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5 steps to better peer marking in the primary classroom

Getting children to improve each other’s work is the Holy Grail of assessment. But you’ve got to build the right foundations, says Shirley Clarke…

Shirley Clarke
by Shirley Clarke
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Why peer mark? Because the greatest resource in the classroom is not necessarily the teacher.

We need to be training children to learn from one another because, without the barriers that can exist between child and teacher, they can speak more freely, interrupt each other when things are not clear, and bounce around their ideas.

It all starts with the proviso that the most important thing about any writing is the author’s intent and the impact on the reader. After this, it’s about providing success criteria, toolkits or examples of excellence to enable the above.

The following steps are the culmination of some 20 years of working with teachers to improve children’s learning through formative assessment. They seem to be, at this moment, the most effective five stages for peer marking.

Step 1 | Assign partners at random

Organise your class so that children have a new talk partner each week, selected at random. Many schools do this as a matter of course and it means that:

a) Children have a chance to learn and socialise with every person in the class at some point.

b) Changing partners regularly stops children being trapped in one role for weeks at a time (eg the higher achiever; the lower achiever; the helper; the confident one; the shy one, etc).

c) They always have a learning partner with whom they can share strategies, talk about their writing, and discuss any questions put to the class.

Be flexible. Sometimes threes are better or you might want to pair up children differently for a particular purpose. On the whole, however, regularly giving children a new partner at random is the best scenario for learning and developing skills.

Step 2 | Read work aloud

Emphasise that children should read aloud what they’ve written at every stage, and let them do their first edit on their own.

It is when we read our writing aloud that we hear where the commas and full stops naturally fit and whether it sounds ‘right’. Writing that’s full of wonderfully long descriptions, for instance, might look impressive on the page, but when spoken out loud it can sound over the top – ridiculous, even.

Encourage children to do this first on their own – quiet muttering rather than loud orating. If they go straight from a first draft to partner discussion and marking, it doesn’t give children the chance to do some personal editing first.

It’s also frustrating to listen to someone read aloud when she’s continually stopping to correct or change her work; it’s equally annoying for authors to be told about errors they can spot perfectly well for themselves.

Step 3 | Practise together

Model what peer marking should look like. Use the visualiser to pick one child’s writing at random, usually half way through the process, and go through the following stages: “Let’s read it through so far.” At which point you read the text aloud to the class.

“What do we really love about it and why? Talk to your learning partner…” This is a chance to share opinions and underline the best bits on the screen. Notice that I don’t go straight to the success criteria, unless those affect the quality of the work – such as in the writing of a letter.

Saying something like, “Yes, she’s used the past tense” doesn’t help children judge the quality beyond the basic structure of the piece. Instead, focus on questions such as, “What words, phrases or sentences have the best effect? Why?”

We want to concentrate on how the writing makes us feel, and how this has been achieved, rather than on technical language.

If, for instance, we were to focus on the word ‘it’ in the opening to a piece of writing that’s intended to be scary, we might say this fires our imagination as we begin to wonder what ‘it’ might be.

Or we could highlight where the author has shown, as opposed to told, the reader how the character is feeling: “I could feel my heart pounding as I stood stock still” rather than “I was terrified”.

“Is there anything that could be even better?” This could be the choice or the position of a word, or any punctuation that would make a difference to the sound or sense of the writing, etc.

Ignore errors for now, unless this is a very young class at the beginning of writing. Ask children to talk to their partners, share ideas and involve the author of the piece in deciding whether to accept the improvements.

Keep reading the writing aloud to see if the suggested improvements really do improve the piece.

A more impressive adjective might seem like a good idea in theory, but in reality have a negative effect on the flow of the piece.

Take, for instance, ‘It was big, black and towering’. Replacing ‘big’ with a longer word might spoil the sentence by removing the alliteration and ruining the rhythm.

Step 4 | Make joint improvements

Ask partners to peer discuss their writing and work together to improve it. This is better than asking children to simply swap books, which leaves them unsupported. The author should be the only one making marks on her work, and she should have the final say on any changes.

The role of the partner is to advise – we’re not casting her as the teacher with licence to write comments on another child’s work. Role play how children might politely reject their partner’s suggestions.

Skip this step and pupils often feel duty bound to accept their partner’s ideas, even if their own thoughts were better. “Thank you. That’s made me think of an even better idea.” is a good way of doing it.

Have children use two coloured pens: one to show what they deem excellent and another to highlight any improvements made. Both pupils in a pair should write their names on their writing to make it clear it was peer discussed. This, with the colours, makes the processes involved transparent to all parties.

It’s a good idea to leave one side of writing books blank. This provides a valuable space for trying out spellings, comments by the teacher and, most importantly, any improvements to be made by the author – lined up alongside the original.

Without this space, children can feel limited when it comes to making changes.

Step 5 | Check for effect

Keep coming back to the intent of the author and the impact on the reader. I used to ask my audiences to improve the following sentence by changing only the nouns and verbs: ‘The woman ate the food’. I would get fairly predictable responses, such as ‘The queen nibbled the cake’.

When I started asking them to think first of the impact they wanted to have on the reader (“Do you want them to feel horrified, disgusted, pitying, amused, shocked, excited, etc?”) their sentences were remarkably improved.

Suddenly, there were hags chewing bones and supermodels inhaling lettuce leaves. And they could work with their partner to strengthen their chosen impact still further, rather than being happy with the first attempt.

You can see children from Year 2 upwards involved in cooperative peer marking on my website (shirleyclarke-education.org).

One example sees pupils in Y2 involved in an entertaining discussion in which they improve each other’s instructions for following the fire drill. “Nervously line up” is my favourite.

Two children challenge whether there could be a better adverb, but the six-year-old child who chose it is adamant it’s the most effective.

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