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How Much and What to Mark on Essays

Writing Feedback Comments

Writing Comments

Many teachers and professors take pride in red-inking student essays: the more ink the better. Some shift the burden of marking grammar and mechanics errors onto readers or grad students, while retaining the job of marking and grading content, argument, and evidence. Some “grade” essays without comments by using holistic or analytical rubrics, but do not mark papers. Others latch onto familiar excuses: the subjective nature of essay grading, the lack of time, the lack of student writing skills and conveniently avoid the work altogether by giving objective exams.

For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Working smarter, not harder and focusing on efficiency and outcomes over pedagogical purity are worthy mantras for effective writing instruction.

How Much to Mark on Essays

…………

  • There is no significant statistical difference in the overall quality of student writing between teachers who mark all mistakes and teachers who mark only a few of the mistakes (Arnold 1964).
  • Both Harris (1978) and Lamberg (1980) found that voluminous essay comments do not improve student writing.
  • Shuman (1979) found that most students respond effectively to no more than five error corrections per paper.
  • Dudenhyer (1976), Beach (1979), Harris (1978), Thompson (1981), and Moore (1992) found that marks on final drafts have little impact on subsequent writing.

In sum, less is better than more, especially on final drafts or essay exams. Moreover, focusing on reader response is essential. In other words, how much the student will absorb and apply.

What to Mark on Essays

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1. Concentrate on Status Errors

Maxine Hairston (1981) suggests that certain errors are perceived as higher status than others. Hairston found that these errors were seen to be more egregious by most teachers: nonstandard verb forms, lack of subject-verb agreement, double negatives, objective pronoun as subject. Other errors are perceived as low status and may not warrant marking: unnecessary or inaccurate modifiers, use of a singular verb with data, use of a colon after a linking verb.

2. Used Focused, Specific Feedback

Use focused, not unfocused feedback. “Focused corrective feedback was more useful and effective than unfocused corrective feedback” (Sheen, Wright, and Moldawa 2009).

When students receive feedback while they are writing, “they are more inclined to use it to revise and edit their drafts than they would be if they received the suggestions on a graded, polished copy” (Nicol, D.J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. 2006).

3. Use a Variety of Writing Feedback Modes

Not every student responds the same to writing feedback. Some prefer written feedback; others auditory, and still others respond best to visual feedback, such as video conferencing. Adding a variety of writing feedback modes will address learning preferences.

Dr. Martha Marie Bless found a statistically significant difference in the amount and quality of student revisions and skill acquisition in favor of the audio comments (Walden University 2017).

4. Do Mark Writing Errors; However

Instead of marking and explaining every writing error, Peterson suggests “… identifying patterns of convention errors, rather than every error in the paper. Students are more likely to learn how to use a convention correctly if they attend exclusively to that type of error when editing their writing” (2008).

5. Mark and Explain Teachable Errors

Teachers tend to mark errors and comment on content or process. Instead, writing researchers suggest that teachers should comment on both. Choosing to concentrate on errors that can be easily explained to the student with the greater likelihood of producing positive transfer to subsequent writing assignments just makes sense. For example, errors in speaker tag commas can be easily remediated because the rules are relatively unambiguous; errors in commas isolating dependent clauses are harder to remediate because the rules are more ambiguous and context dependent.

Students are likely to attend to and appreciate feedback on their errors, and this may motivate them both to make corrections and to work harder on improving their writing. The lack of such feedback may lead to anxiety or resentment, which could decrease motivation and lower confidence in their teachers” (Ferris, D. R. 2004).

6. Maintain a Balance between Error Correction and Writing Analysis

Writing researchers suggest striking a balance in essay response between error correction and writing content/evidence/argument analysis.

Following are key elements of writing discourse for writing teachers to keep in mind to strike this balance:

  • Essay Organization and Development (Introduction, Body, and Conclusion)
  • Coherence
  • Word Choice
  • Sentence Variety
  • Writing Style
  • Format and Citations
  • Parts of Speech
  • Grammatical Forms
  • Usage
  • Sentence Structure
  • Types of Sentences
  • Mechanics
  • Conventional Spelling Rules.

7. Differentiate and Individualize Assessment-based Instruction

Writing feedback catered to the needs of the individual students is highly effective. Knowing the relative strengths and weaknesses of individual student writers should guide the teacher’s comments. Two data sources are integral to effective writing instruction: diagnostic assessments and frequent student writing. The former affords the teacher quantitative data, while the latter provides qualitative data. Each is useful.

