Month: June 2013

How to Mark Written Work Effectively – Clarifying Errors

Here are a few more ways of giving corrective feedback on learners’ written work, this time focusing on ensuring that they clearly understand where they have made mistakes and which of these were most serious.


1)      Praise / Correction Box

  1. At the end of the piece of writing, the tutor writes a box with notes of the main areas in which errors have been made (particularly repetitive errors and those aspects which affect the grade, if one is being given), and aspects of the work that are particularly strong. The students can then re-draft their own work and work to correct errors in the areas specified, or simply refer to this box when writing their next assignment (then the tutor doesn’t have to check re-drafts).
  2. Such a box may look like this:

Well done

Needs work

–          Strong topic sentences that introduce paragraphs neatly. –          Indiscriminate use of ‘will’ to refer to future
–          Good use of transitions –          Erratic use of definite articles

(Bartram, M. & Walton, R., Correction: A Positive Approach to Language Mistakes (Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1994), pp. 82-3.)


2)      Hot cards

  1. With each piece of work handed back, students receive a ‘hot card’ with the top 3 (or however many the tutor thinks appropriate) areas of mistakes – rather like in the correction box above. Students can use these to direct their proof reading in future writing, and can collate them to see the most frequently made errors. Extra homework can then also include doing some separate exercises specifically on the areas that occur most often on their hot cards.
  2. If invoice books are used to write out hot cards for each student, the tutor can also keep a record of the most frequent errors.

(Bartram, M. & Walton, R., Correction: A Positive Approach to Language Mistakes (Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1994), p.87.


3)      Native Speaker examples

  1. Reformulating students’ utterances instead of merely underlining or correcting them provides students with more examples of ways to express their ideas more naturally. Sometimes, students’ writing can be virtually mistake-free but still not sound natural – providing alternative formulations of what they have written helps them to learn a more natural writing style.
  2. To save time when providing examples, look at a sample of a student’s work together in class and compare it to the tutor’s/native speaker’s reformulation, and ask students to assess the differences.

(Bartram, M. & Walton, R., Correction: A Positive Approach to Language Mistakes (Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 1994), pp. 90-1.



How To Mark Written Work Effectively – Using Underlining

On many teacher training courses, the focus is placed so heavily on classroom behaviour and materials development, that many new teachers  are not shown effective ways of marking learners’ work. More experienced teachers, too, often stick to one method of correcting students‘ writing, without necessarily thinking about its effectiveness. Based on these considerations, I’ve started a series of posts on various ways to mark students’ written work, which may be time-saving for us teachers and more effective in promoting learning among our students.

Let’s start with the classic and a few variations…

English: Underlined text. Image created entire...
English: Underlined text. Image created entirely by myself. Ineligible for copyright because it’s just underlined text. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)      Underling mistakes

  1. Underline & correct – the more times the word/phrase is underlined, the more serious the error. Re-drafting doesn’t make much sense here, as students will simply copy out the corrections of the tutor – although it makes them aware of their errors, the chances are they will not internalize the corrections.
  2. Underline with code – the incorrect words/phrases are underlined in the text, and symbols are used in the margin or above the underlined word to show the type of error. For example w.o. can indicate incorrect word order, or sp likewise incorrect spelling. Students are expected to diagnose their own problems and fix the errors. Students can re-draft the essay.
  3. Underline with number – the incorrect words/phrases are underlined in the text, and numbers are written in the margin or text to refer to the type of error or a longer comment. This is especially useful for common errors (saves tutor’s time writing the same comments frequently) and with errors which are more stylistic and not simply grammatical/lexical, e.g. “no new lines within a paragraph” or “topic sentence doesn’t introduce the whole idea of the paragraph”. Students can re-draft the essay
  4. Students can also work together to find & correct the mistakes in their essays. This is much more effective, as it’s always easier to see other people’s mistakes. Also, explaining corrections to each other helps clarify understanding of how the language works.

See also:

Discussion & Negotiation: Lost in the Desert

Notes for Teachers

This task is a small-group discussion task which will enable your learners to practise their discussion and negotiation skills in an informal context. The task is adapted from similar activities which are often used in assessment centres when companies are recruiting new employees. Depending on the situation and what language and/or skills you want to focus on, you can either use the task to evaluate their negotiation skills (as is done in the assessment centres), or their use of suitable language for discussions. You may wish to first teach them a few polite discussion / negotiation phrases, both formal and informal, so that they can practice them in this task.

The follow-up discussion questions can be omitted, depending on your focus, but function well as a plenary to the task. Again, the obvious langauge focus would be polite discussion phrases, but you can pre-teach and/or practise other language points as relevant to your course.

