Defeating the English Teacher’s Burden--Grading the Student Essay Quickly and Painlessly

The Essay—How to set yourself free from overwork, without sacrificing student progress.


Most English teachers like the things they teach. The one thing we all don’t seem to like very much is grading student writing. From what I can tell, this is probably the most time consuming and labor intensive job in education. We’ve all taken home boxfuls of essays and spent our weekends either squinting at student handwriting or trying to decipher incomprehensible typographical errors. Nobody has invented a machine that can do what English teachers have to do on a regular basis. Unfortunately, one or two essays per student isn’t going to get the job done. Writing takes a lot of practice and encouragement and that always means more work for you. Before you let it drive you completely crazy, consider easing your workload with the ideas below. They can lighten your burden without making things too easy for your students.

Don’t Grade the Whole Essay Every Time—Focus on One Key Part per Essay

  • · On the first graded essay of the year you might just grade their introduction. Of course, you want to precede that with a lesson on how to write a good introduction.
  • · After showing them a good concluding technique (like the concluding echo, for example) prior to their second essay, you might just grade the conclusion.
  • · On some essays, ask them to underline and label key parts, like thesis statements, introductory hooks, supporting evidence, etc. Then just base the grade on these items. This will teach your students to pay close attention to the structure of their essays. It’s easy for you to grade, because all you have to look for are underlined and labeled passages. You can skip the rest of the essay when you do it this way. Don’t feel guilty, you’re teaching them to arrange their ideas in an effective framework.
  • · Every once in a while, you’ll give everyone’s essay a thorough going over so that they’ll get feedback on their essay as a whole.

Of course, you don’t tell the students what you’re going to grade ahead of time. As long as they don’t know what you’re looking for, they’ll have to do their best on the whole paper.

Use Shorter Assignments to Check Their Grammatical Progress

In the meantime, you want to make sure that you are addressing some of the little things that students tend to get wrong (commas, possessives, fragments, etc.). Instead of having to read an entire essay to do this, just assign a short paragraph, maybe six or seven sentences. Then grade it critically, using all the red ink you want. But, and this is crucial, give students a chance to correct their mistakes before assigning a final grade—that’s how they learn not to make them in the future. The result is feedback for your students and less time spent grading for you.

Be Patient, and Keep at It

Grading essays this way enables your students to get in a lot more practice without destroying your personal life off campus. This practice is going to improve their ability to come up with ideas and put them in a coherent structure. They’ll be better writers, and you’ll be a happier teacher.

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