Saturday, 3 November 2012

Much Ado About Marking and Progress

The Road Not Taken

Before I started my PGCE course, I was faced with a difficult choice: should I take a Drama PGCE or an English PGCE? If I took Drama, I would be faced with lots of extracurricular activities of shows, plays and rehearsals. Each thing is fun but a drain on my free time.  If I took the English path, I would be faced with lots of marking as I faced roughly 150 items of marking per week.  I know I am reducing  each course down to one single thing, but it was an important thing: how much of my free time would be taken up with marking? I knew teaching was tough, but I wanted to be able to manage my time. Eventually, I decided I’d take the English route, as I could manage the workload and not be held to a set time.  I could spread the marking across the week. Therefore, I could have a more flexible way of working. Pah! If only it was as simple as that. Several years on, I teach English and help organise the school play, so I get the marking and the rehearsals and plays.  

For this week’s blog I want to talk about marking and, especially, feedback. Since the new Ofsted guidelines, teachers have been in all of a flutter over the marking of books and, especially, an inspector judging teaching based on the scribbles in a book. The latest fashion accessory for the teacher is a pile of exercise books. And here, walking down the catwalk, is Martin, a Geography teacher. As you can see he has ditched the leather elbow pads and is wearing a lovely Next shirt and tie combination. The red of the tie is complemented by the red pen adorning his hand. Plus, the pile of books in his other hand brings out the colour in his eyes. 
We know that Ofsted might (some cases recently prove they might not) look at a student’s exercise book.  Are we in danger marking for Ofsted instead of the students? Some people use a code akin to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to inform students of how to improve, while others, like myself, tend to write an essay in feedback, even though the student in question may have only written three lines. 

I have had a mixed past with marking and it came to a head about a year ago. In the past, my marking has always been detailed and thorough. I have been described as a ‘Trojan’ in terms of marking, which is about the only way I could possibly attain that comparison. I am a 10 stone weakling. Even Jane Austen would beat me in a fight. She would be blindfolded and fed on a Georgian diet, yet she would still beat me - easily. Anyway, I worked hard marking during the weekends. A whole pile of essays would often take me a good Sunday to annotate and collate. Yet, students made the same mistakes again and again. I got disappointed, deflated and depressed. Here was me working hard to help them improve and still Tim wouldn’t use capital letters and Jenny would always put a circle, or heart, over the letter ‘i’. The work I was putting in was not producing the goods. There would be occasional improvements, but, overall, students would make little or no progress in their written work. They understood things and I taught things reasonably well, but it wasn’t there in the writing.  That is when a year ago I decided to experiment with marking. What did I do differently? Did I use some crazy or whacky technique? Simply: no. I changed the way I marked - big time. I changed my routines and pushed myself to work out how to get students to improve their writing.



Before: I would spend roughly 10 to 15 minutes on annotating and leaving a comment on a student’s work. Students would spend 2- 3 minutes reading through notes and writing down targets. 

Now:  I spend about 8 minutes marking a piece of work, but I use a set structure as suggested by Keith West in his book ‘Inspired English Teaching’. Rather than give a grade or a level, I give students a mark out of 30. The total mark is broken down as follows:

Ten marks for sentences
Three marks for punctuation
Seven marks for paragraphing

Seven marks for content

Three marks for presentation.

I would break down the marks for students on their assessment, so they can see where they got or lost the marks. Then, they identify their strongest and weakest area.  The student then does something about their weakest area, with the hope of improving things. At a later stage, I might tell them how many marks gets a level 5 or so on.

The great thing about this approach meant that my marking was reduced, but students could see clearly where they went wrong. It stopped me repeating the same thing again and again.  They could identify weaknesses clearly and they could see the relationship between the aspects assessed. Sentence structure is more important than presentation in this assessment. I could then change the marks and the things I am assessing. I was making the marking work for me and not the other way round. Sorry, guys I cannot stand the APP grids. That, for me, is working towards a set and rigid structure. APP grids seem to be designed with very little thought for the day-to-day use. I want the marking to suit me and not the marking to suit someone else’s view of assessment. And, that view seems to one created in an ivory tower with lots of buzz words and jargon floating in the air.

This approach wasn’t used for everything, but I used it once or twice a term and students found it more meaningful than the benign comments I made previously.  Reassuringly, several students have requested that I do it more often. This approach worked for some students, but even I know that too much of something is bad.


Bits of paper / Redo
Before: I would highlight some common errors in the class. There would be a task on one or two errors. Students would complete the task irrespective of if they had a problem with it or not.

Now:  Based on the numerical feedback, I gave students a small feedback sheet. If they had a low score with sentences, I’d give them a sentence help sheet.  They then had 25 minutes to rewrite a paragraph of the assessment, improving the aspect. The sheet would offer them tips, examples and ideas of what would get them full marks. As an extra treat, I’d get students to sit next to a friend in the class that was good at that aspect.

An example of the advice sheet:


Improving Writing: Punctuation                           Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Use all punctuation marks correctly.

·         Use a variety of punctuation at least once ( - : ; ,. ?...! “) 

·         Use some complicated punctuation accurately (:;-)



Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to improve the punctuation.


·         Read the paragraph again and check that no full stops are missing.

·         Check that commas have been use correctly. Would it make sense as a sentence on its own? Sometimes we put two sentences together with a comma, when a full stop is just as good.

·         Add a bracket, question mark or exclamation mark to your writing. You don’t need all of them. 

·         Find two sentences that are closely linked together and join them together with a semicolon, instead of a full stop.

·         A colon (:) introduces a new item.  For example- It was a day I always hated: Monday. Try to use one colon in your writing.


