Posts Tagged ‘essay rubrics’

How to Save Time Grading Essays

Canned Essay e-Comments

Essay e-Comments

Good teachers learn to work smarter not harder. We also learn how to prioritize our time, especially in terms of managing the paper load. Most of us would agree that we need to focus more of our time on planning and teaching, rather than on correcting. Here’s one resource to help you save time grading essays, while providing better essay response.

No, this is not an automatic grading program. If you’ve tried a few of these, you already have learned that while computers may do a nice job driving our cars, they don’t do as well grading student essays. Instead, the essay e-comments app is simply a “canned” comment bank which teachers use “as is” or choose to modify to stop wasting time writing the same comments over and over again. Plus, instead of just identifying the writing issue, each Essay e-Comment teaches students how to revise the problem.

If you’re committed to providing detailed comments to help your students improve their writing, but find yourself spending more than five minutes per essay, this app’s for you!

Here’s How the Essay e-Comments App Works

Download the FREE Essay e-Comments App (provided at the end of this article) to automatically add the 438 formatted comments to your Microsoft Word® Autocorrects. Sorry, Mac users, this app won’t work for you. Students write their essays in Microsoft Word® or in Google Docs and share to your Google Drive. Next, batch convert the essays to Word Docs to use the Essay e-Comments and then upload back into Google Docs for students to revise. The Essay e-Comments appear in the Google Docs comment bubbles perfectly formatted (except for the color) and can even include links. It’s easy and takes only seconds to do. Need help? This video shows you how.

Let’s See an Example

Let’s say you’ve been encouraging your students to use more vivid verbs in their writing. Your students are using too many “to be” verbs, so you’ve been teaching them How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs in Writing. In Tommy’s essay, he uses eight “to be” verbs in one short paragraph. Yikes! Simply highlight a section of Tommy’s text, right click to “New Comment”, type in e80. That’s the alphanumeric code for this comment. Look at what automatically pops up into a comment bubble in the margin or the reviewing pane if you prefer:

Revise: Too Many “to-be” Verbs Consider limiting use of is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been to one per paragraph. To replace “to be verbs” 1. Substitute a more active verb or 2. Begin the sentence with another word from the sentence or 3. Change one of the words in the sentence into a verb form.

Notice how the comment both identifies the problem and provides suggestions for the solution. Now that’s effective essay response!

I’ve developed 438 of these e-comments for these categories of essay response: 1. Essay Organization and Development (Introduction, Body, and Conclusion) 2. Coherence, Word Choice, Sentence Variety, and Writing Style 3. Format and Citations 4. Sentence Structure and Types of Sentences 5. Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics 6. Conventional Spelling Rules.

Can I Add My Own Comments (and Links) to the Essay e-Comments Bank?

Absolutely. You can also revise my comments to use the essay terms you prefer. Here’s how: How to Add in e-Comments to Microsoft Word Autocorrects. Each Autocorrects entry accepts a maximum of 255 characters if you type them in; however, if you copy and paste comments (including links ) and click “Formatted text” radio button, you can exceed that limit.

Before You Download the FREE Essay e-Comments App

  1. Windows Defender may pop up with a scary warning not to proceed. Click “More Info” and “Run Anyway.” The file has no viruses; it simply adds to your Microsoft Word® Autocorrects. Also, your school network settings may block your access. If so, you have two options: Download the app on your personal PC desktop or laptop or cut and paste the Essay e-Comments into Microsoft Word® Autocorrects on your school computer. I’ve done both to cope with my school district’s administrative network settings. It takes about an hour to cut and paste in all 438 comments. Yes, I’m an ELA teacher just like you! Important to note because the comments include the language of instruction found in the Common Core State Standards…

    Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

    Teaching Essay Strategies

  2. If you want the resource links and lessons which connect to these Essay e-Comments, purchase my comprehensive Teaching Essay Strategies program. The program includes 42 essay strategy worksheets, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core State Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core State Standard persuasive), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, editing resources, and, of course, the Essay e-Comments App.

    Essay e-Comments

    The Pennington Manual of Style

  3. If you don’t need the resource links and lessons, but want the full version of all 438 Essay e-Comments and the Quick Reference Guide (also included in Teaching Essay Strategies) to be able to copy and paste, as well as revise with your own essay terminology, purchase The Pennington Manual of Style.
  4. If you don’t want to purchase either program, you should download the Quick Reference Guide to be able to easily copy and paste selected Essay e-Comments and their alphanumeric codes to create a specific cheat sheet for an essay response (a smart idea, because you probably won’t use all 438 comments for any one essay :)). I’ll send this file to your email.


