Please Don't Use Red Pen

For many students, submitting writing to teachers has been a way that they can feel judged, vulnerable and inadequate.  For those students, having to write in all areas of their academic life is painful.

Because of this, teachers and students have frustrations with each other over the necessary ways that writing is a part of school work, whatever the subject. We as teachers can be alarmed by the lack of care, thoughtfulness and skills shown in student writing at times.  I think students are sometimes fatalistic about writing opportunities – not viewing them as a chance to explore and refine their understanding and intelligence, but as possible exposure to ridicule and failure.

Of course, if students appear in our classes without adequate writing skills, we do them a disservice to imply that there isn’t a problem.  I think, though, that some teachers are not always thoughtful about how their own comments on student writing affect and create student results.

I’ve heard from students about their response to having the following comments on their writing:





Many students also report receiving grades without comments or questions on their work.  Whether the grade is F or A, very little is communicated if only a letter grade appears. Much more meaningful dialogue with students about their writing is possible if comments and discussion of student ideas accompanies their grade.  Writing is an activity that involves an audience, and one of the main things that helps students gain awareness of their work as writers is to realize that they are engaged in a process with at least one reader – their teacher.  We need to hold up our end of the conversation for this to be a meaningful process.

The use of red pen implicitly implies harsh critique – students expect red pen, and know that it means they will be judged. By using any other color (quite a few alternatives are recently available) we can subtly shift the context.  If as readers of student writing we are engaging in discourse with students, our responses could change from

Redo to reorganize this so that you are either following chronological or thematic order.

Awkward to I’m confused here – could you state this more clearly?

Boring to As a reader, I’m left wondering which part of this is important and meaningful to you – could you provide detail to make it more clear why you are bringing this up?

Writing fragmentary comments on student papers is tantamount to urging students to be silent and quit.  There’s no reason to make comments like this on student papers. We are capable of much more thoughtful work, and have things to say as our students’ readers that will help them become better writers.

Using colors other than red reminds us to be in dialogue with our students, and to show our own abilities to be thoughtful as their readers.  It is a cue to us, as well as to our students that we are here to be in conversation with them about their learning.

Take the
Next Step