For Further Study

  1. The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley, in Review of Educational Research 77 (March 2007): 81-112.
  2. Seven Keys to Effective Feedback by Grant Wiggins in Educational Leadership 70.1 (September 2012): 10-16.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Here’s a freebie that just might make life a bit easier for teachers this fall… I just released a new free comment insert program

e-Comments Chrome Extension

e-Comments Extension

for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

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How Many Essay Comments and What Kind

Press Release e-Comments

e-Comments Press Release

Teacher response to student writing often falls into two extremes:

1. The holistic rubric devotees who simply parrot standardized writing test grading by assigning numerical scores for “catch-all” writing categories or

2. The red-ink zealots who mark every single error and writing issue with their secret codes, a.k.a. diacritical proofreading marks and extensive writing comments.

The first approach of the holistic rubric hardly merits comment. Students merely look at the total score and continue the same errors or writing issues on the subsequent draft and next writing assignment. Intuitively, the second approach would seem to produce some benefit; however, the writing research is clear that student response to extensive marks and comments on rough drafts is minimal and the transfer of learning from such comments on final drafts to the next writing assignment is almost non-existent.

A middle ground can achieve more results. However, we have to make a distinction between rough drafts and final drafts. Researchers have found that marks on final drafts have little effect on student’s application to subsequent writing tasks (Dudenhyer 1976; Beach 1979; Thompson 1981; Harris 1978). But, conscientious teachers should make comments on rough drafts and writing research does support this practice. But how many essay comments make sense? And what kind of essay comments produce the produce the most revision and application to future writing tasks?

How Many Essay Comments

Many teachers take pride in the number of essay marks and comments they make on a paper. Some colleagues buy red pens by the truckload and spend significant time at their task. However, writing research has some disheartening news for these teachers. No significant difference in the quality of student writing was found between those teachers who marked all mistakes as compared to those teachers who made only minimal (Arnold 1964). Also, writing extensive comments does not improve student’s writing (Harris 1978; Lamberg 1980). Additionally, most students are able to respond effectively to no more than five comments per composition (Shuman 1979).

Clearly, more is not necessarily better. Knowing the student’s individual needs from frequent writing will help teachers prioritize which marks and comments will most help that student’s writing.

What Kind of Comments

Students tend to revise errors more so than issues of style, argument, structure, and content. The reason is simple: it’s easier to revise errors. Research shows that teachers tend to follow the same pattern as students: they mark and comment on errors much more often than on matters of style, argument, structure, and content (Connors and Lunsford 1988). So, teachers should keep in mind a balance between errors and writing issues when making essay comments. When a minimal credit is awarded for writing revisions, students tend to gravitate toward fixing the errors, rather than tackling the tougher chore of the writing issues. Awarding more points for writing revision and holding students accountable for addressing all marks and comments will motivate more and more meaningful revisions.

Teachers tend to mark errors with some form of diacritical mark, such as “cs” for a comma splice, and write brief comments, such as “awkward” for style or content. However, Hairston (1981) found that students tended to revise more when explanations were provided, rather than simple error identification. So, comments work better than simple diacritical marks.

So, which comments are most important to include? Clearly, issues of coherence and unity merit comments. So would issues of organization, content, and evidence. Hairston also suggested focusing comments on those issues which readers found to reflect lack of writing expertise. For example, nonstandard verb forms such as brung instead of brought are considered more egregious status indicators than a who-whom mistake. Good teachers can certainly make informed judgments about which comments to include and which comments to avoid.

So, to summarize how many essay comments and what kind, writing research would suggest the following:

  • Comment on rough drafts, not final drafts.
  • Limit the amount of comments and individualize those to the needs of the student writer.
  • Balance the types of comments between writing errors and issues of style, argument, structure, and evidence.
  • Hold students accountable for each mark or comment.
  • Comments are better than diacritical marks alone.
  • Comments should explain what is wrong or explain the writing issue.

Comments include…

  • Essay Organization and Development
  • Coherence
  • Word Choice
  • Sentence Variety
  • Writing Style
  • Format and Citations
  • Parts of Speech
  • Grammatical Forms
  • Usage
  • Sentence Structure
  • Types of Sentences
  • Mechanics
  • Conventional Spelling Rules

This freebie will make life a bit easier for teachers… I just released a new free comment insert program for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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Essay Comment Excuses

e-Comments Chrome Extension

e-Comments Extension

Many teachers take a great deal of personal pride in their essay comments. A community college colleague of mine made a life-long practice and ritual of grading his freshman composition papers every morning from 6:00-8:00 a.m. He provided extensive feedback and his students appreciated his dedication to developing their writing craft.

