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Teachers, Put That Red Pencil Away!


A recent study shows that teachers correcting an English learners’ paper will find more errors if they are correcting it with a red pen than if they are using a blue one:

Rutchick and his colleagues argue this demonstrates “using red pens increases the cognitive accessibility of failure-relevant concepts.” However, they concede that other factors could be at work. Being associated with aggression, the color red could conceivably increase graders’ testosterone level, making them more assertive and critical.

…they conclude that “it seems sensible to avoid presenting students’ work covered in a color automatically associated with failure and negativity.”
“Red pens, ubiquitous in academic settings, are not inert objects,” they add. “They are laden with meaning.”

The study, unfortunately, doesn’t delve into the basic issue of correcting student papers, though today’s column in the Boston Globe, Redlined:
Correction isn’t the most important thing
writes about the same study and does raise some of those deeper questions.

In my book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, I cite research from John Truscott and Stephen Krashen that finds correcting grammar errors by writing on students’ papers to be ineffective. Instead, I suggest that using inductive methods like concept attainment and playing learning games can be much, much more effective in helping students learn correct grammar. In addition, they require much less time from the teacher.

What do you think?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Pingback: Red Ink IS Bad for Grading Papers?! | Tom Liam Lynch :: New Literacies, New Literatures

  2. I have tried various strategies for correction of errors but the bottom line remains that unless a students errors are pointed out in some way they don’t know that anything is wrong and so they can’t correct it.
    The most effective method is also the most impractical, to sit down individually with each student and go through each piece of work together. With my class sizes set to rise in September from twenty students to twenty two, if I set two pieces of work and give each student ten minutes feedback on each that would mean that two thirds of the entire teaching time would be taken up just talking about their mistakes and that most of the students would be left to their own devices most of the time while I dealt individually with others.

    My general practice on written work is to correct only the specific point that the work was intended to reinforce unless it’s an exam practice piece when I correct everything.

    I try to avoid red but always correct in a contrasting colour, usually green or purple because many of my students, especially at lower levels cannot easily pick out the corrections from the text if they are done in a similar colour.

    I’ve read the theories about how correction can be a bad thing but if I hand back work without corrections written on it or with general comments such as “check your tenses” or “be careful with your word order” two things happen.

    First my students feel, and say that they feel, cheated, as if I haven’t done the job they were expecting me to do. They want their problems pointing out to them. Second they don’t have any idea where to start as such general comments don’t point them to where they need to look.

    One thing that I always do though, is indicate the position and type of error but not the correction. For example, I underline misspelled words and mark them SP. This gives the students both the confidence that I have read and checked their work and the chance to fix problems for themselves. I also encourage them to bring their corrected versions back to me to check again.

  3. I use revision tools in ‘word’ to help my students with their writing, particularly at the advanced level. I use comments boxes to indicate the type of error (eg wrong tense, missing article, preposition, word order, punctuation, structure, vocabulary) and they have to submit a redraft with the errors corrected. It is only then that I will use track changes to correct remaining errors or comment on things they haven’t understood – but there is usually very little that needs correcting at that point. And it is fast reading the redraft.

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