the Dragonfly journal

Four-coloured pens for marking creative writing in KS2 & 3

By Cathy Farr

Everyone’s talking about marking at the moment: self marking, peer marking, teacher marking…hey, what about parent marking? Now that really would be opening the proverbial worm-filled can!


Seriously though, marking is hard enough when you’re trying to objectively mark someone else’s work, but trying to be even-handed with your own work, or your best friend’s… can you really ask a Year 3, 4 5, 6, 7 or even 8 child to mark their ‘bestie’s’ work and expect their friendship to remain intact?  Is this really realistic, or are my aspirations getting the better of me?


Well, actually, I don’t think so.


As those of you who read my blogs regularly will know by now, I’m a firm believer in putting my money where my mouth is, and for the past four years I’ve been getting kids to mark their own work and their friends’ in what I truly believe has been an effective way, and as yet there have been no tears and only limited fighting (actually, no fighting…really).


So, how to keep your classroom bloodless and the tear count down?


I think we can all agree that it is good to give the children clear parameters.  Don’t ask them to say if they ‘like’ something, or think its ‘good’ – you wouldn’t mark like that, so why should they? If they do want to say something is good they need to say why; and conversely, if they don’t like something, they also need to say why. Giving specific feedback is the key........however; we all know that this is easier said than done. 


A productive system that I use a lot in my class centres on the use of a four-coloured pen. The children go through a piece of work using:

-                    the red ink if something is wrong (spelling, or grammar, for example)....I'm afraid I just don't have a problem with red ink, call me old fashioned if you will. 

-                    they then have to correct this error in green ink.

-                    circle something they think is good in black ink (black seemed solid and substantial) and they must verbally explain why they think it is good.

-                    they can also add their own ideas (much like a book editor would work) in blue, on the understanding that the markee (just made that up - as it seemed better than victim) has the choice of whether they take on board the suggested change, or disregard it.


I always say to my pupils that Blue is where the genius lies!!!! They find the 'blue bit' really hard. As they should do.  What I try to do, however, is sample mark a piece or two up on the whiteboard (yes, the four colours in the tray of a smart-board exactly match up to this exercise) and model lots if ideas.


What I particularly like about the four-coloured pen marking activity is:

-                    the gradual build up in complexity

-                    the fact that it almost takes itself through its own thinking taxonomy 

-                    it is very simple

-                    it allows my more able pupils to really stretch themselves.  

One of my best ever moments in teaching was when two very good friends had completed this exercise and were showing and discussing both their 'Blue Bits' (or Blue Sky Thinking, if that sort of Vocab appeals).  One took the other persons ideas on fully and even added more to their extra ideas, whilst the other pupil rejected the blue bits.  Instead she added to her work but explained very clearly why, based upon her own ideas. Me? I was in educational heaven. 

This strategy is particularly useful when I’m teaching The WriteKey because we are working towards the ultimate goal of producing extended pieces of writing and ultimately writing a book.  Peer feedback is great for helping pupils to develop the original idea for their story, develop characters and then for moving the plot along.  This idea of constructive criticism from one who thinks in the same way (i.e. another child) can be really valuable; I have had several children who have abandoned their original ideas following peer marking, but not in a flurry of talcum powder way.  They just realised that their idea wasn’t that good but with a little help from their friends a better one took shape.

Even just getting pupils to revisit their own work using this system can reap rewards; after all, how many of us have pointed to a mistake in a child’s work and have them correct it before you’ve said anything?

 This kind of approach is great in a class with a wide range of abilities, as long as you’re careful who you pair with whom; it is also great in cross-phase work when you are working with two different ages (say, Year 4 and Year 6).  It works because the children know the boundaries of the marking task and therefore are happy to use it; it’s the same for those being marked.