Recently I noticed a colleague’s written comment on one of her intermediate students’ work, an extended text of about 200 words. At the top, in large, heavy writing, it simply and starkly read: You must use the past tense! The text itself was covered with the teacher’s underlining and replacement words.
We do not know the context here – perhaps the teacher was exasperated with this particular student, or perhaps the past tense had just been (re)visited in class. However, I am sure many of us have given written feedback that was hurried or lacking in some way. Unfortunately, this can be damaging or at least unhelpful, particularly for some learners.
When marking longer texts that students have spent more than 40 minutes writing, it’s generally advisable to consider the following.
• Start with an overall summary comment which is positive. The last part of this comment can focus on ‘points to work on’, but constructively. Endeavour to replace negative words like don’t or avoid with more helpful, forward-looking comments like: (Doing X, Y, Z) will help to make your writing more X. Or When you next write (give the genre), try (give suggestion) as this will (give a reason).
• Avoid picking up on every single problem.
• Use ‘super’ as well as ‘small’ categories, when evaluating. My ‘super’ categories are: How clear and ‘fluid’ is the message? How appropriate is the style for the given genre and audience? How well has the task been achieved?
• When focusing on accuracy, look beyond grammar, at lexis (including collocations), syntax, discourse (including punctuation).
• If the text is very accurate, re-assess it! You may find it actually lacks sophistication for the level, so your evaluative comments could suggest how to improve range.
Next week’s tip gives further advice on this area.