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Why Marking Students' Books is KEY to Enhancing Literacy ...and more!

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

English departments ramping up their literacy programmes. Hours of work have gone into designing regular activities, reading on, between and beyond the lines and ways to approach grammar. How many teachers have said though, “let’s mark their books”? I mean students' 1B5s or ring-binders, not assessment drafts or final copies but that everyday work. Here’s why marking isn’t the stuff of old school, it’s the stuff of the good school, and improved literacy is just one of the many benefits.


Why mark the everyday work?

Because it’s the BEST formative assessment strategy and it's there for the taking. Why?

  • When you mark their books, you can nip bad habits in the bud. It’s not okay that in Year 11, Alana is still writing/saying “I were...” It’s not okay that in year 12 Harmony still doesn’t use apostrophes correctly and nor does she think it matters. If mechanics haven’t been an issue in the classroom at all so far, how do you expect students to pull them out of the bag for an assessment?

  • When you mark their books, you show students their work matters and that you care about it.

  • When you mark their books, you learn about levels. How’s Sam coping with this? Is this work too easy for Harper? How could I differentiate? Is Joe choosing the right level?

  • When you mark their books, you compile a bank of information about student progress. This is valuable qualitative data.

  • When you mark their books, you're grabbing a key opportunity to teach that individual and for that individual to learn. It’s the one-on-one we love.

  • When you mark their books, you connect with individuals and strengthen relationships.



Mmmm... Have you considered...

Have you considered why you ask your students to write (or speak for that matter)? To:


1. Draw out responses to something.

2. Answer questions.

3. Note responses to quick quizzes.

4. Warm their brains up before moving into key learning.

5. Map out ideas or plan longer pieces.

6. Explain, analyse, discuss.

7. Record notes for study later.

Are there any of those we don’t need to look at? Respond to? Perhaps numbers 3 and 4? But otherwise, theoretically everything else should be checked. Consider this: if you’re never going to look at it, then what’s the point in students producing it? And don’t you think your students have picked up on that too?


What are we looking for? Everything!

Everything! You’re marking for everything, and you ARE sweating the small stuff. If you’re reading for ideas in students’ responses to a short story, why would you not circle the capital Ds Aroha has plonkeD in the miDDle of sentences? Why wouldn’t you put a square bracket either side of Charlotte’s 23-line sentence with a note in the margin announcing, “Suffocating here!”? If you ignore basic literacy – the mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, then you’re saying it doesn’t matter.


When it comes to grammar, punctuation, AND presentation, oh, you’re ALL over that, ALL of the time. If students don’t have someone nagging them that it’s “Tufaina and I” ... oh, now in this case it’s “Tufaina and me”, and, “number, not amount” and “many, not much”, (like my mum did to me) then how are they going to know it matters? Regular marking is key to enhancing students’ literacy.


There’s a difference between knowing something and knowing something matters

If my Year 10s did an apostrophe drill every Friday, they’d still get it wrong Monday-Thursday the next week. In all their other subjects as well as mine. It’s about situational awareness. In that moment of that lesson, students are aware that this is an ‘apostrophe situation’. They concentrate on using them correctly. But they don’t transfer that skill to ‘everyday life’. Apparently, apostrophes only matter on Friday. You can imagine the scenario - “This isn’t an apostrophe lesson Miss; you asked us to write what we thought about Steph’s reaction to Ethan’s secret!” In this situation, students aren’t aware that apostrophes still matter. And that’s on me. If I haven’t created a situational awareness or culture in my classroom where we sweat the small stuff, then I’ve dropped the ball. Imagine if every department in your school created that culture – literacy rates would soar. Think about the situational awareness, the culture around work quality, that you’re cultivating in your classroom or faculty.


Time to edit

This is crucial to your marking, because you want to be looking at work that shows the best of what students can do in an everyday environment. Blimey, I need to tweak my shopping list for goodness’ sake! If students know there’ll be time to edit when they finish their work, three things happen:

1. Students can concentrate on the ideas – unobstructed by grammar-stress or the quality of their explanation because they know they’ll be given time to swish things up later.

2. Students develop a situational awareness. Students know quality, and in particularly, grammar and punctuation, matters all the time – at least in your class. They know this because you’ve set aside time just for this.

3. Students learn to read – hopefully aloud – with expression (prosody!). Even Year 13s have struggled to read their work aloud to me. That is, with accuracy and with expression. Cry! If students can’t read aloud, they can’t hear how it sounds and they don’t understand how it should sound. Foster this skill!