Get the Quick Reference Guide FREE Resource:

FREE Essay e-Comments App Download

As a reader of the Pennington Publishing Blog, I want to you have this app absolutely free. Download the Essay e-Comments App: to start working smarter, not harder with your essay response and grading. Make sure to watch the Essay e-Comments video to see and hear exactly how to get the most out of the Essay e-Comments App. Oh, and forward this article to a colleague.

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How Many Essay Comments and What Kind

Canned Essay e-Comments

Essay e-Comments

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.

For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual (included in the Common Core aligned Teaching Essay Strategies, also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing.

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
Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

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Essay Comment Excuses

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.


  • 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. Ones to cut and paste from your computer. But… really good ones. Prescriptive ones that that define the writing issues and provide examples… Ones that target specific writing style, grammar, usage, organization, evidence, spelling… everything. 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.

My professor colleague came up with 438 such essay e-comments. You can use them to grade online or paper submissions. The comments are included in a style manual for you and your students-sort of an interactive Strunk and White.

I’m the professor. I’m now teaching English-language arts to seventh graders. With these canned comments, I now grade from 7:00-8:00 a.m. and I do a much better job interacting with my students throughout the writing process than when I was spending two hours per day hand-writing the same comments over and over again.

For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, purchase The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum: Teaching Essay Strategies. Note: The Pennington Manual of Style is included in the Teaching Essay Strategies curriculum.

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:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies


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Writing Guides, English Handbooks, and Style Manuals

Remember using Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition back in high school and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style back in college? Each resource provided tips on grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and composition. Many students found these resources to be indispensable writing partners for essays and term papers. Writing Guides, English Handbooks, and Style Manuals all provide useful tools to students and professional writers alike. However, print copies are often out of date as soon as they are published. With commonly accepted guidelines in flux, the resources of the web are much better suited to the needs of today’s writers.

Constantly updated, The Pennington Manual of Style has been designed to serve as a complete writer’s reference guide (not merely a guide to citation formatting) for fourth-twelfth grade students and their teachers… with one major improvement over the old Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition and The Elements of Style: This style manual is fully interactive with 438 downloadable essay e-comments to make essay response efficient and comprehensive. Teachers can SAVE TIME GRADING ESSAYS AND GIVE STUDENTS BETTER COMMENTS with this resource. Plus, teachers are licensed to print Read more…

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Why Using Essay e-Comments Makes Sense

Good teachers know that students need detailed, prescriptive, and personal comments on their essays throughout the writing process to make significant improvement. However, the process can be time-consuming and frustrating. It would not be unusual for a teacher to spend 15 minutes to red-mark and write comments on the rough draft of a five-paragraph essay, then repeat the process to evaluate the final draft. Even with that significant amount of time, comments would have to be concise and rely upon abbreviations and diacritical marks. The focus has to be limited to identifying what is wrong, not explaining why it is wrong. No time for examples or suggestions as to how to improve the writing. Maybe a quick positive comment. Exhausting!

Additionally, frustration mounts as the teacher has to write the same comments over and over again throughout a stack of student papers. Only to be exacerbated when, after receiving their graded essays, students simply glance at their final grades before cramming the essay into the bottom of their backpacks. There has got to be a better way… Read more…

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How to Write Effective Essay Comments

Numerical Hierarchy Essay Structure

Essay Structure Numerical Hierarchy

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses.

Writing instructors classify the types of essay comments as following: corrective, directive, and facilitative responses. Read more…

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How to Add Essay e-Comments to Your Computer

Ever feel like a talking stuffed animal? Pull the cord and get one of thirty pre-recorded comments: “Needs more evidence.” “Your thesis statement does not respond to the prompt.” “Subject-verb agreement problem.” Instead of talking stuffed animals, teachers use their favorite red pens. Every teacher of writing knows what I’m talking about. The common student writing errors…

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers could type and save their commonly-used “canned” writing comments to automatically insert into student essays without all the bother of copying and pasting? What a time-saver this would be! It’s easily done and you have the tools you need right on your desktop or laptop in Microsoft Word®. Plus, you don’t have to be a computer programmer to get the job done. Read more…

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What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics?

It’s a relatively easy task to criticize any measure of writing assessment. This is my chore in What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics. However, it’s a much more challenging task to advocate in favor of a specific writing measurement. That is my chore in a related article: “Analytical Rubrics.”

Let’s start with a brief definition: A holistic rubric is a criterion-referenced assessment that is often used to evaluate writing. The writing is assessed according to a set of criteria. Unlike analytic rubrics, the criteria in holistic rubrics are grouped and not separated into discreet writing tasks. Thus, multiple components are grouped by a defined category and are considered as a whole.

Holistic rubrics have two basic features: 1. the writing category 2. the numeric levels of performance.

Holistic rubrics are used to assess writing by the SAT®, ACT®, state standards tests, by many college admissions counselors, and by most teachers. If everyone is using them, they must not be that bad. Read more…

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