How do I mark writing? Blaine Ray’s ideas, slightly modified

Stephen B.– who after twenty years of traditional grammar teaching jumped headfirst into C.I.; how bad-assed is THAT?; writes

“Anyways, I had a question about grading speed/timed writings. I know Blaine says one point per word and he talked about scaling and not to mark it for accuracy. However, what does one do in this situtation: for example, if after a 5 minute speed write one students writes 85 words but is all over the place and makes several grammatical and spelling errors, and another student only writes 60 words but it is almost perfect, how can I give the former student a higher mark?”

Here is how I do it (with many suggestions from Adriana Ramírez, whose Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input text I am using this year). First, classic TPRS in a story cycle, with movietalk and picturetalk:

A) story cycle: establish meaning, ask story (with a few parallel characters), review, retell, read a couple of versions of story

B) have the kids create a comic of the story. Story must be “complete” but obviously not everything can be put into comic. Story must be coloured, look awesome, etc (clip art fine). Each panel must

  • have at least one Spanish sentence
  • have perfect alignment between Spanish and pictures
  • where there is no dialogue, “thought bubbles” in the first person
  • where appropriate, have dialogue

This will make the kids read, choose sentences, and clarify meaning via illustrating.

C) movietalk and picturetalk to support story structures (e.g. if you taught “wants,” movietalk and picturetalk a video where a person wants something)

Then, for assessment, I am doing the following:

1) when the “story cycle” (A-C above) is done, kids will do a five-minute speedwrite and a forty-minute relaxed write.

Their first speedwrite topic will be “describe yourself.”

The speedwrite is evaluated in 2 ways:

First, wordcount. Kids count the # of words in their composition (tell them no lists, or, if they want a list, they must describe all things in the list). End of year goal: 100 good words in 5 min. For their first speedwrite, they get a 40-word bonus. So if they write 30 words, their wordcount score is 70/100.

Second, they get a grammar mark out of 3, thus:
1– it’s full of mistakes and largely incomprehensible
2– it’s mostly comprehensible but has some “whaaat?” moments and “feels” junky
3– it’s fully comprehensible, has no “whaaat?” moments, and “feels” fluid and solid (but not necessarily perfect)

Multiply their grammar mark by 33.3 and they have a grammar mark /100.

Now, average the two marks and they have a spedwrite percentage.

For the 40-min relaxed write, I tell them “either retell the story, or write your own, and you must have 3 dialogues, but put changes into your version of the story.” The goal for the year: write an 800-word story in 40 min. For their first story, I’ll expect 70-150 words. I will assign a wordcount mark out of, say, 200 and give them a 50-word bonus. I will also give them a grammar mark /3 above.  Every time they write a story, the amount of words expected goes up and the curving bonus goes down. 

We average their grammar mark and wordcount: if Johnny gets 2/3 for grammar, and writes 90 words, his score is 66.6% (grammar) + 140/200 (70%) for wordcount = 69%.

After we do the second story of the year (and until the end of the course), we repeat the procedure, with a few changes

A) the speedwrite bonus drops by 5 words each time
B) the relaxed write bonus drops by 5 words each time and the “benchmark” goes up by 75 words. By end of year kids should be able to write 800 words in 45 min.
C) we use another topic for the speedwrite for the second time: describe a picture that you project onto your screen. This picture should support what was in your story. So, if the story had a girl who wants an elephant, your picture could be a boy who has an elephant.

D) for the third speedwrite, use topic #1 (describe yourself). For the fourth, use a picture. Keep alternating.  I use fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 (all verb tenses, subjunctive, etc) so the picture describing tests evaluate how well they can use present tense. 

The writing will improve during the year. As I write this after having done only two stories, wordcounts are WAY up and grammar is also improving.

A few notes:

— you MUST carefully restrict vocab. This has been my single-greatest problem with TPRS: adding vocab at random. If you don’t restrict vocab, you get fewer reps on each item…and worse/less acquisition.

— initially, the kids will generate pretty crappy stories. Later, word count goes up and grammar will get better. Some kids will re-write the story; most will start to improvise.

their “mark” at any given time is simply their most recent speedwrite and relaxed write mark, combined.  I also do exit quizzes for listening and reading (1 each/week) so I have a pretty good overall picture of how everyone is doing. 

PQA is super important. Adriana’s book has a list of “personalised questions.” The Blaine Ray books also do. If you are doing your own stories, you make them up. Personalised questions are super-easy: you basically ask the class the questions you ask the actor.

So if you narrate “the boy liked running,” you ask your actor “do you like running?” and he says “yes, I like running.” You then ask “do you like vomiting?” (something contrastive) and he says “no, I do not like vomiting.” Then, starting with your superstar, you ask the class members “do you like vomiting or running?” etc. Simple.

This is important because the kids need to hear the present-tense forms.

— Adriana’s advice was to make sure all the kids do the comic. This is because the comic writing is “deep reading:” it makes the kids re-read, choose, copy and write, etc. For the non-artists, translation also works: copy story, underneath it translate (diff coloured pen), leave a blank line to keep it clear. Here is a pretty good example of “Los Gatos Azules” turned into a comic (one of Adriana’s kids did this one):



Anyway, this is how I have organised the “units” of TPRS and how I assess. Coments, as always, welcome!