Now, I realize that I have lost a number of my readers after that opening paragraph. When we hear about such examples, we feel a mixture of aspiration and guilt. We want to have a similar impact on our students. Teachers are idealists. We want to make a difference in the lives of our students, and we believe that reading and writing are key ingredients to living a meaningful and productive life. However, most of us fail to measure up to our own expectations. Guilt sets in. No one likes guilt, so we conjure up essay comment excuses.

Excuses to Avoid Writing Essay Comments

I would, buts.

  • I would, but I already work a 60 hour week. That community college professor described above teaches fewer classes and does not have adjunct duties such as dances, football games, etc.
  • I would, but “they” cut my teaching days/salary.
  • I would, but my colleagues don’t have the same commitment as I do, so I follow their lead. We sometimes do read-arounds, so I have to grade as they do so as not to spoil their objectivity.

Rationalizations

  • My students don’t/won’t read my essay comments anyway. They glance at the grade, skim the comments, and trash their papers.
  • I use a holistic rubric or a 6 Traits +1 matrix so my students get a general feel for what they did well and what they need to work on. More detailed comments might draw students away from the “big picture.”
  • I have to grade the way students will be tested. Their standardized test uses a four-point rubric with no comments. Teaching has become test-prep.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Let’s face it. We’ve all used one or more of those excuses to avoid the hard work of commenting on student papers. But we know that specific comments are the keys to writing improvement. Commenting throughout the writing process is simply a necessary component of effective writing instruction. We know that essay comment excuses are just that-excuses. Please comment on this post to add on more. I’ve just given you the excuses I’ve personally used over the years.

So, how can we do a great job with essay response and still maintain some semblance of a life outside of work? Canned comments.  But… really good ones. Prescriptive ones that that identify, explain with examples, and show students how to revise… Ones that target specific writing style, grammar, usage, organization, evidence, spelling… everything. Ones that are aligned to the Common Core Anchor Standards for Writing and Language… Hundreds of comments, written for different age levels… Ones that can be automatically inserted into Google docs and slides… Ones that you choose and are not chosen for you by some automatic grading program. Ones that you can easily personalize and are truly authentic. Ones that allow you to insert links for content references or even writing practice. Ones that allow you to differentiate instruction. Ones that students will have to read and respond to… Ones that will save teachers time.

This free resources will make life a bit easier for teachers… I just released a new free comment insert program for Google docs that will save grading time and improve writing feedback. Insert hundreds of customizable Common Core-aligned instructional comments, which identify, explain, and show how to revise writing issues, with just one click from the e-Comments menu. Add your own comments to the menu, including audio, video, and speech-to-text. Check out the introductory video and add this free extension to your Chrome toolbar: e-Comments Chrome Extension. Includes separate comment banks for grades 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and AP/College. Cheers!

*****

Why not use the same language of instruction as the e-Comments program for program instruction? Mark Pennington is the author of Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Differentiated Spelling Instructionand the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Thesis Statements

Thesis Statements

How to Teach Thesis Statements

The most important part of the multi-paragraph essay is a well-worded thesis statement. The thesis statement should state the purpose for writing or the point (argument or claim) to be proved. The topic sentences of each succeeding body paragraph all talk about the thesis statement.

Common Core State Standards

Common Core State Standards

  • When the essay is designed to inform the reader, the thesis statement states the author’s purpose for writing and serves as the controlling idea or topic throughout the essay. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”
  • When the essay is designed to convince the reader, the thesis statement states the author’s point to be proved and serves as the argument or claim throughout the essay. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2: “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”

Before writing a thesis statement, the writer must read, re-read, dissect (tear apart and analyze), and mark up the writing prompt. The writing prompt is also known as the writing task, writing assignment, or simply the prompt. Check out How to Dissect a Writing Prompt for all the details about how to teach students this skill. The writing prompt WHAT needs to be boiled down to a question to be answered. That answer is the thesis statement.

Dissecting the Essay Prompt

Dissecting the Writing Prompt

A good thesis statement answers the question developed from the writing prompt and accomplishes the following:

1. It states the topic of the writing prompt. Check out How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt.

2. It repeats the key words of the writing prompt. Tell your students that this form of plagiarism is encouraged, because it assures the reader that the writer is following the writing prompt’s orders.

3. It directly responds to each part of the writing prompt with a specific purpose (for informational/explanatory essays) or point of view, also known as  the argument or claim (for argumentative essays).

4. It justifies discussion and exploration; it won’t just list a topic to talk about. For example, “Elephants are really big mammals” would not justify discussion or exploration.

