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An Easy Way to Grade Writing Quickly

Nothing spells guilt like a 4-week old stack of neglected, ungraded, sad-looking student essays sleeping on your kitchen table.

Now I know that YOU would never let your grading pile up for one month, but let’s just say I have a “friend” who used to routinely dump mounds of ungraded papers in her recycling bin while praying that her students wouldn’t notice.

They did.

English teachers are often pitied for having to spend long, torturous hours hunched over student writing pieces, but what if there was a quicker, dare I say, easier way to grade writing? I believe there is.

When I taught English, I knew I had to come up with an efficient way of grading writing, or I was going to have an incredibly full recycling bin and some extremely perturbed students. I set out to create a system that would provide my students with excellent feedback while cutting my grading time in half.

(If you’re interested in some other time-saving tips I’ve learned along the way, check out my podcast episode entitled, “25 Ways to Save Time & Take Less Work Home.”)

I once heard someone say, “…a problem well defined is half solved…”, so I began by identifying the grading practices that were wasting the most time; two stood out to me.

Grading Time-Wasters

  1. Writing a bunch of comments. Now don’t get me wrong. Students need feedback. They need to know how they can improve, and they need to know why they got that grade on their paper. But painstakingly writing dozens of individual comments takes so long, and it can be inefficient when you’re writing the same comments over and over on paper after paper. 

    It is also not uncommon for a kind-hearted teacher (like yourself) to thoughtfully craft a beautifully-written personal note on their student’s paper only to watch said-student look at their grade for 2 seconds, ignore the rest, and promptly toss their kind-hearted teacher’s time laden, carefully annotated assignment in the trashcan as they walk away without a second thought! Never again.  
  2. Doing the math on a rubric. I know many teachers love rubrics, but I have to say, I am not a huge fan for writing assignments. It doesn’t take long to develop a sense of what an A, B, C, D, and F paper look like, so trying to fill in the rubric turns into mathematical gymnastics of “how can I make these numbers add up to the grade I already know they should have?” (Or at least it does for me.) What a pain —and a huge waste of time! There had to be a better way.

With these two time wasters in mind, I set out to create a grading system that had the fairness and accuracy of a rubric paired with the specific feedback that writing individualized comments provides—all without the fuss of actually hand-writing comments on every paper or adding up numbers on a rubric for each student.

So I came up with (drum roll please……) a checklist system that has the best of both worlds, and it makes both teachers and students happy as a clam. What more could you ask for? Here’s how it works:

A Simple Way to Grade Writing Quickly

  •  Create a checklist of everything you are grading. Your checklist will look similar to a rubric because you will include a list of everything that you want your students to do in the paper. For example, you can have a section for anything you are checking such as content, writing style, mechanics, formatting, etc. 

    The only difference between a checklist and a rubric is that you will not include any point values. The checklist also acts as a grading form because there is a space at the bottom where you can record the final grade. 
  • Give the students the checklist as part of the rewriting stage. This is optional, but I strongly recommend giving the students a copy of the checklist ahead of time. Not only will this help them write their paper, but it will also ensure that students are crystal clear on what you expect them to do and what you will be looking for when you grade their paper. 
  • Create a simple key. On the checklist/grading form, create a simple key that makes sense to you and your students. For example, the top of my grading checklist says, “Areas circled below are areas that need improvements. Check marks or smiley faces indicate areas that were well done.”
  • Use the key to indicate what areas were done well and which need improvement. When it comes time to grade the paper, all you have to do is go through the checklist and put checks (or smileys) by anything that was done well, circle areas that were done poorly, and leave the acceptable but not fabulous areas blank. This process ensures your students have a wealth of feedback without your having to hand-write a lifetime-supply of comments.
  • Give a holistic grade or use the number of “need improvement” items to assign a grade. It didn’t take me long before I could read a paper and know intuitively what grade to give. If you’re like me, then just go with your gut. All of the “need improvement” areas you circled will be enough to justify the grade.

    However, if you aren’t sure what grade to give, develop a simple calculation in your head. For example, each “needs improvement” in the content category could be 5 points off; and each formatting error could be 1 point off and so on. Quickly do the math and put the grade on the paper.

    Boom! You’re done. Even though there is a little bit of math, the second method still ends up saving time because you don’t have to write down all of the numbers or double-check that they add up perfectly. No mathematical gymnastics here!

I love this system because it gives plenty of encouragement (remember all the smileys) while providing constructive feedback. And the truly miraculous news is — I can’t remember a student ever arguing with me about their grade. Even the most accomplished grade grubber can see what they need to fix in order to improve their score.

With this system, there is no reason to procrastinate on grading essays for fear of how long it will take, and your students will be overjoyed to have their writing promptly graded and returned.

Once you spread the word about this system, your teacher friends will never have to make up an excuse about how the classes’ ungraded essays accidently disappeared into the swimming pool, the cat litter box or last month’s recycling bin. I’d call that a win-win situation.

Want an editable grading sheet checklist? I include it – as well as an example of my entire system for teaching writing (as well as the rewriting checklists that match the grading sheet) in this free writing unit.

