As an English teacher there is no getting away from the fact that, unless your school has a “no teacher pen in books policy”, there will always be a high demand on your time created by marking, and this is difficult to get away from. Early on in my career I was given the advice that, when I walk around my classroom, I should do it with a pen and “get into the books”. It’s a skill – or perhaps we’d be better to call it a strategy for marking – that I’m still working on ten years later. However, it’s a skill – or strategy – that pays dividends when you get it right.
At my current school I have the luxury of 75 minute lessons. Admittedly, moving from a school with 50 minute lessons (and that had before that been 35 minute lessons) I, at first, did not see the 75 minutes as a luxury and found the lessons just far too long! But, as with everything else, we get over this and adapt. I now embrace the 75 minutes and do this in the time to help me combat my marking workload:
- Starts of lessons
It is my departmental policy for students to read independently at the starts of lessons. The time given to this is usually 10 minutes; however, for students with lower reading ages then I am happy for this to be extended to 20 or even 30 minutes on occasion (but not necessarily every lesson). While this reading is taking place, it is an ideal opportunity for me to “get into the books”.
A culture has been established in my classroom with a consistent routine so that every student knows that they are expected to come into the room, get their equipment out (including their homework for checking) and read in silence. While this is happening, I circulate the classroom checking with my pen the homework and/or exercise books of the students.
Typically, here are some of the things that I may come across and the actions I take:
Student X has completed their homework but the writing is illegible. I ask the student to help me decipher the words. I draw the student’s attention to the specific issues with the handwriting that are making it difficult to read – e.g not writing on the line, specific letters not being formed correctly, words too close together, letters of the same word have been separated, tails of letters that don’t go below the line that should, necks of letters that should be taller etc. I pick the key failing and demonstrate what to do and then I direct that student to practise that skill for the remainder of the reading time. I also make sure that I re-visit that student to check their progress and go back to them in the main task to ensure they are still practising that skill. (Poor handwriting won’t improve by a teacher simply saying or writing – write neater. Like everything else, the student needs specific, actionable feedback about how to improve and the time to practise it.) [To be read as an aside: Improving handwriting is also the job of all teachers and not just English teachers.]
In student Y’s homework and classwork, I have noticed that they are consistently mixing up there and their. I have already seen this previously in lots of this class’ work and re-taught it to the whole group but this continues to be an issue for child Y. I find a page in a grammar book that has exercises to practise this skill and student Y is directed to practise these for the rest of the reading time. Again, I make sure I come back to this student in a few minutes time to see how they are getting on and continue to monitor student Y’s writing in the lessons to come. Student Y will need to continue to re-visit this and rehearse this until the skill is more securely embedded.
Looking at student Z’s work from last lesson I can see that although they were meant to be writing a story, their work reads nothing like a story. The work is more a “telling of events”; they need to “show” what happens. This is going to take a bit more time than student X and Y so I sit down with student Z and spend the rest of the “reading time” working with the student. I help the student to re-plan their story and then work with the student to write one “show” paragraph together so she gets the idea. I then direct her to write the next paragraph. Again, I check her work and if she’s still not quite there then I give more feedback and she has another go. Like students X and Y, student Z will need to continue to work on this skill and I will need to continue to check on her but the important thing is: I’ve done some live marking and given specific feedback that can be actioned immediately and the subsequent work monitored.
2. During the lesson
Essentially, exactly what happens at the start of the lesson in reading time is what I continue to do during the lesson if students are set an extended piece of work to complete. As my first Head of Department advised me, I circulate my classroom with my pen in my hand. As I read the students’ work, I tick next to good things or circle mistakes. In some books I briefly annotate the strengths so far or I verbally give (and sometimes write) a HTI (How to improve) to the student.
The great thing about this approach comes later when you do sit down to mark a set of books and see that you’ve already marked lots of them in the classroom. When you get really good at it, there’s no need to ever sit down and mark a set of books because you’ve done it all in lesson time.
One important caveat:
Having written all of the above, I guess there is one important caveat to everything that I’ve written – which I hinted at earlier when I referred to the culture of my classroom being established with “consistent routines”.
You will only be able to mark in the classroom while other students remain reading or writing independently if you have created the culture which allows for that.
Live marking needs to be your norm if it is going to work effectively. Students will not remain on task while you intervene with another student if you have not created the culture to allow for this to happen. There is a great deal of work that goes into that which will need to be the topic of another blog that I will write soon. Linked to all of this, it is perhaps also important to note that it is unlikely that you’ll be able to live mark lots of work in the classroom straight away. It will be a skill or strategy that you may need to build up over time. It may be most worthwhile to set yourself a small target to begin with – say: in a period of 20 minutes extended work, you will live mark 2 paragraphs of work, then build up to 3, 4, 5, 6. See how you get on.
One final thing: last minute marking before lessons
Although not technically marking in lesson time, it is still “marking in the classroom”. For me, it is the norm to set out books before a lesson (if their kept in school) and quickly “get into some books” before the lesson starts. If I have a lesson where there is some time beforehand for me to set the books out i.e – first lesson of the day, lessons after break or lunch, or after a “free” lesson, then I will often quickly try to mark some books. Assuming I have not had the opportunity already to do so, I will mark the work completed in the last lesson. This may lead me to do a number of things:
- Give specific actionable feedback of some DIT (dedicated improvement time) work that I want a student to do at the start of the lesson.
- Re-teach something at the start of the lesson based on what I’ve seen/adjust my lesson accordingly based on what I’ve marked.
- Use my class visualiser to show a good piece of work and praise a student (work can be read out if you don’t have a visualiser)
The positives of this approach of grabbing a few minutes here and there to do marking is that it all chips away at what can seem like a depressing workload. Often I hear teachers say that they’d rather mark all of their books in one go, but these are usually the same teachers I might hear say “I’ve got too much marking to do. I can’t cope”. Sometimes to help ourselves we need to shift our mind-set and find smarter ways to work. What I do doesn’t reduce my marking workload; I’m just managing it differently. I’m not working any harder – just smarter. And, if I’m honest, I’d argue that marking in the moment and being able to give direct, actionable feedback in real time is better than taking books home and then feeding back to students in a day or two.
So, give it a go. If you haven’t tried it before – try it and let me know how you get on.