Every time I start thinking about the criteria for marking language learners’ essays a whole bunch of issues come to my mind, but perhaps the crucial one is whether we see essay writing mainly as a learning process or an assessment exercise.
It is not that uncommon to get some essays with no spelling mistakes at all and with just a few grammar errors submitted by students who in class and in the exams produce much poorer pieces of writing in both aspects. This may cause a certain conflict in our minds about how to deal with these differences in performance.
What we seem to forget is that the process of writing essays is fundamentally different from that of writing in class or in exam situations for a series of reasons: (a) students do drafts and peer correction, (b) they type their essays and the Word underlines not only the spelling mistakes, but also punctuation and grammar mistakes, so good students are usually able to spot them and correct them themselves before submitting, and (c) they may ask another colleague to proofread, which is just good academic practice and we are always preaching them to do so.
The whole issue also raises a number of questions:
- If we ‘want’ students to produce a piece of writing that is similar to the ones in class and in the exam, why do we ask them to write essays that are produced in completely different circumstances? Isn’t it because we want them also to practice process writing and spot mistakes that, ideally, will not be repeated in the test?
- Are we correcting essays just to find grammar and spelling mistakes or are we interested in seeing if they are able to use some of the bits of language that we taught them?
- If an essay is OK in terms of grammar, shouldn’t we then be happy to turn our attention to the argument/ideas problems and help our students to start dealing with more complex issues of academic stance and style?
As I see it, writing an academic essay in a language learning context is a process that ideally should cut down on gross language errors and just leave behind argument problems. If students have been through the processes of drafting, reviewing, having it peer corrected and proofread, they should end up with a reasonably decent text model which they can try to emulate in exam circumstances.
My own approach to essay writing is to treat it as a teaching activity and an opportunity students have to practise writing as a process.