Set up the situation for your students: It is lunchtime and you are driving across the desert with friends. You are lost. Suddenly, your truck breaks down and you are stranded. In your group, you must discuss and agree on which items you are going to take from the truck – but you can only take five, because it is too hot to carry any more. Which five things from the list below would you take with you from the truck, and why? How can you use them?

NOTE: each item in the list counts as one item, i.e. “2 bottles of water” = one item to carry.

Remind the students: Although they are worried about being lost, and are very hot because of the desert climate, they are still friends and need to discuss and negotiate politely!

Wilderness - Gwadar
Wilderness – Gwadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Information for Students

Items in the truck:

25 Euros

2 bottles of water

2 bars of chocolate

a loaded gun

an iPod

2 blankets

3 cans of cola

a hand-held mirror

a kitchen knife

a picnic basket containing bread, cheese & apples

a battery-powered torch & batteries

a map

a box of matches

a can of petrol

a pack of cigarettes

a small first aid kit

… and any parts of the truck you think are useful.

Follow-Up Discussion Questions

What’s the worse environment to be lost in? Why?

 What physiological or psychological problems might you encounter when lost in an extreme environment? How would you handle them?

English: Snow blanketing Snake Valley and Whee...
English: Snow blanketing Snake Valley and Wheeler Peak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ice-Breaker: Find Someone Who…

Particularly for language learners, a comfortable atmosphere and a strong class community are important so that all students feel at ease trying out new language and experimenting with what they’ve learnt. They should feel comfortable speaking in front of the group, and not be scared of making mistakes.

Here’s a quick little task which can be done at the start of any new course to get the students mingling and talking to each other (in English!). You can also use it to revise forming questions in English – both yes/no questions and questions with wh- words. Simply copy enough sheets for each student, and tell they can only write down each person’s name once! You may need to adapt a couple of the items to your own teaching situation – try not to make it too easy, though!

The task will also help teachers to get to know their new students, as you can ‘save’ a bit of information with the students’ names in memory! Just make sure you have time to compare lists at the end of the lesson!

Enjoy 🙂

Find someone who …

–          doesn’t own a bicycle.

–          doesn’t eat meat.

–          has a parent who isn’t German

–          has been to a country you haven’t.

–          has already started Christmas shopping

–          is wearing a piece of jewllery you are not

–          whose middle name begins with M

–          is studying the same subject as you

–          likes all of the James Bond films

–          has read all of the Harry Potter books

–          was born in a different country to you

–          regularly does a sport you’ve never tried

–          drinks red wine

–          doesn’t have any older brothers or sisters

–          can touch their nose with their tongue

Referring to Sources in Academic Work

This basic guide is aimed particularly at (EFL) students beginning their university studies. Teachers could also provide this post as a guide to their students – just don’t forget to cite the source! 🙂

When you are asked to prepare a presentation, a handout, or an essay during your university studies, you will probably need to research the topic and use the information you find. It’s good to use information (including examples, anecdotes, statistics, quotations, etc) from other sources in your work, because it can help you:

  • Support your overall message and make it more believable
  • Show how your work fits in with other research or academic work in that area
  • Give examples of different opinions, beliefs or research on the topic
  • Draw attention to a point of view that you particularly agree or disagree with
  • Make your writing more detailed and insightful

To find sources for your work, you can search your university’s library catalogue, search engines like google-scholar. Beware of searching the internet using standard search engines, and try not to rely solely on web sources – some of these will be inappropriate for academic work. Some teachers also dislike work that is based only on internet sources. Check with your lecturer if you’re unsure.

The key premise to bear in mind is: If you include information from other sources in your academic work (either as a direct quote OR the ideas expressed in your own words), you should show where you have taken it from by referring to the original author. Even if you use another author’s structure or way of arguing, you should include a reference to the source. If you don’t include these reference, it is plagiarism and can have very serious consequences.

There are various ways, often called “styles”, in which you can give the references to your sources. The guidelines for referencing are given by various organisations (e.g. “American Psychological Association” or “APA” see here for a tutorial in this style These different styles are common in different faculties and subjects. For example, one of the common “styles” in humanities and arts subjects, especially English studies, is given by the “Modern Language Association”, or “MLA” (see their website: Another one is the “Chicago Manual of Style” which can be found here: You should check your course guidelines or ask your lecturer which style and guidelines they would like you to follow. When you choose one style, make sure you are consistent and do not swap between different styles within your work.

These guidelines for referencing sources protect students and academics from plagiarising, which is when you use other people’s ideas or information without showing the source. Plagiarism can have serious negative consequences for your studies.

Referencing Within the Text

Within the body of  your text, you have two decisions to make when it comes to referring to your sources.

