Anyone who’s been following my blog and conference presentations for a while will know that I have a healthy obsession with marking and giving feedback on L2 students’ essays! This is partly due to the huge numbers of essays I have to mark each term, and the number of new marking techniques this allows me to try out!
Having just finished (phew!) marking a class load of B2+ level discursive essays, I’ve got time to share some ideas on using different colours for marking and giving feedback, which may serve to make it more effective, and, if not exactly fun, at least somewhat visually pleasing!
You might have seen or heard about my talk on ‘Marking Writing: Feedback Strategies to Challenge the Red Pen’s Reign‘ where I discussed a variety of ways to make marked work seem less, well, red. Red is the colour of aggression and warnings, so I’m not sure why it has come to be the typical colour for giving feedback on students’ work. Looking back at some work I’ve marked before, I just see a sea of red, used for everything – even ticks for good aspects of writing! This time around, then, I decided to use different coloured pens to show different kinds of comments. Language errors were corrected in red, good aspects were ticked or commented on in green, and other advice or comments (e.g. on content, structure or referencing) were written in blue. Even just at first glance, these papers look a lot more balanced in terms of feedback given, and can hopefully avoid that sinking feeling when students get their work back. Some have even told me that this kind of visual distinction of comments helps them to engage with the feedback as they can go at it aspect for aspect. So, for an easy way to make marking more colourful and potentially helpful for students, just add two new colours to your usual stationery repertoire, and off you go!
If you have more colours to hand, or are marking work electronically, another colour-coding approach I’ve used before is a bit more specific. Here, I use different colours to mark different categories of language mistake. You can also do it with highlighters (or the highlighting function in your word-processing programme). For example, pink is incorrect vocabulary, blue is incorrect verb form, green is for other grammar problems, and orange is for punctuation mistakes. You can vary your colours and categories as relevant to your learners and their writing. I suspect that this kind of colour code makes it even easier for students to work through the feedback they receive, and also serves to highlight the most common problem areas in their work – which will be useful for you and them! Definitely worth a try, if your pencil-case allows!
A final idea I’d like to share is one I’ve borrowed from Sandy Millin. This colourful approach focuses on priority areas for review and improvement. After marking all of the langauge errors in a student’s text, pick three areas of language that you feel need the most work, e.g. prepositions, vocabulary, and word forms. Then pick one colour highlighter to show each of these three areas – highlight all of that category of errors in the student’s text, and highlight the words/phrases in your feedback telling the student what to work on. I’ve included excerpts of images Sandy provided to show what this would look like in practice.
I’ve recently used this kind of colour-coded feedback with advanced-level students to highlight why I’ve made the suggestions I’ve added to their work. For example, I might suggest more formal vocabulary items or add in hedging phrases. I then write in my feedback comments something like ‘Try to use more hedging to avoid overgeneralisations’ – I highlight the word ‘hedging’ in yellow, and then highlight all of my hedging suggestions in yellow throughout the student’s text. Students have told me they liked this because it made them realise that they hadn’t necessarily made a mistake or done something wrong when I added a suggestion on their text, but could see why I’d added it and how it might improve their writing. And so, if your staionery budget is not yet exhausted, I’d recommend investing in some highlighters and trying out Sandy’s approach, too!
SO what have we learnt? Well, marking doesn’t need to be dull, and it definitely doesn’t need to be a red-pen-only affair! These ways of including colour in marking students’ work can alter how students percieve the feedback they’re given, and may in the long run make it more effective – and thus more worth our valuable time! 🙂