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How to Save Time Grading Essays

I’ve found this simple idea very helpful in saving me time grading and responding to student essays. It only takes about 20 minutes to set up on your computer.

Using the editing tools of Microsoft Word®, ELA teachers can give comprehensive and prescriptive comments almost AUTOMATICALLY. Teachers can save time and be more environmentally friendly by requiring students to submit their essays online. Then, teachers respond with comments and marks online. Here’s how it works.

1. Find the “Autocorrect Options” in Microsoft Word®. For versions previous to Microsoft Word 2010®, simply open “Tools” and then “Autocorrect Options.” On Microsoft Word 2010®, go to FILE, then to HELP, then to OPTIONS, then to PROOFING, and click on the “Autocorrect Options” button.

2. Type in a two symbol alpha-numeric code, such as e1 into the “Replace” box. Then, type in your first prescriptive comment into the “With” box. I suggest you begin each comment with the common diacritical mark (abbreviation or symbol) to help your students learn these editing marks. For example:

Autocorrect Options

Replace: e1 With: cs comma splice Two independent clauses cannot be joined with a comma. To fix, insert a conjunction following the comma or change the comma to a semicolon if the clauses are closely related.

3. Continue typing the alpha-numeric code, e.g. e2, e3, e4 in the “Replace” box and the diacritical marks/prescriptive comments that you tend to use ad nauseam in the “With” box. Or, don’t reinvent the wheel and cut and paste the 86 comments I’ve developed (see list below), revise as you wish, and add your own. UPDATE! I spent all last year (since this post) researching which comments teachers use most and how to format these comments into “teachable moments.” And now, I’m pleased to say, I’ve expanded these essay e-comments to 438 total and developed a simple download, so that teachers don’t have to copy and paste the comments individually. I’ve just completed my own style manual–sort of a Strunk and White for middle-high schoolers. The Pennington Manual of Style to serve as a writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips for developing writers. This 47-page style manual also includes the download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, and 2010 (XP, Vista, and Windows 7), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. This is not automatic grading software; the teacher still has to read and respond, but it does provide many of the comments that we find ourselves making ad nauseam. I want as many teachers as possible to get this resource, so I’m offering it for only a nickel. It would be free, but my shopping cart can’t process without some sort of charge. Oh, yes… teachers are licensed to post this writing reference on their class websites.

4. Have the students email their essays, submit to a drop box on the school network, or whatever works for you and your site.

5. On the students’ Microsoft Word® essays, click the cursor where you want to make a comment. Open “Insert” and then “Comments.” Type in e1 and the comments with appear in the comment bubble. Simple. You can even design your own comment bubbles. Also, add in as many personalized comments as you wish.

6. Teach your students to use the “Track Changes” to correct or revise according to each of your comments and then re-submit, if you wish.

Why Using This Method of Essay Response Makes Sense

1. It will cut your grading time per essay by one-half. It normally takes me 10 minutes to red-mark, write comments, and grade a five-paragraph essay. It takes me 5 minutes or less to grade using the online method I describe. With a batch of 120 essays, this means a times-saving of six hours (120 x 10 minutes = 12 hours compared to 120 x 5 minutes = 6 hours).

2. I can include at least twice as many comments per essay with the online method in half the amount of time.

3. I can explain what is wrong and offer a solution to correct or revise the writing issue, not just identify problems.

4. I can link to resource sites that will provide additional practice or reference.

5. I can require students to address each of my comments by using “Track Changes” and then re-submitting for my review. With this step, the teacher’s grading changes from static summative assessment to dynamic formative assessment.

6. Unlike my red-marks, students tend to read these online comments and take them seriously.


e1. Use commas before or after speaker tags. Example: She said, “Call me at home.”

e2. Use commas to set apart appositives. Example: That man, the one with the hat, left.

e3. Use commas after each item in lists (except the last). Example: John, Jane, and Jose left early.

e4. Use commas after introductory words or phrases. Example: First of all, you should listen to me.

e5. Use commas between number dates and years. Example: It all happened on May 3, 1999.

e6. Use commas between geographical places. Example: She lived in Tampa, Florida.

e7. Use commas after greetings/closings in personal letters. Example: Dear Ralph, …Sincerely, …

e8. Use commas after nouns of direct address. Example: Kristin, leave some for your sister.

e9. Use commas before conjunctions to join two independent clauses. Example: I liked her, and she liked me.

e10. Use exclamation points for surprise or strong emotions. Example: The decision really shocked me!

e11. Use quotation marks before and after direct quotations. Example: Sue said, “I’m going to bed.”