1. Do you want to use a direct quotation or an indirect one?

2. How do you want to include the reference information within your text?

1. If you use a direct quotation, you should copy the exact words from the original text and place them in inverted commas (speech marks). The quotation should be integrated as part of the flow of your text and you should use it to support what you are saying. The quotation should be followed by a specific reference to the original source. Different styles recommend different types of inverted comma, and give guidelines on how long a direct quote should be before it needs different formatting from the rest of the text. Overall, a maximum of about 10% of your work should consist of direct quotations.

If you do not use the exact words and put them inverted commas, but still use the information, organisation or way of arguing of another source, we call this an indirect quotation. You need to make sure that you change the language and structure significantly, so that it is not plagiarism. You also need to include a reference to the original source, which you can do in the ways shown below.


2. To refer to a source within your essay or on a printed handout, after both direct and indirect quotations, you can:

–          Give the author’s name within the flow of your text, and put the specific reference information (e.g. year and page number) in brackets after the end of your sentence. The punctuation used depends on the style that you are following.

e.g. As Smith states, a recent survey showed that 45% of the population holds the belief that abortion is wrong on moral grounds (2010, 26).

–          Give the author’s name, the page number and sometimes the year all in brackets at the end of your sentence. The punctuation used in these parenthetical citations depends on the style that you are following.

e.g. In a recent survey, 45% of the population stated their belief that abortion was wrong on moral grounds (Smith, 2010, 26).

–          Or give the full reference in a footnote or endnote. Again the way you set out your footnote or endnote should follow the guidelines of the style you are following.

e.g. In a recent survey, 45% of the population stated their belief that abortion was wrong on moral grounds.1

1. Smith, J. Abortion Beliefs: Report on a recent survey (Dublin: Dublin U.P., 2010), p. 26.


NOTE: You should be consistent with how you reference – do not mix parenthetical citations with references in footnotes or endnotes.

The Bibliography or “Works Cited

You should always include a “bibliography” or “works cited” section at the end of your work, where you list (in alphabetical order) the sources you have used and referred to within your text. You need this even if you have use footnotes or endnotes where the full references are shown. Each style prescribes different ways of formatting the references listed in the bibliography, so make sure you check carefully how to punctuate, use brackets and italics correctly.

Example Bibliographies can be found here:

In MLA Style:

In APA Style:

In Chicago Style:

Directness in Feedback

I’m a big fan of giving detailed constructive feedback on students’ work. As far as I’m concerned, feedback, both positive and negative, is essential for learning to happen. I try to think carefully about how I phrase my feedback to students so that they are encouraged to improve further, and can use it to move forward and progress in their learning. Occasionally, though, I read a piece of work that generates such a strong reaction in me that I simply write down my undiluted opinion. Of course, if the reaction was positive, this means the student is showered with undiluted praise. But sometimes the reaction is negative and I write things like this:


I actually sent this picture to a colleague and asked, “too harsh?”  It made me stop and think.

As teachers, we all know that feedback should be clear, specific, and honest. I’m a proficient user of the ‘feedback sandwich’. Usually.  But in the case above, it seems that “being clear and honest” means that there is no ‘bread’ in my ‘sandwich’. It is very direct. I wonder how the student will react?

From previous chats with students and a few informal surveys, I’ve noticed that students often actually prefer to have feedback worded rather directly, and they are not put off by what some of us might perceive as pretty harsh directness.  Especially for EFL students, beating about the bush, and phrasing things cautiously and politely actually confuses the message. In fact, some students have reported extreme misunderstandings where their teacher had expressed criticism so politely and gently that the student actually perceived it as praise! I showed the photo above to friends of mine who are also students and non-native English speakers, and their response also echoed that of my own students:

If it’s the truth, it has to be said, and it’s better to be direct so that the message cannot be misunderstood.

Still, I started thinking about how I would feel. Depending on how much effort I had actually put in to the piece of work, I’d probably be quite upset to receive feedback like in the photo. Not just because it’s negative, but rather because it only describes the problem and doesn’t really encourage me to work on improving. It might give me the feeling that there’s no hope of ever passing this class, and so I might as well give up now. And that is NOT how I would like my students to feel!

So what am I going to change when giving feedback? How about some tips for us all…

1) Be clear and direct so that praise and constructive criticism are perceived as such.

2) Be generous (but not over-generous) with praise, even for small improvements or minor elements that have been done well.

3) Be specific with explanations of the problems, and prioritise these.

4) Give specific advice for how these problems can be improved.

5) Encourage some response from students regarding the feedback they’ve been given. This will (hopefully!) encourage them to engage with the feedback, and also give an indication of how it has been perceived and used.