How to Handle the Paper Load

Using Essay-Grading to Improve Student Writing

Wherever we AP teachers gather, we moan about grading papers. Although teachers read as fast as they can, the pile of unread essays just seems to grow taller. Guilt mounts. We start fantasizing about accidentally leaving a stack of papers atop the car and losing them to the wind. We consider driving to the Pacific and consigning the pile to the ocean. We think about changing careers.

One way to manage the paper load is to consider correcting student papers and commenting on them as two very different acts. English teachers too dedicate themselves to correcting every student error. As a consequence, they sometimes take more time perfecting a paper than the student spent writing it. Although certain obsessive characteristics are compatible with good teaching—organization, tidiness, a comfort with repetition—it is neither necessary nor desirable for AP teachers to rewrite student essays.

Clearly we should identify some mistakes in grammar and usage whenever and wherever we spot them, such as subject-verb agreement, spelling, run-on sentences, and fragments. I find I can circle and fix such errors almost automatically, leaving the rest of my attention for the content of the student’s paper. Rewriting garbled sentences in clearer prose demands a different kind of focus. It requires more of my time and it’s also exhausting because I’m doing the students’ work for them.

On one level we identify and correct student errors in grammar and usage. On a second level we rephrase and revise sentences for improved clarity and style. On a third level we comment on content and respond to a student’s expressed ideas. Grading papers is so exhausting because we operate on all three levels at once.

Level 1: Identify Mechanical Errors

I used to underestimate the importance of mechanical correctness in first drafts and other informal student writing and would encourage students to “free write” without concern for anything but putting ideas down on paper. It now seems to me that this method did more harm than good. A few students did seem to enjoy the chance to focus on content, but often they produced unreadable text. I am increasingly convinced that students should not put off making subjects agree with verbs, capitalizing proper nouns, or spelling words correctly until the editing stage. Practice doesn’t make perfect if students are continually repeating their mistakes.

I worry that we encourage carelessness when we tell students, “Don’t worry about spelling or commas. Just write.” Would a piano teacher suggest that a novice stop paying attention to the notes? Would a soccer coach yell to his midfielders, “Don’t worry about technique. Just play?” Both know that accomplished performance depends upon a muscle memory of accuracy that comes from constant practice.

The next time students ask if spelling counts, tell them, “Yes!” You will be telling the truth whether or not you figure correctness into the grade. Correctness counts in profound ways. If students’ use of language is inexact and their prose is full of errors, their ideas will be too easily discounted. While it is good teaching practice to recommend that students get their big ideas down on paper without worrying about precise word choice or varied sentences structures, it is certainly not good practice to encourage students to abandon or discount basic skills. The habit of correctness needs to become automatic so that writing can proceed without focusing much attention on spelling, capitalization, or common punctuation.

Marking mechanical errors in student papers can become an almost automatic reflex. Don’t worry if you miss one or two; just make sure the “look” of the graded paper reflects the extent of the mechanical errors committed. You won’t have to spend extra time in purgatory for overlooking the odd misplaced modifier. Do students become so discouraged by bleeding essays that they give up? Not if you let them know that your red marks are a judgment not of them or their ideas but rather of the piece of work at hand.

Level 2: Ask Students to Rephrase

Level 2 corrections are all-consuming. Circling spelling errors is child’s play compared with straightening out awkward sentence structures.

My solution? Don’t straighten them out yourself. That is not your function—or not your function at this point. Instead of rewriting students’ sentences for them, underline these syntactical nightmares and write in the margin one of the following comments:

“This sentence doesn’t make sense as written.”

“You have lost me here.”

“What exactly do you mean by this?”

“Can you rephrase this more clearly?”


By responding like a reader who is trying to understand what the student has written, you send the message that the passage needs revision without doing the revising yourself. Rewriting student prose is particularly futile when students don’t have to submit another draft. A teacher can invest hours on a paper with little payoff in student learning.

An effective technique for helping students grapple with awkward or imprecise sentences is to have them focus on individual sentences that need work. When you return graded papers, divide your students into small groups and ask them to choose one sentence from their papers that you have identified as unclear. The writer reads the sentence aloud to the group. The group discusses what needs fixing.

I know of no evidence that teachers rewriting student papers results in improved student writing.

Level 3: Comment on Content

To make tangible progress as writers, students need personalized feedback. Boilerplate comments like “Needs work,” “Well done,” and “Lacks clarity” are not enough. Teachers need to comment on content.

I handle this by writing a formal letter to the student, addressing the writer by name and beginning with a positive statement. Then, without recourse to a “however” or “but,” I proceed to suggest ways the student could improve the essay. Often I close with a personal comment cheering the student on, or assuring him or her that I am here to help.

On an analytical essay about Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying by a student who was a strong reader but weak writer, I wrote the following:

Dear Stan,

Your essay exudes an enthusiasm for Gaines’s story that is infectious. Be careful not to allow your strong feelings for the book turn what should be an analytical essay – remember the key prompt verb: ANALYZE – into an evaluation of the novel. This shouldn’t be a book review but rather an analysis of the irony implicit in the teacher being the one who learns a “lesson.” Thanks so much for being such a terrific leader in your literature circle. You really helped others understand what they read.
—Mrs. J

My note, while friendly, uses academic language (“infectious,” “evaluation,” “implicit”). Using such vocabulary both frees me from trying to oversimplify my thoughts for the students and helps them become familiar with the language of writing instruction.

If I spent 20 minutes on each of the 76 essays from my two AP English Literature classes, I would need about 25 hours to finish the stack. My solution? Read fast. Write fast. I aim for seven to eight minutes per paper. My response to Stan is brief: 86 words long. I don’t often write 350 or 400 words to students. My notes typically range from 50 to 100 words.

Although I personalize my comments, I work from a stock of previous critiques stored in my head: students tend to need similar guidance and instructions. For a student whose essay is fairly well written but didn’t address the prompt adequately, I wrote:

Dear Robin,

You have insightful things to say about the weather as a metaphor for Joan Didion’s attitudes. I’ve never thought about the sun’s rays in this fashion before. Focus more specifically on the prompt next time. The essay would be clearer if your first sentence directly answered the question raised in the prompt. It would then be easier for a reader to follow the logic of your supporting evidence. You are such an excellent reader that I’m keen to see your writing skills match your reading skills.
—Mrs. J

I believe students are more likely to read such personal notes than coded teacher responses. It is not enough for a writing teacher to be right about what is wrong in a student paper. To be effective, we also need to be heard and heeded. When we are effective, student writing improves and we experience the satisfaction of a good day’s work.

Authored by

Carol Jago
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, California