e12. Use quotation marks before and after songs, poems, document titles, book chapters, magazine articles, and short story titles. Example: Whenever I hear “Clementine,” it reminds me of “Leaves of Grass” and “The Gettysburg Address.”

e13. Use colons after business letter greetings. Example: Dear Sirs:

e14. Use colons to introduce lists. Example: The following: shoes, pants, and…

e15. Use colons between numbers in relationship. Example: 8:52 P.M.

e16. Use semicolons to join independent clauses without conjunctions. Example: Jamal went to school; Larry met him there.

e17. Underline movie, television show, book, magazine, play, and work of art titles.

e18. Use apostrophes for contractions. Example: I can’t see what they’re doing.

e19. Use apostrophes for singular and plural possessives. Example: Tom’s and the girls’ coats were red.

e20. Use parentheses to explain or define. Example: The hombre (man) rode off alone.

e21. Capitalize proper nouns (a name that is given to special persons, places, or things). Example: Ryan visited the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.

e22. Capitalize holidays, dates, groups, organizations, and businesses. Example: Last Easter on March 24, 2002 the P.T.A. and McDonald’s helped out.

e23. Capitalize the first, last, and any important words in titles. Example: Prince Charles’s favorite book was Islands of Adventure.

e24. Capitalize the names of languages and peoples. Example: He spoke Spanish to the Indians.

e25. Capitalize special events and historical periods. Example: The New Year’s Day Parade celebrates the Year of the Dog.


e26. The “i” before “e” Rule—Usually spell “i” before “e” (believe), but spell “e” before “i” after a “c” (receive) and when the letters are pronounced as a long /a/ sound (neighbor).

e27. The Final “y” Rule—Keep the “y” when adding an ending if the word ends in a vowel, then a “y” (delay-delayed), or if the ending begins with an “i” (copy-copying). Change the “y” to “i” if the word ends in a consonant, then a “y” (pretty-prettiest).

e28. The Silent “e” Rule—Drop the “e” (have-having) if the ending begins with a vowel. Keep the “e” (close-closely) if the ending begins with a consonant, has a soft /c/ or /g/ sound, then an “ous” or “able,” or if it ends in “ee”, “oe”, or “ye.”

e29. The Double the Consonant Rule—Double consonants, when adding on endings if these conditions are met: 1. last syllable is accented (per/MIT) 2. last syllable ends in a vowel–consonant (permit) and 3. ending begins with a vowel (ed).

e30. The Ending “an”–“en” Rule—End words with “ance”, “ancy”, or “ant” if the root has a hard /c/ or /g/ sound or it ends with “ear” or “ure.” End words with “ence”, “ency”, or “ent” if the root has a soft /c/ or /g/ sound, after “id,” or it ends with “ere.”

e31. The “able”–“ible” Rule—End words with “able” if the root has a hard /c/ or /g/ sound, after a complete root word, or after a silent “e.” End words with “ible” if the root has a soft /c/ or /g/ sound, an “ss,” or after an incomplete root word.

e32. The Ending “ion” Rule—Spell “sion” (illusion) for the final zyun sound or the final shun sound (expulsion, compassion) if after an “l” or “s.” Spell “cian” (musician) for a person and “tion” (condition) in most all other cases.

e33. The Plurals Rule—Add an “s” even with “y” or vowel—“o” endings. Spell “es” after /s/, /x/, /z/, /ch/, or /sh/ sounds or a consonant— “o.” Change a “y” to “i” and add “es” when the word ends in a consonant—“y.” Change “fe” or “lf” ending to “ves.”

Writing Errors

e34. —=Delete

e35. vt=verb tense error

e36. ww=wrong word

e37. ¶=needs new paragraph

e38. v=Close gap

e39. ~=Reverse

e40. ro=run-on sentence

e41. frag=sentence fragment

e42. ‘=Insert an apostrophe

e43. awk=awkward

e44. mm=misplaced modifier

Writing Revisions

e45. dev=inadequate development

e46. irr=irrelevant

e47. nc=not clear

e48. red=redundant

e49. sup=add support evidence

e50. trans=needs transition

e51. wordy=excessively wordy

e52. //=lacks parallel structure

e53. voice—needs third person

e54. slang—informal language

e55. figure of speech—Avoid idiomatic expressions in formal writing.

e56. verb—Too many “to be” verbs

e57. Abbv—Do not use abbreviations in formal writing

e58. cont=Don’t use contractions in formal writing

e59. wc=word choice (word overused)

e60. db neg=double negative

e61. pv=passive voice unnecessary

e62. Rhetorical question in which answer is assumed

e63. Too many prepositional phrase strings

e64. Avoid (parenthetical) remarks.

e65. Don’t start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, e.g. but, and, so, or.

e66. Don’t split infinitives, e.g. “to carefully walk”

e67. Don’t end sentences with prepositions.

e68. Don’t refer to your own writing.

