TEFL Q and A, Chapter 10: Marking Homework

Q: I remember when I was at school, homework was always an important part of learning. Does this apply to EFL teaching?

A: Generally, yes.

Q: What kinds of problems do students tend to have with the writing they do outside class?

A: There are all sorts of problems, but, to mention just two examples, some students have difficulties using capital letters, and others have difficulties with commas.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Yes, as far as capital letters are concerned, some students don't use them to start new sentences or to begin a person's name.

Q: And commas?

A: Commas are trickier. Many students forget them in lists, or at the beginning of a new clause (with a new subject). Also, some students insert commas when they're not needed (e.g., "I think, that…").

Q: What can I do when I see these mistakes?

A: One thing you can do is underline the mistakes and put a symbol in the margin.

Q: What kind of symbol?

A: Well, for mistakes with capital letters, you could put CA in the margin; for punctuation mistakes, you could put PU. Get the idea?

Q: Yes, that seems simple enough. But there must be many other kinds of mistakes, right?

A: Yes, there are plenty, but it's not a good idea to give your students too many codes to decipher. This could be demoralising. However, in addition to the CA and PU symbols, I recommend you use ST for style, S for signpost words, W for wrong word, SP for spelling, T for wrong tense, O for omission, D for deletion, and // for paragraphing.

Q: When you talked about teaching, you said that it's good to get the class to do as much work as they possibly can (or else they'll feel robbed). Could this principle apply here? For example, could you get the students to spot the mistakes before you even look at the work?

A: Absolutely. If you've got a small group with a small amount of homework, you can arrange the class in a circle, hand out the (unmarked) homework and get each student to mark one script and then pass it clockwise to the next student once they've finished. Each script gets passed all the way round (with each student amending the script in a different colour). This can be a fun activity, but it wouldn't really work in some classes for purely practical reasons.

Q: So, it's a logistical thing?

A: Yes.

Q: Let's imagine that I have marked the work with codes and underlining and handed the work back to the students. What's the next step?

A: You can ask the class to write second versions of their homework. Tell them to write "second version" very clearly at the top of the page, so there's no confusion with other homework you collect. When you collect this second version, I suggest that you insert the remaining corrections yourself. You should also comment (in general terms) on the work, making sure that you give praise when it's due. Finally, in some classes, giving the homework a grade or mark would be appropriate.

Q: Does this procedure apply to all kinds of writing?

A: Absolutely not, and I'm glad you asked that question. It's a good idea to think of two kinds of writing. For one kind, a student needs 100% accuracy (because this would be expected in the real world). For the other kind, a student needs to be able to communicate clearly, but 100% accuracy is not necessary for each part of the message.

Q: Can you give examples?

A: An example of the kind requiring 100% accuracy would be a PhD dissertation, and an example of the other kind would be an e-mail enquiry about hotel prices.

Q: If I were marking the second kind, how would I go about it?

A: You could probably just underline the parts you think that a potential real-world reader might not understand.

Q: So, in this case, getting the message across is more important than total accuracy?

A: Exactly.

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