5. It must be arguable, if the thesis introduces a persuasive essay. For example, “Terrorism is really bad and must be stopped” is not an arguable point of view.

For short essays, a good thesis statement is characterized by the following:

1. It is one or two declarative sentences (no questions). A declarative is a statement.

2. It is placed at the end of the introduction. This is not a hard and fast rule; however, the thesis statement does appear in this position in fifty percent of expository writing and the typical organization of an introductory paragraph is from general to specific. Think of the introduction as an upside-down pyramid with introductory sentences (I call them introduction strategies) leading into the focused thesis statement (the point of the upside-down pyramid). Some teachers prefer a picture of a funnel to illustrate the same paragraph structure.

3. It does not split the purpose or point of view of the essay into two or more points to prove. It has a single purpose or point of view that multiple topic sentences will address.

4. It may or may not include a preview of the topic sentences. The preview provides supporting reasons for the answer to the writing prompt. These supporting reasons will be the topic sentences and must be listed in the order they will be occur in the essay.

Examples

Short Thesis Statement: Daily flossing is essential to good dental hygiene. 

Longer Thesis Statement with a Preview of Topic Sentences (Supporting Reasons): Daily flossing is essential to good dental hygiene. Flossing prevents tooth decay, reduces the risk of gum disease, and freshens one’s breath.

Helpful Hints

1. Spend time helping students to dissect writing prompts, showing different forms and examples.

2. Teach the key Writing Direction Words  most often used in writing prompts.

3. Teach students to borrow as many of the words as possible from the writing prompt and include these in the thesis statement. Doing this assures the writer and reader that the essay is directly responding to the writing prompt. Additionally, using the same words flatters the writer of the prompt. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

4. Practice thesis turn-arounds in which you provide writing prompts, which students convert to questions and then answer in declarative thesis statements. Use your own content, such as novels, articles, media or search the web for your grade-level “essay writing prompts.”

5. Teach and have students practice a variety of introduction strategies to use for both informational and persuasive essays.

6. Teach transition words and help students practice these throughout the introductory paragraph.

7. Help students re-word their thesis statements, using different grammatical sentence openers, for their thesis re-statements at the beginning of conclusion paragraphs.

8. Constantly remind students that a thesis statement is part of exposition–not the narrative form. No “hooks” or “leads” as part of thesis statements, please.

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, pre-writing graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Plus, a BONUS!

Following are the typical response comments I use to respond to student thesis statements. No sense in re-inventing the wheel. I use the alphanumeric codes to simplify comment insertions.

  • e7 Thesis Statement does not respond to writing prompt. Re-read the writing prompt and dissect according to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word).
  • e8 Thesis Statement does not state the purpose of the essay. Dissect the writing prompt, focusing on the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the   resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) to specifically state the purpose of your essay.
  • e9 Thesis Statement does not state the point of view of the essay. Dissect the writing prompt, focusing on to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) to clearly state your specific point of view.
  • e10 Thesis Statement is too general. Get more specific in your thesis statement. Example: There were lots of causes to the Civil War. Revision: Although many issues contributed to problems between the North and the South, the main cause of the Civil War was slavery.
  • e11 Thesis Statement is too specific. Your thesis statement needs to be a bit broader to be able to respond to the demands of the writing prompt. A good thesis statement is like an umbrella-it must cover the whole subject to be effective. Save the specificity for the body paragraphs.
  • e12 Thesis Statement is inconsequential. The thesis statement must state a purpose or point of view that can be meaningfully developed in the essay.
  • Example: People in France really enjoy their cheese. Revision: The French especially enjoy four types of cheeses.
  • e13 Thesis Statement cannot be argued. An essay designed to convince a reader of the author’s specific point of view must provide a thesis statement that is arguable.      Example: Blue is the best color. Revision: Blue is the best color to complement a bright white background.
  • e14 Split Thesis Statement Don’t write a split (divided) thesis. A split thesis includes two purposes or two points of view. Focus on only one purpose of point of view       throughout the essay. It may be necessary to reference or refute another purpose or point of view in the body paragraphs or conclusion.
  • e15 Thesis Statement responds to only part of the writing prompt. Dissect the writing prompt according to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) and include each part.

Interested in more of these Essay e-Comments? Check out this video to get all 438 comments.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

For more thesis statement and essay practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. This curriculum includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading (works great with Google Docs), 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

Dissect a Writing Prompt

How to Dissect an Essay Writing Prompt

Check out the FREE Download teaching summary of the WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO strategy for dissecting writing prompts for display and practice.

Get the Dissecting a Writing Prompt Practice FREE Resource:

 

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