Written comments: three simple rules (and a fourth)

Picture1Number #1 in an occasional series of short posts on feedback, appearing in no particular order

When delivering training on feedback, I don’t tend to spend too much time on written comments: the focus tends to be on oral and whole class feedback, classroom culture, questioning techniques, editing and redrafting, ‘work-shopping’ approaches and so on. If anything, it tends to focus on ways to minimise written ‘marking’.

However, many teachers are bound by policies which insist on regular written, prose comments; many are even tied down to formulae such as ‘three stars and a wish’, or ‘WWW, EBI’. So here are some simple ‘rules’ for such written comments, which I have found helpful. (Note: there is nothing startling here, but it all seems to need revisiting!)

Rule 1:  Don’t tell the pupil something that they already know.

Many laboriously-written comments on pupils’ work can be translated as:

You have done what you know you have done.
Now do more of what you know you should have done.

There seems little point in telling the pupil something to which they might reply: ‘I know – that’s what you told me to do’ or ‘I know – I was the one doing it!’ So avoid comments like:

You have used a range of descriptive techniques. 

You have worked hard on this. 

You have remembered the main points. 

You are using quotations to back up your ideas. 

You have added details.

Of course, such comments are meant to confirm the meeting of objectives, to reinforce learning and to provide evidence for assessment. But that can all still be done in comments which have ‘added value’ – introducing concepts or framed in words which challenge the pupil to think. For example, the following examples all pass the test of telling the pupil something that they probably didn’t ‘know’ already, at least in these terms:

Your metaphors are particularly chilling.

I found the opening very moving.

The best bits are where you have really thought about how to explain clearly.

Your character is actually very like an ancient Greek hero.

Some very precise and economical expression

Rule 2:  Never set a ‘next step’ or ‘target’ which isn’t moving the pupil forwards. *

This seems obvious, but so many such comments are, in fact, just reiterations of aspects of the task. Or they are just remedial advice. At worst, they ask pupils to do things that they have been told to countless time before, and if it hasn’t worked yet…*

Check spelling carefully.

their / there

Make sure all your sentences make sense.

Capital letters!

Make sure there is enough detail.

Include all the points on the list.

In contrast, the following comments might all be moving the pupil on, by challenging them or by pointing them towards new knowledge.

Try to imitate the speech in the story.

Why do you think the writer uses so much repetition?

Now try to use these technical words in your explanations.

Vary the way you begin sentences even more.

Work on adding extra clauses to your sentences.

Have a go at the next stage now.

Rule 3:  Connect with the pupil

One reason to spend time marking – perhaps the most important – is to motivate pupils. However, one of the dangers of formulae is that they can strip comments of any personal connection, by discouraging the use of the first-person, by stripping out direct address and by otherwise removing the teacher’s voice:

WWW. Varying sentence lengths to create tension

rather than

I really like the way you’ve created tension by varying your sentence lengths.

Of course, as all the above examples in green show, following rules 1 and 2 tends to mean that comments are naturally more personal, implying more interest and more investment from the teacher.


The fourth, overarching rule for written feedback is simple: teach. The question in mind should always be not ‘How does this task need marking?’ but ‘How does this pupil, right now, need teaching?’ Do they need advice? Do they need reassurance? Do they need a new challenge? Do they need to be provoked? Do they need to be corrected? Do they need some modelling? Do they need to be questioned? Do they need to be cautioned? And so on.

This reframing of ‘marking’ as ‘teaching’ might seem banal but it can, psychologically, be unexpectedly powerful. Faced with a pile of exercise books, don’t think ‘How can I get through this pile of marking?’ but ‘Right – I’ll spend one hour on these: that’s two minutes of personalised teaching for each pupil.’ (How often do they get that?) Then, as each book is picked up, the question is: ‘How can I, in the next two minutes, teach this particular pupil and have as much impact as possible on their learning?’

My favourite example of a low level ‘target’ for an obviously-talented pupil is in this exemplar comment from Ofsted’s English at the Crossroads (2008), which was apparently “encouraging but also provided clear guidance and helpful targets.” 

Moving empathetic narrative in which you write very powerfully from the perspective of the enslaved African plus a dramatic conclusion. You used the task very effectively to stretch yourself, sustaining a complex piece of writing over an extraordinarily big canvas. I like the ocean metaphor; it seemed appropriate, given the slave trade theme. Suggested reading: Underground to Canada. Target: develop more connectives to show passage of time rather than ‘and then’. For example: ‘afterwards’, ‘suddenly’, ‘a moment later’, ‘while’.

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