Click here to download the editable grading sheet as well as the complete writing unit.

(This is a total steal. It’s a full, complete unit that I’m giving away for free because I think you’ll love it & will want to get the whole bundle!)

free compare / contrast writing unit


free training

We hope this helps reduce your stress and overwhelm. For more, join us in our free training: 5 Time-Saving Practices to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed. I firmly believe you can be an amazing teacher and do it in a reasonable amount of time. Let me show you HOW in this free training.

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  • Wow–this is brilliant!!!

    I’m not a person given to exaggeration, but as a student teacher I struggled with EXACTLY the same grading time wasters and related sub-dilemmas you described above, correcting over a hundred papers (incidentally, mine were music composition assignments), and for days I was under miserable, constant pressure from the never-ending task! I was trying to be conscientious about feedback and didn’t know how else to give it adequately. My supportive cooperating teacher suggested just giving holistic grades, but I was uneasy about that, knowing students’ need for specific feedback and justification, as you said, and never came up with anything better, so I struggled through it. I wish I had seen this then….

    Not only did you so insightfully analyze the difficulties, you also came up with the amazing solution ! Applause and many grateful thanks for sharing! 😀

  • Just to be sure I understand: you don’t write feedback anywhere except on the checklist? Sounds brilliant, assuming students are independent enough!

    But I’m wondering what you’d do, if for example, a student has misspelled many words, you’ve circled “spelling” on your checklist as an area for improvement, and when the student goes to rewrite his essay, he tells you he doesn’t know which words are misspelled. How would you deal with a situation like that, where the student is asking for lots of very specific feedback?


    • I wouldn’t say I never write anything on the paper itself, but pretty much not. I might mark an error here or there, but I don’t take it on myself to edit their paper. And that’s really the mindset shift. Is it our job as teachers to edit their papers for them? How is that teaching them anything if we mark every error for them? So in your example about spelling – I’d maybe mark or tell them an example or two, but it’s their job to find and fix their spelling errors. You can recommend that they have a friend or parent read it and mark anything they notice. Peer editing can be great for things like this too because it helps them find their errors – without it being all your responsibility (which it shouldn’t be).

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply!

        I’ve made those exact two time-consuming grading mistakes you mentioned in the article, and few things besides behavior issues ever caused me more loss of enjoyment of teaching than this type of grading. So you can easily imagine why I wanted to be sure I understood exactly how you solved this problem!

        I absolutely agree that students should take responsibility for their work. I was just wondering how they would find a mistake if they had no idea that it was one–especially for students with learning disabilities who need extra help. I like your suggestion of referring them to parent and peer resources, so there’s not much excuse for not giving due diligence.

        I tend to be the type of person who goes overboard trying to help, which can muddle the main issues sometimes. Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking on this!

        • Keep in mind, too, that you can still help those students. Another example is that you can have them meet with you for 2 minutes for a quick verbal conference & point out some of their mistakes. We tend to think we have to mark every error, but keep thinking creatively of other ways to help them find them – and eventually find them themselves 🙂

        • I think it would be more valuable in the long-term for them to figure out resources (for example, a dictionary or an online dictionary) to edit their papers themselves, rather than having someone else edit it for them.

  • Hi I use a similar checklist method but I still find that going through and reading 125 5-paragraph essays just feels like torture anyway (I have been doing this for 12 years ) do you have any other tips?

    • Yeah, I don’t think there’s any way around reading them…. I would say, I didn’t read their drafts – I gave them checklists to edit their own drafts. So I only had to read the final paper. My best advice would be to figure out what’s best for you. Sometimes it’s better to break it up, but sometimes it’s better to sit down for an hour or two and knock them all out – because once you’re in a groove, it goes much more quickly.

    • I’m sorry you’re having trouble finding it. Look for the link right above the compare & contrast unit picture. Click on that link to request your copy.

      If that doesn’t work, feel free to send us an email & we will help you that way: linda [at] teach4theheart.com

  • Very useful, interesting, and informative. Thanks for this post, I also recommend that you use in your activities the resource link to which in my profile and check out these professionally writing civil war essays, which will be interesting to study, may be useful in studies, or will serve an example in your creation of such works, I recommend using proven things, good luck!

  • Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. I’ve been searching for exactly this for so long. It’s quick, easy and provides just what is needed for helping students become better writers while at the same time making my job simpler.

  • Heya.

    It is nice to meet you. This is what I usually do in order to teach my first grade children how to write. I ask them to write about their pets and life at home in addition here. I even get them to write a whole paragraph on teamwork and kindness too. Good luck. I ask the older boys and girls to write a mini article on our school in question for others to read. Younger kids get a limited amount of help.

    For the second and third grade I require a one page essay or article on either Xmas or what they did over the summer break. I vary the actual task each week however. Sometimes they work in pairs to do it. Once a term they are allowed to pick a topic that is age appropriate and do online research. Then they make some brief summary notes. At other times I choose the theme for them. I use pictures and videos as a kind of aid. It works.

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