Writing Content

e69. def=Define this term.

e70. spf=Get more specific.

e71. cit=Needs citation

e72. Needs sentence variety

e73. Off topic—focus is off of central idea

e74. Overstated idea—exaggerated

e75. seq=sequence problems

e76. Inconsistent argument

e77. Needs topic sentence

e78. Needs variety of types of evidence

e79. Needs another introduction strategy

e80. Needs variety of introduction strategies

e81. Thesis is unclear—must state purpose or point of view.

e82. Re-state the thesis to introduce the conclusion.

e83. Needs another conclusion strategy

e84. Needs variety of conclusion strategies

e85. Proper Heading (Left, Top, Four Lines): John Doe–Mr. Pennington–English-language Arts–7 March, 2009  Then, have two double spaces before indenting your first paragraph one Tab space.

e86. Set one inch margins; double space; use Times New Roman 12 (no bold face); and indent each paragraph one inch–don’t skip lines between paragraphs.

Editing Marks Short-Cuts


1. Commas—speaker tags

2. Commas—appositives

3. Commas—lists

4. Commas—introductory word(s)

5. Commas—dates

6. Commas—geography

7. Commas—letters

8. Commas—direct address

9. Commas—before conjunctions

in independent clauses

10. Exclamation points

11. Quotation marks for dialog

12. Quotation marks—titles

13. Colons—letters

14. Colons—lists

15. Colons—relationships

16. Semicolons

17. Underline titles

18. Apostrophes—contractions

19. Apostrophes—possessives

20. Parentheses

21. Capitalize—proper nouns

22. Capitalize—holidays, dates, groups, organizations, and businesses

23. Capitalize—titles

24. Capitalize—languages and peoples

25. Capitalize—special events and historical periods


26. The “i” before “e” Rule

27. The Final “y” Rule

28. The Silent “e” Rule

29. The Double the Consonant Rule

30. The Ending “an”–“en” Rule

31. The “able”–“ible” Rule

32. The Ending “ion” Rule—

33. The Plurals Rule—

Writing Errors

34. —=Delete

35. vt=verb tense error

36. ww=wrong word

37. ¶=needs new paragraph

38. v=Close gap

39. ~=Reverse

40. ro=run-on sentence

41. frag=sentence fragment

42. ‘=Insert an apostrophe

43. awk=awkward

44. mm=misplaced modifier

Writing Revisions

45. dev=inadequate development

46. irr=irrelevant

47. nc=not clear

48. red=redundant

49. sup=add support evidence

50. trans=needs transition

51. wordy=excessively wordy

52. //=lacks parallel structure

53. voice—needs third person

54. slang—informal language

55. figure of speech

56. verb—Too many “to be” verbs

57. Abbv—Do not use abbreviations

58. cont=Don’t use contractions

59. wc=word choice (word overused)

60. db neg=double negative

61. pv=passive voice unnecessary

62. Rhetorical question

63. Too many prepositional phrase strings

64. Avoid (parenthetical) remarks.

65. Don’t start sentences with coordinating conjunctions

66. Don’t split infinitives

67. Don’t end sentences with prepositions

68. Don’t refer to your own writing.

Writing Content

69. def=Define this term.

70. spf=Get more specific.

71. cit=Needs citation

72. Needs sentence variety

73. Off topic

74. Overstated idea

75. seq=sequence problems

76. Inconsistent argument

77. Needs topic sentence

78. Needs variety of types of evidence

79. Needs another introduction strategy

80. Needs variety of introduction strategies

81. Thesis is unclear

82. Re-state the thesis

83. Needs another conclusion strategy

84. Needs variety of conclusion strategies

85. Needs proper MLA heading

86. MLA formatting needs work

Find 42 sequenced writing strategy worksheets and quickly move students from simple three-word paragraphs to complex multi-paragraph essays. With 64 sentence revision lessons, additional remedial worksheets, writing fluency and skill lessons, posters, and editing resources, the teacher can differentiate instruction with no additional prep with Teaching Essay Strategies.  Also, find whole-class diagnostic grammar and mechanics assessments, enabling 4th–12th grade teachers to differentiate instruction with 72 targeted worksheets in Teaching Grammar and Mechanics. The book has a full year of 15-minute sentence lifting lessons with standards-based mechanics, spelling, and grammar skills that teach all the conventions needed for successful writing.
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