Then, I would take their exercise books in and mark just the paragraph for that aspect. I would write a number down and if there was something they weren’t doing, I’d highlight it on the help sheet.  This was simple and quick and it meant that I could check to see if progress had or hadn’t been made.
I don’t know if you feel this, but the nature of English means that unless you do something similar in the next piece of work, it is hard to see immediate progress. One assessment could be a reading task and then next is a writing task. It isn’t always easy to see the progression. We are testing different skills. That’s why I think it is important to work on improving then and there after the assessment has been completed.

The result of this method has meant that I have applied it to reading assessments. Furthermore, in each English classroom, in my school, there is a dedicated section to these help sheets. Therefore, if a student has a problem with ‘explanations’, then they can get a sheet to help them – independent learning, Mr Ofsted. 

Working on a paragraph
Before: Students would write endless attempts at tasks. They would write drafts and practise essays. Each essay would be annotated and graded.

Now: Students will attempt to write practise essays; however, I now get them to write more single paragraphs to demonstrate a skill.  Rather than give a grade, I will give a tick or a cross against a skill. Take, for example, students writing about Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. I would ask them to write a paragraph commenting on one aspect of the presentation of Abigail.  Before writing, I would tell them that I am looking for evidence of discussion of these aspects:



Audience’s reaction

Bigger Picture (context / structure)

Or, BLAB, as students love a good acronym. My marking would consist on me writing the acronym BLAB  and ticking or crossing if I see evidence of it. You can see the sweat pouring off my brow as I wrote that in every exercise book. Then, students would stick in a small help sheet related to that aspect and then rewrite the paragraph improving it.

Or, students could highlight the different strands and set themselves a target.

The marking is very simple and less arduous than marking a whole essay. It meant that I could direct progress in a more controlled and manageable way. Look, Mr Inspector, the students have made progress and this is how they have improved.   


And finally….
I have moaned about my PGCE  course before, but I felt that I needed a whole week’s worth of seminars and lectures on marking and feedback. It was brushed off with complete indifference. I recall an afternoon of looking at GCSE scripts. Sadly, I had to cut my teeth on marking on my own and learn about it for myself. Again, why should I have to learn the hard way for everything? The things I suggest here are part of an on-going project of mine. I mark more effectively now than I did before, but that is down to me sitting down and reflecting on my marking methods and looking for more ways to build progression into my marking.

I even write the word ‘progress’ against work in exercise books, if it shows improvement. The students can see where they have improved rather than work that is just good. A pen and a few bits of paper are all you need to build progress into their written work.

Within my school I have been praised for my marking and I have led some INSET about some of the methods I have used, but importantly it has made us look at marking in more detail. A result of this has been one person suggesting using a highlighter to mark practise exam essays. The teacher highlights where the marks come from. This brilliant, but simple, method shows students where the waffle is and where the good stuff is.  It gets them to see how they haven’t, sometimes, got any marks for their opening paragraph, or if things are repeated.

I am open to new ideas and I don’t think I have got it cracked, but for the day-to-day marking, I have reduced the workload so I can spend more time with family and doing fun stuff. But, I am more focused with praising what they did well (you got 7 out of 7 for paragraphing) and highlighting the things that need improving (4 out of ten for sentences), and, finally, helping them to improve in a differentiated way (here is sheet and improve one paragraph). 
Thanks for reading and thank to @Gwenelope for help and support,


P.S. Check out for more feedback stategies, especially with a focus on verbal feedback.

Teacher’s Comment:

Well done, Chris. You have clearly worked hard on making your writing concise and clear for the reader. I like your use of humour, but I think you could be more creative with language and use a few more techniques in your writing. Overall, a good effort and I am sure you will listen to the advice given.

Target:  Try to use a simile or a metaphor to help make your writing interesting.


Sense of Humour: 6/7
Sentence Variety: 4/7
Paragraphing: 3/3
Presentation: 3/3
Structure: 2/5
Figurative Language: 2/5

Total: 20


  1. It's essential to find ways to make it manageable, isn't it? I've taken a much more 'diagnostic' approach over the years, like a doctor might, identifying what REALLY needs sorting (the missing leg) and leaving what is more minor in the circumstances (the common cold). Sometimes I write nothing, but just use two highlighters, highlighting what's good and what needs improving. They then have to guess a) which colour meant which and b) why. Sometimes they do this as peer assessment. Anyway, I like using highlighters!

  2. Thanks, Fran. Great idea of the doctor metaphor. It is true that we are in constant search for making marking easier and effective. Love the idea with different highlighters.

    Thanks again,


  3. I know I am reducing each course down to one single thing, but it was an important thing: how much of my free time would be taken up.

  4. It is an extremely helpful and useful post thanks.

  5. Adorning. Single D. I'm a maths/ICT teacher, but I never trust a spellchecker. My father taught me to spot a smelling pistake at 1000 paces. I'll forgive a typo though, anyone can make those and then not spot it when proofreading one's own work.

    I loved the post though. It chimes even now with the methods I use for marking. I can't abide "good" or "excellent" as a response to a learner's best efforts; better to tell them why it is good, how could it be made excellent. Marking FOR learning, not OF learning.

  6. Thanks for that. Good to see that my blog from November is still being read. Agree with the marking 'for' and not 'of' learning.

  7. A really great post - thank-you! I really struggle to manage marking and like yourself have been evaluating how I go about it and crucially how to make sure all that effort is producing progress. I came across your excellent blog earlier this evening and have bookmarked several of your posts as I intend to implement many of your ideas next year. Thanks again!