How to improve marking in primary schools

  • How to improve marking in primary schools

Improvements in children’s writing will be proportionate to the quality of feedback and discussion in your classroom – ticking books doesn’t help anyone, says Pie Corbett...

For feedback to work, children have to be sufficiently enthusiastic as writers to want to improve, which is most likely to happen if they feel part of a community of readers and writers. It also helps if children’s writing is published, so that the effort towards a polished product is purposeful. No one edits shopping lists!

The more immediate the feedback, the more effective – so keep on top of marking that leads to ‘action’. According to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit (link below), formative assessment is the most powerful and cheapest way to influence children’s progress. During the Transforming Writing project, we have worked hard to develop approaches that take feedback beyond the vague ticking of writing and leaving such comments as ‘fab story!’

This may be well meant, but it is vapid and pointless. Be specific, clear and teach by illustration – show children how to improve.

Many teachers muddle feedback with ‘levels’. A child’s ‘level’ can only be judged by considering a range of writing. You cannot level a sentence, let alone words. Levels are summative assessment – a summary view of what a child knows, understands and is able to do. When marking and providing feedback, the teacher is focused on formative assessment. The piece of writing may form part of a growing bank of evidence used to ascribe a level, but as far as the teacher and the child are concerned, only four aspects matter:

  • How effective is this piece of writing? Does it create an impact on the reader? What are the strengths?
  • How could it be improved?
  • Where does it need copy editing (spelling/ punctuation errors)?
  • Have any specific targets been used – and was this successful? Avoid simplistic ticking things off on a checklist.

The key to effective feedback and marking lies in reading the writing aloud so the effect can be heard and felt. Then discuss – what works and why? What does not work and how can it be improved? Without discussion and illustration, written feedback has very little effect.

The visualiser (or a webcam) is an essential tool for whole-class feedback. The author reads her writing aloud, explains her intended effect (e.g. to persuade the reader), what she thinks works well and why. Then the class responds. Children discuss their ideas and begin by feeding back the positives – before moving on to suggestions for improvement. Keep this focused so that only one or two ideas are given. It is essential that we leave our writer encouraged. Check specific targets as well as considering whether the focus of the writing has been achieved, e.g. to create a realistic setting. This work can be made even more powerful if the teacher cooks up ‘one I made earlier’ for review, building in strengths but also common weaknesses and errors.

Some teachers have tried photocopying a confident child’s writing for everyone to consider. What does the class like and why do they think the section is powerful? Give several suggestions for improvement. Isolate a weaker sentence or two – ask the children to write suggested improvements and be ready to share and talk these through. Use effective writing from previous years and discuss what makes the writing powerful. Guided sessions provide a useful opportunity for group discussion of writing. Also, train children to work in pairs as ‘response partners’. Schools in different parts of the country have experimented by using linked class blogs so that children respond to each other’s writing. Try using ‘writing buddies’ and link up through quadblogging (quadblogging.net). Experiment with occasional peer marking sessions. Children have to underline or highlight strengths in their partner’s writing and find several places for improvement. They can be asked to rewrite sentences, or at least leave a few bullet points suggesting strengths and ideas for ‘next steps’.

Make a direct impact

When marking, the occasional use of two colours can be handy as long as this is supported by discussion. Many teachers use one colour to highlight strengths and another to indicate where improvements are needed. Where the teacher indicates an improvement or correction is needed, the children should be in the habit of immediately altering their writing in response. In this way, marking leads to a direct and immediate improvement in the quality of children’s writing. Other teachers use coloured ‘spots’ in the margin. The children then have to ‘spot’ the section which is effective as well as making improvements. These strategies mean that marking leads to action.

Marking is also about planning – it tells us what we need to teach next. Experiment with mini lessons, picking up on common weaknesses or errors. When feeding back, show on the visualiser how to make improvements and then ask children to practise on mini whiteboards or within their own writing. Formative assessment forms the next steps in teaching as much as informing the children about what they need to focus upon.

When commenting, respond as an interested reader. Talk to the child as a writer. Comments need to focus on strengths but also make suggestions for improvement as well as ‘next time’ steps. Children should write a reply so a dialogue begins. Make a fuss about marking. Some teachers are too much in the habit of ticking things that are incorrect – this especially happens with punctuation. Take pride in the children’s writing so that they too learn to take care. Try showing how to improve a common error in a child’s writing and then indicate other places where they should attempt to improve.

Many teachers are destroying children’s pleasure in writing because they over-focus on levels, provide lists of success criteria that have to be ticked off with no consideration of impact. Indeed, in many classes, teachers no longer teach writing. They teach children to jump through hoops and it is destroying independent thought, creativity and the imagination.

Formative assessment lies at the heart of teaching writing. It is what the teacher does as teaching occurs, shifting and adapting as the lesson proceeds. It is what the children do as they engage with the session, as they tussle with their writing, generating and crafting ideas. All great teachers use formative assessment, for it forms every moment of teaching and learning.

The Education Endowment Foundation toolkit can be found here: educationendowmentfoundation.org .uk/toolkit

Transforming Writing is a teacher research project into formative assessment and writing. The project is managed by the National Literacy Trust, researched by John Rooke from the University of Winchester and led by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong. It is funded by the Esme Fairburn Foundation.

Download the interim Transforming Writing evaluation report from tinyurl.com/tptransformingwriting

Pie Corbett