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Teachers Making Good Use Of Red Pens

red inkThe color of ink that teachers use to mark papers occasionally stirs up a fuss in the UK as some schools move away from red pens.

The idea is that red ink leaves a negative impression on students and alienates them from their teachers. There's some research to support that idea.

But with school starting up again, I've been doing some more reading about ink colors and marking. And it seems that maybe red pens have a place in the classroom, after all.

Doug Lemov, an author and educational consultant from the US, visited some UK schools last year and wrote about how teachers use different colors of inks to communicate with their students.

What he saw at King Solomon Academy and Mossbourne Community Academy was this: A system in which students do their work in black ink, the teacher comments on them with red pens, and the students make corrections and respond in green ink.

Credit: Doug Lemov, Credit: Doug Lemov, via Mossbourne Community Academy

The use of black, red and green inks clearly differentiates original work from feedback and corrections. It's an efficient feedback loop that tracks and encourages growth.

Importantly, the red ink is not used in a negative way, such as simply marking something "Wrong!" the way teachers did in previous generations. Red pens are used to ask questions that make the students delve deeper into their answers. Mossbourne calls these open-ended questions "thinks" that solicit additional thought and writing from students.

And this apparently is not an uncommon system. Many other schools practice similar concepts.

The way it works seems to be fairly uniform. Teachers mark papers, adding target goals for students. Often, classmates are included in the feedback system, allowed to mark peers' work with questions and ideas of their own. Then, students respond.

Ink colors vary by school, although red pens and green pens are common.

For example, St. Joseph's Catholic Primary School requires teachers to use red ink while students are the respond in pencil or pen. At Castle Lower School, teachers are not to use red pens, but should use pink ink to highlight good work and green ink for work that needs improvement. Sometimes, the system is flipped, such as at Harris Aspire Academy, where teachers mark in green and students respond in red pen.

Some schools even issue green pens to students to make sure they always have them.

By the way, Aspire's marking policy summed up the practice in the best way I've seen:

Marking gives teachers and students a valuable opportunity to have individualised dialogue which clearly focuses on the next steps needed for the individual student to improve, it checks for understanding and it encourages student effort and focus. Although it can be a time consuming exercise, marking must be seen as a vital investment of teachers’ time as it it the most powerful way to impact on the progress of students.

I understand the sometimes visceral response to red pens and the feeling that it can corrupt that dialogue between teacher and student. Red is often associated with aggression and severity. (Although green ink also is associated with kookiness, so there's that). At least one teacher has pointed out something I never considered – that for some cultures, red ink can have negative associations, an important point given the diversity of classrooms.

pen colorsStill, just from a practical standpoint, red ink makes sense. There are only so many colors that are commonly available: black, blue, red, green, pink and purple, maybe brown.

Black and blue are the easiest to read, so they're usually used for original work. Brown and purple, especially darker purples, may not offer enough contrast to easily stand out from the original. Pink is light and difficult to see. That leaves red and green, and red definitely is the more visible of the two.

Ultimately, though, red pens – and the color of ink in general –aren't the issue.

The focus here should be on giving students the best possible feedback to help them learn information and develop their thinking skills.

Systems that accomplish that should be the standard, no matter the ink colors used.

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