Is marking a dying art?

Hilary Moriarty discusses whether marking is still relevant to today’s teachers

Strange how bitterness and envy will find their way to the surface no matter how one tries to cover them with a veneer of civilised tolerance and behaviour. All my teaching life, I envied maths teachers. Partly, I envied their absolute certainty, their happy dwelling in the house of right or wrong. Set a problem, see the sum. Is it right? Tick. No? Then it’s wrong. Cross. Next?

English teachers live in a world of, “Well…” There were – are – so many ways in which an answer to any question in English could be right or wrong. Sometimes it was right, but so badly phrased, or spelled, or punctuated, or paragraphed or even written, because the writing was illegible, that marks were disappearing and writing out the reasons in red ink took up more of the page than the original answer.

I was bitter that the maths teacher got paid the same as English teachers and had the same number of free periods. English marking did not fit into ‘free’ periods. It spilled into evenings and weekends and holidays, in weekly batches of 30 500-word essays for each class taught. Maths homework could be marked by the pupil next door. Maths teachers (I thought) seldom offered more than a languid tick. Few comments, good, bad or indifferent. My bitterness found expression in an end-of-term panto recounting the tale of ‘Markerella’, the English teacher languishing in the staffroom ‘cinders’ – unmarked books –  while two mathematician sisters waltzed off to the ball. Do not ask who Prince Charming might have been – it’s a long time ago. I fear he might have been the Headmaster, able to reduce poor Markerella’s timetable to half a week so she had time to spend the rest of the week marking and find out what a weekend might be. A rare thing in the Moriarty household at the time.

On a couple of occasions leaving schools before moving on to the next post, I cleared my desk, or the boot of my car, and discovered marked work which had somehow never found its way back to the writer. Salutary. They wrote so much, and I wrote so much back. A really great essay would get a high mark and minimal comment – sometimes, simply, ‘Marvellous!’  A less good essay sometimes got near-essays back. Looking back, I remind myself of Little Miss Helpful – my comments could have begun, “Let me help!” as I scurried to the rescue on work which was, in fact, cold and dead and gone. I was telling people how (as I thought) to do it better, and they did not even get the paper back. I also feared that those who did get the papers back, checked the mark, shrugged and muttered, “I can never read her writing…”

I was teaching in a very new comprehensive school when there was something of a revolution in the marking of English work. I had been wielding a red pen to record my response to each individual piece of work – in maths, everyone was aiming to get the right number and a tick is fine; English, literally, had more to say, and demanded a personal response. I believed I was helping every pupil to write better – to be a better writer. To say interesting things – yes, yes please. But also to say them correctly so that they could be easily understood – spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, grammar all mattered. I wasn’t expecting what was asked of me in ancient times – my O-level English Language paper specifically tested knowledge of sentence structure, down to being able to spot an adverbial clause at 10 paces. But I would correct “I done…” and I would expect punctuation in a stream of consciousness page, because I am sorry, you are not James Joyce yet!

I always thought the red pen was part of a personal conversation, encouraging and complimenting as much as correcting

The revolution said, ‘Stop with the red pen,’ but in fact, stop the marking. Vicious little red pens damage learner writers. Mark work from novice writers, damn them for all the mistakes, and they will write less. Then they will not dare to write at all because of the hail of criticism you will pour on to their work. If a child is dyslexic, corrections are wasted – they will not be able to do it any better next time. They will just be demoralised. Then silenced.

The new order reduced the hours spent marking, but I do not believe the, ‘Let them write, it will be glorious – eventually!’ movement actually produced generations of young people who could, quite simply, write accurately. I lectured in colleges of further education where one class after another now wanted to improve their written English because they had passed through schools where they had not been taught to write without error. Consequently, applying for jobs was a problem.

I used to encourage dyslexic youngsters with the promise of a happier day when they would not have to write at all – they could dictate to a computer and the machine would take care of the tedious business of spelling. And those days are here already.

What I did not expect was that computers would also come to the rescue of poor Markerella, and not just in English. How wonderful to read of a smartphone app that allows the teacher to replace the marking pen with a video or audio recording of themselves giving a running commentary as they mark. It comes from a company called Firefly Learning and is already used by 500,000 pupils in 500 schools in 32 countries. In a Times story, a school Head of Digital Strategy says, “For pupils, it can be demoralising to get a piece of work covered in red scrawl,” and I think, I know! They told me! An audio commentary can be more personal and apparently, half of all pupils in UK independent schools now use the app. 

But I’m really not surprised. I always thought the red pen was part of a personal conversation, encouraging and complimenting as much as correcting, but I can appreciate it may not have felt like that on the receiving end. Even changing it to a green pen – many schools did – may not have felt much better. But what better than ‘His Teacher’s Voice’ talking about just your work, not in a general sense to the whole class. How often did I broad brush stroke over an exercise – “Many of you said. . .but only some of you noticed. . .and some would have been better if…” The words were fair summaries, but not tailored for each pupil. The response to each piece, and each pupil, was in the individual marking, but in ink, not in my voice. Maybe, therefore, not heard. 

It will be interesting to see how inspectors assess this kind of marking. I think they’ll love it. The only problem is that being audible, it will hardly be visible. Work scrutiny and the judgement of consistency of marking within any department and across the curriculum may just have got a whole lot more complicated.  But no doubt there is an app in production for that, too. 

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