Marking Logistics

Some of these I’ve mentioned in a previous post – 4 Vital Habits That Improve Literacy, but I’ll reiterate!


Red pen rules

There was a time when we were told the red pen made students feel bad. Ummm...

1. Red pen stands out from blue or black pen, enabling students to find your marking. We’re not writing in blood here folks!

2. The red pen is also used for positive comments and giving next steps, not just for circling errors. If red pen is associated with negativity, then change that. Red = heart = I care about your ideas and your writing.

Having said that, use any colour you like, just choose one that stands out. (Tip: pens with an RT300 flow are best, ‘felt tip’ type pens go through the page.)


Pink for stink – Green for mean

Try marking with highlighters sometimes - Pink for Stink, Green for ‘Mean’. It’s supposed to be Pink for Think (about what you’ve written here) and Green for Good, but my Year 12s renamed it one year. This is super-effective. Watch your Year 13 students get up and show each other how much pink or green they got in your marking spree last night.


Sticker ahead

Begin by collecting in six books. Mark them that night. Enjoy learning about each student. Then pop a sticker half a dozen pages ahead – anything appropriate from the $2 store or something like the graphic on the right (free to subscribers) is great. Tell students when they reach the sticker, they must put their book in your ‘marking box’ (or whatever) at the end of the lesson. This means you’ll only have half a dozen books from that class to work through. But if you can...


...Mark in class

  • Grab your red pen and wander around, marking as students work. This means you have less to mark when students reach their sticker – you’ll be able to see where you’ve been. Also, it helps students stay on task when they see you coming around to see how they’re going!

  • Have students come to your desk, mark to the first mistake, even if it’s ideas you’re looking for. Watch the line disappear as students look at their work then run back to their desk to correct it! (Of course, there are limits to this. We all miss something, so I give the students who have tried hard a bit of leeway.)

Marking in class, doesn’t just mean less marking to do later. It also means you’re catching them ‘while they’re hot’ and while they’re there to explain to. Win-win!


Invite responses!!!

People who know my daughters will believe it when I say that when their teachers marked their books, they replied! “But why Miss?” “Oh, cool, I get it now!” “What? I don’t get what you mean!” "I don't reckon, Sir!" It was awesome to see ongoing conversations in some of their books. Most importantly, these fun notes and conversations engaged my daughters in the feedback so there was more likelihood of them acting on it. Interestingly, while John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers) proved that feedback was key to enhancing learning, Wiliam and Leahy (Embedding Formative Assessment) state that feedback alone is not enough because of course, “the only thing that matters with feedback is the reaction of the recipient”. I believe that reaction must take place at a personal level first – especially with teenagers! There’s more chance of them acting on the feedback in terms of their work if there's 'a bit of banter' over it. Way to build relationships and enhance learning, right?!


Set yourself up to win

Show students how to present their work

Show them an example of what a great page of work looks like with the date, headings, ruler to underline, self-corrections etc. (Subscribe to grab a helpful resource for this.) When students care about the presentation of their work, this drip-feeds into a more welcome reception to editing and proofreading.


Help students keep their books, folders or digital work organised

Show students how to keep books or folders organised. This is an important life skill! Give them lists of notes they should have at the beginning or end of a unit. Give them time to create tabs to separate work into Admin, Grammar, Short Story Study and so on. If they’re working digitally much of the time, show them how to organise work into folders, name their files and format their documents.


Keep books in class

Let’s face it, books get wrecked in students’ bags and it’s better you take some of that weight off their backs anyway. Treat them as treasures and it’ll rub off on your students.


Digital Marking

You don’t get off marking when students present a lot of their work digitally. You can’t ‘sticker ahead’, but you can have a roster. Remember, if you own their google folders, you can dip into these any time you like; you don’t need to wait for students to hit the share button. Then, of course, you can easily add a comment or use a highlighter code for digital marking.


Slow it down!

Be wary of believing there’s no time for marking. There are podcasts to organise, there’s the skit to organise, there’s next week’s assembly to prepare for. None of that matters if your students can’t speak and write well.


Notes in your plan book

If you really need to catch up with a student about something you’ve seen in their books, make a note in your plan book for the following lesson. Remember, that could be about something good, not just a teaching point.


Ensure students become situationally aware

In your classroom – in this ‘situation’ – students know their book work is important: aesthetics (how it looks), ideas (how I think), and mechanics (how it sounds).







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