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Save Grading Time and Provide Meaningful Feedback: It Is Possible

If you're like me, you have tried everything from setting timers to creating carefully crafted rubrics to cut down on essay grading time. No matter the grading method, my school bag full of student writing still glares at me from the corner of my kitchen every weekend, taunting me with the hours upon hours of work I have yet to conquer.

However, I recently found the answer to my grading woes in an unexpected place: a standards based learning conference presented by the guru himself, Rick Wormeli.

Mr. Wormeli shared a video of a math classroom where the teacher graded papers by highlighting the errors, handing the papers back, and asking students to identify, discuss, and revise the mistakes. It was such a meaningful learning activity for her students, and it saved the teacher valuable grading time. The lightbulb immediately went off in my head: highlighting errors in student writing can save me grading time, too. The highlighting technique can also lead to meaningful learning opportunities for my students.

Since Rick Wormeli's conference, I have had the opportunity to grade 89 narrative writing pieces ranging from 2 pages to 38 (I might have some future authors in my classroom!). I used the highlighting technique and cut my grading time in half.

These are the steps I took to apply the highlighting technique in my 7th grade ELA classroom:

1. Highlight the Errors

I highlighted grammatical errors in yellow, revisions in green. If a student had a run-on sentence, I simply put a yellow highlight where the period should be. Several students used the wrong there/their/they're; I highlighted it in yellow. One student told the reader what the characters were saying instead of showing readers the dialogue; I highlighted that section in green.

Normally, I would have commented or corrected most of these errors. By simply highlighting with no comments, I cut out several minutes of grading time per paper, while still identifying the mistakes for students.

I also decided not to highlight each student's entire paper. For most narratives, I stopped highlighting after a few paragraphs and drew a line so students could continue finding similar errors on their own. My intention is not to overwhelm students with a paper covered in splotches of florescent yellow and green; I want them to identify mistakes as learning opportunities.

2. Give Students One Rockstar Moment

Mary T. Lane once said that writing is the soul on paper. My student authors poured their hearts into their narrative writing and spent weeks crafting, revising, editing, and conferencing their stories. I felt that if I handed back student narratives with only highlighted errors, they would be incredibly disappointed.

I created a simple form with two text boxes: one to identify each student's rockstar moment and one to identify a suggestion to strengthen the narrative. This form provided me a place to celebrate my students' writing while also giving students a few written comments.

3. Let Students Do the Work of Learning

When I handed back my student narratives, I reviewed how to interpret the highlighting: yellow means a grammatical error is present; green means a revision will strengthen the writing. I then set a timer for 5 minutes and told my students to review their highlights and identify as many errors as they could, challenging them to fix the errors that they could identify.

Next, I asked my students to share their "favorite mistakes" with a partner. Our favorite mistakes were the mistakes that helped us to learn the most. The student conversations were amazing! Kids were easily able to spot several of their errors and fix them without the excessive comments that I would normally leave.

After students shared their favorite mistakes, we had a whole class discussion, creating a list of our favorite mistakes and their fixes. We also shared some of the mistakes that students were stumped by, and as a class, we came up with ways to fix the errors. So much learning was happening, and students were the ones doing the work of learning.

4. Hand Back the Rubric Separately

When I handed back student papers, I did not hand back their grades. Student grades were recorded separately in my grade book and on rubrics that I shared with students at a conference later that week.

When teachers hand back grades to students, students tend to believe that the grade equates to the end of learning--the judgment has been made. However, when we hand back papers with feedback only, students focus on the feedback. Any time I spend highlighting and leaving my simple comments (the rockstar moment and the suggestion for strengthening the writing piece) is time well spent. Students are using and applying the feedback while growing as writers.

At the end of class, students took home their papers with the task of revising their writing for homework, due at the end of the week. When students brought back their revised papers, I was able to conference with each student, asking them to identify their revisions, sharing their rubric grade, and adjusting their grade as necessary. All the work is done in class.


Changing my method of giving feedback using highlighting has helped my students to grow as writers, and it has helped save me precious time as a teacher. Instead of that bag full of papers taunting me from the corner of my kitchen, I can focus on building curriculum and planning ways to help my students overcome some of the challenges they face as writers.

Too often, ELA teachers become sucked into piles of papers only to leave feedback that gets ignored. The highlighting technique will save you from the struggle and help your students to grow as writers.

Download my feedback form to use with your students by clicking on the image below:

Download this free feedback form to use with your students, from my classroom to yours!

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