Grading and Commenting

Grading and Commenting on Student Essays

“The writing teacher’s ministry in not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words” (William Zinsser qtd. Bean 239).

In his book, Engaging Ideas, John Bean uses the above quote to illustrate the teacher’s responsibility to their students.  He wants to remind teachers that students are people who have feelings and ideas.  When grading essays, teachers should remember that students write the words.

Bean also reminders his readers that teachers need to remember that the purpose of commenting on student essays is to “coach revision” (242).

Bean offers several helpful guidelines for commenting on student essays:

1.  Giving a student too many problems to work on at once will only discourage them, limit your comments to a few problem areas.  Remember to focus on higher-order issued first:  “ideas, organization, development, and overall clarity,” and then focus on the lower-order issues: “sentence correctness, style, mechanics, spelling, and so forth” (242-243).

-Higher-order Issues

a.  Does the draft follow the assignment?
b.  Does the writer have a thesis?
c.  If the draft has a thesis, what is the quality of the argument?
d.  Is the draft effectively organized on the macro level?
-Can the draft be outlined?
-What should be added to the draft?
-What should be eliminated?
-What should be moved?
-Are their good transitions?
-Are all points supported by details?
e.  Is the draft organized effectively at the micro level?
-Are the paragraphs unified?  Do all the sentences support a controlling idea?

-Lower-order Issues

-Use a minimal marking technique to help students learn to fix their own errors.
-Look for style issues.  “Stylistic concerns involve rhetorical  choices – matters of effectiveness and grace rather than right or wrong. Wordiness, choppiness, or excessive use of the passive voice are rhetorical or stylistic, not grammatical matters” (248).
-Look for grammatical errors.  Try to mark with end comments, place Xs next to the line where errors occur, line-edit one or two paragraphs and have the students finish on their own, or help the student become aware  of patters of errors they can correct.
(Bean 243-253)

Glenn and Goldthwaite comment on commenting on student’s content in The St. Martins Guide to Teaching Writing.  The following lists of content concerns are grouped hierarchically starting with those generally considered the most important:


1.  How well does the essay respond to the assignment?
2.  How novel, original, or well presented is the thesis of the essay?
3.  Are the arguments or mailn points of the essay well supported by explanatory or exemplary material?
4.  Is the thesis carried to its logical conclusion?


1.  Does the essay have a coherent plan?
2.  Is the plan followed out completely and logically?
3.  Is the plan balanced, and does it serve the purpose of the essay?
4.  Are the paragraphs within the essay well developed?


1.  Does the essay use words precisely?
2.  Does the essay use words in any delightful or original fashion?


1.  Is the writing pleasing to the reader?
2.  Does the writer come across as someone the reader might like and trust?
3.  Does the writer sound intelligent and knowledgeable?
4.  Are the sentences structures effective?
(Glenn 118)

Grammar Issues

According to John Bean in, Engaging Ideas, the old method of teaching grammar with exercises in punctuation and sentence construction is not helpful to most writers.  Using the old method, students learned formal grammar in workbooks and then applied it to their writing.  This method, while sometimes helpful for already skilled writers, has proven ineffective when used to teach composition to student writers (55).  Bean believes that teachers need to reevaluate their understanding of grammar and gives, in his book, several helpful ideas:

1.  Grammar and usage – Some errors are not error of grammar, but of usage.  Bean gives  as an example the error of using Brung instead of bring.  This example reveals a non-standard version of English and can stem from a sociological or political issue rather than a grammatical one.  Avoiding usage errors can often come about because the student wants to avoid social embarrassment, but this stance is also a political issue (57-59).  These kinds of “political” usage “errors” must be difficult to correct in a non-offensive way.

2.  Teachers may perceive more errors in a student’s paper than they would in a  colleague’s paper simple because they are looking for mistakes (60).

3.  Studies show that at least half of students errors  result when the student fails to  proofread, as opposed to the student’s linguistic competence (61).

4.  Student error is often systematic.  If teachers can help students classify their errors, they may be able to develop a pattern of correction that can help them, not only on the paper they are currently working on, but on all future writing endeavors (63).

5.  Student’s errors often disappear on their own as they work through multiple drafts.  When grading a first draft, teachers may want to focus their attention on “Higher-order” problems and leave the grammar issued for a later draft (65).  Help students understand the revision process by making sure comments, especially on first drafts, encourage revision rather than editing.  (Note:  editing a draft too early can cause the student to believe that editorial errors are all that need to be corrected for a finished piece.  Students need to be encouraged to properly revise)  (67-68).

6.  Teachers should help students understand that grammar errors with ultimately harm their work and their reader’s perception of their writing (66).

The St. Martins Guide to Teaching and Writing by Cheryl Glenn and Melissa Goldthwaite also speaks about grading and commenting on student’s essays in regards to grammar issues.

1. Teachers need to distinguish between Sentence-level or syntactic errors (sentence fragments, fused sentences, comma splices) and word-level errors (spelling, verb forms, agreement).  Teachers also need to decide which kind of error will be more important to correct.  Most teachers but greater emphasis on syntactic errors because these errors can alter meaning and content (117).

Marginal Comments
1.  Balance comments with praise and criticism.
2.  Be specific.
3.  Converse with the text.
4.  Use simple comments when appropriate: (Good, Yes, Evidence? Proof?  Does this follow?)
5.  Use no more than 3 or 4 per page, and make sure the comments are not too long.
(Glenn 122-123)

Three helpful comments by Mary Beaven:
1.  Asking for more information on a point the student has made.
2.  Mirroring, reflecting, or rephrasing the student’s ideas perceptions or feelings in a  nonjudgmental way.
3.  Sharing personal information about times when you, the teacher, have felt or thought  similarly.
(qtd. Glenn  122).

Terminal Comments

Terminal comments should document both the strengths and weaknesses of the essay.  They should always open with praise and then proceed to the higher-order concerns in the essay.  Finally, they should discuss the lower-order issues.
(Glenn 124).

Grading Criteria

Analytic Grading Criteria:
“The analytic method gives separate scores for each criterion (Bean, 257).

Holistic Grading Criteria:
“The holistic method gives one score that reflects the reader’s overall impression of the paper, considering all criteria at once (Bean, 257).

For sample grading guides, see Engaging Ideas by John Bean, chapter 15.

Be alert for the B fallacy – don’t just give the essay a B as a compromise (Glenn 126).

For sample grading standards, see The St. Martins Guide to Teaching Writing by Glenn and Goldwaithe, pages, 129 -134.

Notes concerning ESL student writing:

-Make positive comments first
-Consider elements that still need work.
-When looking at grammar or sentence errors, categorize and prioritize
-Give the most attention to errors that interfere with the message.
(Glenn  119)

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001.

Glenn, Cheryl, and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

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