My first post on this blog was an attempt to put into words my thoughts having completed a comparative judgement trial based on Lower 6th essays completed for a timed examination. I am exceedingly grateful to David Didau and Chris Wheadon for their generous and thoughtful comments, which have greatly expanded my understanding of the process and its rewards.
One of the most telling criticisms made of our methodology was the time it took for a teacher to arrive at a judgement. Our median time was about five minutes; Chris Wheadon claims evidence that reliable judgements can be achieved in as little as seven seconds with a median of about half a minute. There are a number of factors which slowed us down, but it prompts me to ask: how often do we read a student’s work really closely?
I would suggest, not that often. The standard model of marking for an English teacher is about as bad as you can get: a pile of essays must be waded through, and each assigned a slot on an arbitrary scale. This makes our reading bad in two ways: firstly, we have a pile of essays to mark, so are disinclined to spend long on each essay; secondly, we tend to look for things we can tick, ‘analysis of language’, technical vocabulary and suchlike.
I’ve tried a range of moderation strategies in my department, from blind marking and submission of marks anonymously (try using Google Forms for this), ranking exercises, paired marking and suchlike. Each has their place, yet none come close in terms of real value to sitting down together around a table and reading students’ work aloud. I pick out a pretty random selection of essays (controlling for gender if it’s obviously skewed), anonymise them and then, we read them. Aloud.
Reading aloud is slow and effortful, horribly inefficient when it comes to that pile of essays. Yet it assures three things:
- Every teacher around the table has taken in every word that candidate has written. Silent reading cannot guarantee this, even with trained professionals (our attention may be elsewhere, or the handwriting may just be too crabbed to read);
- We have had to make sense of the work. To read aloud is to turn words into meaning, the voice articulating ideas and their relationship to one another;
- We will arrive at a shared view of what the writer has actually said.
Having done this, we can begin to apply the mark scheme, working carefully on thoughts which are fresh in our mind. Going through four or five essays takes about three quarters of an hour, but it is time very well spent.
Does it make a difference? I think it does. It reminds us what we’re looking for and what we think is a good answer, as well as reminding us to look beyond the easily-ticked technical terms and suchlike. Equally importantly, it’s led to more consistent marking, with less variation between teachers, and, hence, more reliable data on which we can base our discussions.
Why slow reading matters
One of the most humbling experiences of my career occurred while at a standardisation meeting for Pre-U English Literature. We’d read essays aloud around the table, dissected their arguments and I’d enjoyed every moment of it. Later in the session, the team of examiners were divided into pairs to take away a small pile of scripts and mark in tandem, each moderating the other’s work. I was paired up with a colleague some decades my senior, and it was totally instructive to watch her work. When she read a student’s essay, it was as if she were in the room with that student, talking to them as they wrote, reading and re-reading to ensure she was completely certain of what they had said. When they misquoted, she knew instantly (these essays were on Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Henry IV Part 1, as well as works by Pinter, Churchill and Jonson); when they misrepresented the play, she picked them up on it; when they illuminated something, she praised them to the skies.
Ever since then, I’ve known I ought to replicate that care and attention. I’d like to say I attempt it with every pile of IGCSE essays, but I’d be lying through my teeth. Sometimes, though, I do lock myself in my classroom and read aloud, trying to put a voice to the words on the page. I listen better that way.