“Make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher. All the other stuff is of no use whatsoever if you don’t mark your books properly. You can be endlessly enthusiastic, have great subject knowledge, be fully cognisant of every rule and regulation, manage behaviour wonderfully, teach fascinating lessons at a cracking pace, which feature bucketloads of flannel-free praise and it will be all to nought if you don’t mark their books. They won’t progress. Antithetically, you can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful you are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.”

Phil Beadle, How to Teach (2010).

Beadle’s book made quite a few changes to my teaching, but the chapter about marking easily had the biggest influence. I remember the first time I picked up a red pen and started to write on someone else’s work. I was in a staff room in a language school in Seville, and the work was by someone older than me. I knew I had to write something, but I didn’t know what. In those days, I probably focussed on spelling, because that was something I knew about.

A few years later, I was in Brighton, sitting in a university classroom at the start of a PGCE. This was where I first heard the phrase “Two stars and a wish”. The idea was that when you mark work – as in all areas of the classroom – you should praise more than you criticise, lest you create a negative climate of communication. Negativity discourages, and praise encourages. So next to each of the stars, you say what the student did well, and for the wish, you say what they need to do better next time.

This all seemed perfectly sensible to me. The trouble came when I received work that was crap.

In this case, I would struggle to think of two things which the student had done well. I would also be gagged from identifying all the things that the student had not done. What a disaster.

positive thinking

How to Teach advocates proof marking. That is, correct every mistake. Beadle presents a perfectly good argument for this: if you, their teacher, are not going to correct their mistakes, who else do you expect to do it? Being given carte blanche to correct at will is one reason teaching is a pedant’s paradise (you can have that one for free, Coolio). Outside of the classroom, people will be offended if you correct their grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you’re a teacher marking a piece of writing, it’s your duty.

The flimsy counter to this – that little Johnny’s confidence will suffer if his mistakes are pointed out – is dealt with swiftly by Mr Beadle:

“Yes, it is emotionally difficult for him, but not half as emotionally difficult as finding that he is an adult and cannot feed his family because a load of pansy liberal teachers who were worried about upsetting him left him illiterate, as they would not mark his work properly.”

Phew. Take that, liberal pansies.

So I have ended up with a way of marking that corrects (or at least points out) mistakes, then at the bottom of the work I give a bit of praise and development points. I don’t call this bit at the bottom “Two stars and a wish” because my students are 18 years old.

I have come to feel that feedback is one of the most perfect forms of teaching. A guy called Baba Brinkman did a rap about evolution which reduces the Darwinian process to three stages: Performance, Feedback, Revision. Nature uses this process to make organisms better adapted to their surroundings. It is also a foundational concept in design. Without a “click” of feedback you don’t know that your seatbelt is fastened, and you will keep trying until you get that feedback. This is more or less the same as a student trying something until they get it right. Without the feedback, they are left groping in the dark.

Marking is the simplest antidote to the educational catastrophe which involves telling people stuff they know already. When I stand in front of twenty students and talk about topic sentences, maybe five of them know what topic sentences are already. The other fifteen are getting a valuable lesson, but these five are bored and wasting their time. With marking, everyone, without exception, is having gaps in their ability pointed out.

My current job is unusual in the teaching world, because my employers give me enough time to mark properly. In my secondary days, I had loads of classes and not much time left over after teaching and planning. Marking came third on the list and piled up behind me like some endless guilty secret. The talk on everyone’s lips was how to reduce the burden. Stickers. Rubber stamps. Marking codes. These were all attempts to mechanise the feedback, but I never liked any of them because they made marking generic and depersonalised. The only way to keep up was to work Sundays, something which many teachers take for granted. I don’t want this to turn into a rant about workload, but having a two day weekend is one of the reasons why I’m happier working in a university, even if I do have shorter holidays.

I’ve been arguing here that writing all over a student’s essay is time well spent. I heard someone today beg to differ – they said “But they won’t read it all, will they.” Au contraire, Blackadder. I take my comfort from this story, taken from David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man:

“Max Hart (of Hart, Schaffner & Marx) and his advertising manager, George L. Dyer, were arguing about long copy. Dyer said, “I’ll bet you ten dollars I can write a newspaper page of solid type and you’d read every word of it.”

Hart scoffed at the idea. “I don’t have to write a line of it to prove my point,” Dyer replied. “I’ll only tell you the headline: This Page is All About Max Hart.””


Written comments on written work are an essential part of teaching subjects such as English. Generic and mechanised feedback may be efficient but it is inferior. Personalised feedback is more useful and more interesting.

Image credit

A blue Bic Cristal with streamlined cap by Trounce

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