Reading exercise books

Marking as an English teacher means you spend most of your week reading. If I am honest, most of what I read is what I mark. A set of exercise books can become a novel; more than a novel depending on the class size. A novel, of course, full of repetition and analysis. Perhaps, then, more a book of critical essays.

A recent conversation prompted me to realise that while anyone I have worked with knows that marking is 1. My absolute favourite part of teaching and 2. The way I spend almost every evening, weekend and holiday, I have somehow neglected to say very much on the subject here. Below is my attempt to shoe-horn my ideas about marking into a blog about reading.

Teaching lessons: in my first year in the classroom, I found I wasn’t terribly good at it. I read Phil Beadle’s How to Teach, wherein he writes: “make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher… mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.” Essentially, Beadle contends, you can be the greatest educator ever, but if you don’t mark, your students won’t progress; conversely, you can be a bit of a rubbish teacher, but if you mark well, great things could happen. In my first-year-teacher despair, I clung to marking.

While my mentor and line manager watched me hunched over yet another pile of books (“you’re marking again Jo?”) and begged me to instead spend more time planning semi-decent lessons, I ploughed on regardless, writing buckets of WWWs and EBIs on every page a child’s pen had reached. I handed books back, and rushed to deliver my next rubbish lesson.

Happily, what I learned from this was to balance my time more effectively. I went on to spend less time marking, to mark less frequently and say less, and taught better lessons where children went on to make some progress, as well as making my life less of a nightmare.

Indeed, as the years have gone on, it seems that the thinking around marking, at least in my sphere of existence, has become ever-more progressive and manageable. If the mantra of my mentors early on was “mark less!”, it is now “write less!”

I’ve read so many excellent blogs on time-saving marking, notably from Joe Kirby; and Alex Quigley has signalled my earth-changing, life-altering view of marking, and made me realize that “marking” as a term is horribly outdated. What we need to talk about, instead, is feedback. (Indeed, Quigley’s department has a feedback policy as opposed to a marking policy, a semantic shift I adore.)

When we mark a student’s book, they need to spend about as much time doing something with that marking as I spent giving feedback. This means that rather than writing “nice notes” as I had been advised early on (“put something on every page, so Ofsted don’t think you’ve ticked and flicked”), I do tick and flick their notes (if they are there and in good order; if they are not I tend to write “WHERE ARE YOUR NOTES?!”). I mark their extended writing closely, but not too closely if it’s riddled with errors – most of their ideas are good, and the human brain can process only so much red/pink/green ink.

At the end, I write an encouraging comment (unless they have been truly lazy) and a target. I used to check students had met their target the next time I marked their books, but I now recognize this is not the most effective way of target setting. I now phrase their target in such a way as to encourage editing there and then. And, crucially, I give students time to go back and improve their writing.

The first ten to twenty minutes of the following lesson can then be spent improving a decent paragraph and making it marvelous. The efficacy of this exercise very much depends on what you have written as a teacher; your comments need to be specific, detailed and open-ended, allowing students to add to their responses without needing you to stand beside and cajole each letter from their biro.

Interestingly, in our department’s mock-Ofsted last year, the English specialist pulled out a couple of books that he believed showed outstanding marking. These books had a relatively small amount of ink spilled, but it was done in a miraculously effective way. Teachers had written short, pointed questions at key moments, and students had responded and improved their work. Easy as that: marking not to build confidence, not to check every error, not to show Ofsted we have marked – marking, instead, that allowed students to progress, and allowed teachers to mark without wanting to kill themselves. What a relief!

I haven’t written about the state students keep their exercise books in, because it’s not something I’m especially concerned about. Perhaps another year I will endeavour to inspire students to keep their books pristine, but I’m not a very visual person, and I can’t help but overlook dog-eared covers for the glorious writing inside.

All of this sounds so painfully straightforward, I wonder if anyone is still reading. There will always be new ideas, and new approaches. Yet the core of marking is beguilingly simple: mark often, mark strategically, mark specifically, and make the students do some work too.

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One thought on “Reading exercise books

  1. Pingback: Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way | Reading all the Books

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