If you type into goggle ‘red pens in schools’ you are bombarded with newspaper articles of schools who proudly declare that the use of red pens are BANNED! My response: I think education has bigger issues. So why is this move deemed necessary? Well some believe that marking in red pen appears more threatening (like writing in capitals), demanding attention from the reader in a warning manner (you don’t ignore road signs in red for example). Well I don’t mean to be blunt (but I’m going to be anyway) but that is exactly why I mark in red pen. Marking students’ work is one of the most significant ways that they improve their independent essay writing technique, so I want them to take notice of my comments.
I can see the benefits of marking in different colours such as green for praise or highlighting spelling mistakes or grammar errors but I want actual feedback for improvement to be as blatantly obvious as possible. Look at me, read me, take me on board!
So here are some tips for handling ‘red pen marking’:
- Explain to your students, prior to marking their work, what the purpose is of feedback. It is not negative criticism but critical pointers to support and enhance improvement. At the end of the day students want to reach a certain target/ grade so need assistance achieving this. So prepare them beforehand that their work will be marked in red. (For example my students set their own target grades/ what they would like to achieve, so my marking is to help them on that journey. This might mean a lot of red pen. It is aimed to motivate improvement rather than dishearten and destroy).
- Use red pens in lesson for self and peer assessment. Create an assessment environment where students are familiar with using red pens themselves as a technique to improve their work.
- Use a red pen when teaching to emphasize really important points on the board, so students associate this colour with importance not negativity.
- Don’t forget praise in red pen looks great as well!
But of course I’m going to say this aren’t I because I am pro – red pen. So what do my students say?
- “Red pen helps you notice where you need to improve – also helps you to remember.”
- “The colour of the pen doesn’t matter, it’s what it says that matters. Helps to see what is wrong.”
- “If my work is terrible, I’d rather know before the exam – whether it’s written in red or neon green!”
- “Red pen helps me realise what I need to work on because it stands out.”
- “I don’t really care as I don’t see it as threatening.”
- “Red pen makes it clearer which parts of an essay need improving, draws attention more than what other colours do.”
- “I find red pen on my work indicates and emphasises the areas of an essay that needs work; it is an effective and supportive mechanism of drawing my attention to what needs improving.”
And finally “Red pen is constructive not threatening. Exams are more terrifying than red pen!” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
Thank you to all my students who contributed their comments.