Several composition specialists have advocated what one of them calls “minimal marking.” The idea is very simple: instead of laboriously marking every surface error on a page, or even using the editing marks provided in most handbooks (e.g., sp = spelling, mm = misplaced modifier, mix = mixed construction), simply put a check or X in the margin opposite the line in which the error occurs. I often underline parts of the line if there’s a more complicated grammatical problem. It then becomes the student’s responsibility to identify and fix the error.


This sounds great as far as it goes, but if this is all that the teacher does, it won’t go very far. There must be some sort of follow-up. Here are some possibilities:


1.      Discuss some of the checked errors during a conference with the student

2.      Hold small group conferences of 3 students where the sole purpose is to look at some checked errors in their papers

3.      Have a whole-class discussion where everyone looks at a few papers, focusing on checked errors

4.      After you’ve turned back a draft with errors checked in the margin, have a peer review session where students help each other out identifying the errors

5.      Have each student keep an error notebook where their checked errors are recorded, identified, and fixed.

6.      Have students fix errors on drafts in class before resubmitting them for a grade.


Here’s how Richard Haswell described his method:


All surface mistakes in a student’s paper are left totally unmarked within the text. These are unquestionable errors in spelling, punctuation, captialization, and grammar (including pronoun antecedence). Each of these mistakes is indicated only with a check in the margin by the line in which it occurs. A line with two checks by it, for instance, means the presence of two errors, no more, withinthe boundary of that line. The sum of checks is recorded at the end of the paper and in the gradebook. Papers, with checks and other commentary, are then returned fifteen minutes before the end of class. Students have time to search for, circle, and correct the errors. As papers are returned to me I review the corrections, mending those errors left undiscovered, miscorrected, or newly generated. Where I feel it is useful, mistakes are explained or handbooks cited. Within those fifteen minutes I can return about one third of the papers in a class of twenty-five, and the rest I return the next session. Until a student attempts to correct checked errors, the grade on the essay remains unrecorded.


Haswell, Richard H. “Minimal Marking.” College English 45 (1983): 600-604.


Lisman, Sheila Ann. “The Best of All Possible Worlds: Where X Replaces AWK.” In: Gene Stanford, et. al., eds., Classroom Practices in Teaching English 1979-1980: How to Handle the Paper Load. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1979. 103-05.