to mark was recognised by Fathman and Whalley (1990), quoting Griffin (1982: 299):

“the major question confronting any theory of responding to student writing is where we should focus our attention.”

Thus the essential question appears to be whether written feedback should concentrate on form, with reference to grammar and mechanics, or content, addressing aspects like organization of text and amount of detail.

Studies conducted by Fathman and Whalley (1990) concluded that feedback on both grammar and content, given separately or together, had a positive effect on students’ re-writing. While grammar feedback had more effect on correcting grammatical errors than feedback on content did on improving content, the latter was still shown to have some positive effect, with general comments of encouragement and praise helping to improve re-writes. Moreover, re-writing as an activity in itself, with or without feedback, was shown to produce consistently positive results.

Cohen and Cavalcanti(1990) discovered a bias for teacher comments on the work of lower proficiency students to concentrate, in an exclusive way, on grammar, with a consequent lack of constructive feedback on areas such as vocabulary and organization. The benefits of praise were also stressed, with special reference to weaker students being reported as anxious to receive praise on what they had done correctly.

Drawing on the findings of both these studies, the natural conclusion is that marking of students’ writing should relate both to form and content, and feedback should be devised to facilitate revision.

Having decided that comment be directed to form and content, and that comment on the latter be encouraging in its import, consideration next has to be given to how mistakes of form are to be marked.

Mistakes can be identified and corrected by the teacher, but a form of guided correction, whereby the number and location of mistakes are indicated - without hint or explanation of correct form - is preferred as a method that will require self-correction.

Fathman and Whalley (1990: 187) concluded:

“Students whose errors were underlined and who were given general comments on content improved significantly in both grammar and content when they rewrote their compositions.”

Important grammatical errors are, therefore, underlined, with a simple comment directing the learner to look again at the words and structures identified.

This ‘formative’ feedback can be complemented with the type of ‘Formative Feedback Profile’ recommended by Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (1987:146), in which the students’ relative strengths and weaknesses in the areas of ‘communicative quality’, ‘ideas and organization’, ‘grammar and vocabulary’ and ‘surface features’, are rated on a scale of ‘Excellent’ to ‘Weak’.

‘Summative’ feedback, also known as ‘grading’ or ‘marking’ can be given if requested by the learner as an indicator of her progress, or else if required by the curriculum. Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (1987: 147) advocate an emphasis on the first category, ‘communicative quality’, when considering summative feedback (with the added qualification that this kind of feedback should be based on more than one piece of work and should be given by more than one teacher)

In conclusion, feedback should be given considerately, expressed clearly, and used as part of a process of continuing development and improvement. The importance of feedback is not underestimated by Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (1987: 143):

“The feedback which the learner gets on her or his piece of writing plays a very important role, both in motivating further learning, and in ensuring that the learner’s texts gradually come nearer and nearer to written fluency.”

2. Macro Considerations
A fundamental re-definition of the learner’s writing from finished product to ‘work-in-progress’ in the context of a ‘process approach’ is favoured as a start to remedial action.

Essentially, the ‘process approach’, in recognizing that writing is not a directly linear activity, promotes guidance and intervention by the teacher at various stages, as opposed to ultimate control over the finished product. Silva (1990: 15) explains:

“From a process perspective, then, writing is a complex, recursive and creative process or set of behaviours that is very similar in its broad outlines for first and second language writers.”

By adopting the process approach, the teacher can become involved in the process of re-writing. One immediate advantage is that, by being accessible, the teacher will be able to clarify or elaborate on feedback when required.

To properly follow the process approach, it will be necessary to create a collaborative workshop environment which allows students sufficient time to work through the composing process again. Given the inevitable constraints on time for individual student attention, it is suggested that a full lesson is devoted to students’ consideration of feedback and teacher-student discussion on how to effect improvement.

Re-writing of the original written work can be assigned as homework, or else, if class scheme of work permits, done in the next lesson; the second alternative is preferable and would ideally fit the process approach, again allowing the teacher to participate in the writing process.

Adoption of the process approach, though placing some demands on time, is favoured for fostering a democratic, motivating classroom atmosphere, and, more specifically, for underlining the recursive nature of writing and extolling the benefits of revision.

As a preliminary to re-writing, direct reference can be made to the mistakes made in the original through a controlled composition exercise - practising relevant discrete areas of grammar. These exercises can be presented separately or combined, from a text, or, ideally (again time permitting), ‘tailor made’ by the teacher to address the learner’s individual areas through devised transformation or substitution exercises. A degree of discretion ought to be exercised when setting controlled composition work, since too much can de-motivate the learner and compromise the intended freer approach to composition.

Through an overall strategy that combines elements of the controlled composition and process approaches, the student can be best served in receiving a necessary degree of corrective input and guidance, while not being denied the opportunity or encouragement to write creatively.

Reference Sources:
Barbara Kroll (1990) Second Language Writing, Research insights for the classroom, Cambridge University Press: inc. essays by- Ann K. Fathman, Elizabeth Whalley; Andrew D. Cohen, Marilda C. Cavalcanti; Tony Silva

Liz Hamp-Lyons, Ben Heasley, (1987), Study Writing, Cambridge University Press

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