  1. There actually is a reason for NOT giving a grade for grammatical correctness. As soon as students know that their grammar will be judged, their brains go into conscious striving for correctness mode and the unconscious flow which is the goal of speed writing, called fluency writing in the research. In the example you give: a student with 85 words that are all over the place and a student with 70 words that are almost perfect, I gave bonus points for fluency writings that were exceptionally “good” but I defined good as “well-written and interesting.”

    1. Damnit, Judy, now you’re making me think!

      I told them “the only way to improve your grammar is to read and listen.” I also told them to write as much as possible…I am hoping I can keep them focused story, meaning etc. If there is no change with time in grammar (ie if they don’t get steadily better) then I have to rethink eval (and prolly also frequency of pop-ups).

      I am lucky cos I get mostly kids who either hated the grammar grind or who have been out of languages for a few years, so none of my clientelle is as obsessive as a typical third-year French student about grammar.

      1. This is where research would be interesting. I know that the students I had who were doing fluency writing with no marks for “grammatical correctness” other than an occasional bonus point improved remarkably over time. It would be interesting to have a control group, one being marked as you describe and the other being marked only on quantity, number of words. And to compare the levels reached in June.

      2. This is a really interesting idea. I was thinking about this today while I was climbing and I thought, the grammar marks is actually probably a bad ideA. I’m gonna ask Adriana what she does. We do know that there is basically zero possibility of effort with grammar making it into the writing (or speaking). “Trying” simply doesn’t work. Hmmmm.

    2. I tell kids to write as much as possible and never worry about grammar or spelling. The grammar and spelling mistakes tell me what I am doing wrong, or not enough of… I explicitly tell students that the wonderful part of the writing is all theirs, and the mistakes are all mine.

  2. Chris, could you expand a little on the list/no list comment? Do you mean the list of structures and other words is not available to them?

    1. For lists I mean, they should not write things like “her friends are Jasmine, Suzy, Mandeep, Charles…” i.e. writing words just to boost the word count. They’re pretty good about it.

  3. I wonder about the value of the comic. It seems like it would take a very long time to complete such a detailed work. This year I am using a lot of “quick drawing” in Spanish I to give us some drawings we can very quickly project and use for talking. I hadn’t thought about slowing down to complete such a detailed work…how long does this take? What is the value in it? (Oh, and I also still grade timed writings on participation only. I ask kids to re-do if they turn in junk or don’t follow the directions. I hope this helps keep that affective filter down.)

    1. Adriana says the point is selective re-reading. It makes them pick a sentence, figure out its meaning then reinforce that with pics. Kids say 20-30 min and for the non-drawers there is good free comic-making software.

    2. It might be faster to ask the kids to act out the sentence, like charades, than to have them draw it. I too find that asking them to draw anything leads to lots of silence with very little acquisition involved. Plus the frustration of those who don’t like what they’ve drawn and want to do it over. But it would be a good homework assignment.

  4. Chris,
    Thanks for posting this! I am having my students do a timed writing today! I have them draw pictures for homework but since our district has bought into the iPad mania, I think having a free comic app would be a great idea. Which one do you use?


    1. I use educreations. You give a kid the iPad while you are asking the story. They make 5-10 slides of the story. When you are done, you type dialogue etc over it, and you record a voiceover. Nyou play it back the day after asking– you can sto, circle, etc, kids love the art.

      Only problem with educreations– no modifications once it’s done.

      There’s other apps too but I don’t know them. I bet moretprs would have some suggestions.

      1. I use explain everything. It has a lot more functionality than educreations. You can record and rerecord over individual slides, which is hugely helpful. It is NOT free 😦 but only 5 or so dollars and well worth it. I use it for retells the following day without dialogue typed up on it, or just a few key words on it, that way i can ask questions about it and have them do partner retells.

  5. Chris, thanks for providing a forum for discussion. I’ve just started using TPRS this year after a Blaine Ray workshop in Vancouver in August. I’m also using Adriana’s book. I’m blown away by how much my beginners have learned in just 30 days of class.. I wasn’t going to use TPRS with my 11’s, but after seeing the success with my beginners, I’ve just switched over. I, too, have trouble giving a writing mark. I am glad I’m not alone! Wish I had the perfect solution…

    1. Hey Martha. Where do you teach? Did you meet Gerad Schea at the Blaine workshop? Email me: stolz_c (att) surreyschools (dott) ca so I can add you to the TPRS list in BC
      TPRS blows away everything else I have ever tried or seen. And it’s FUN and EASY.

    2. Hey Martha good to hear from you. If you know any other Victoria-area CI practitioners I propose a post-workshop peer coaching session (preferably over beer) á la Ben Slavic’s war room. Be cool to have a few ppl in the room And practice circling pqa etc.

      1. Sounds like a plan, Chris. At this stage, I only know of Ken (Esquimalt HS) and I doing TPRS in Victoria. But perhaps by Feb we will have recruited some more. I am hoping to get the ELL teachers at our school on board.

    1. I would proceed exactly as any other languages teacher. Follow the three steps– establish meaning, ask a story, read versions of the story– and add on movietalk, picturetalk (look and discuss), and novel reading.

      The advantage you have with Japanese teens is, they will mostly be fairly literate in L1, plus, I imagine that a lot of them are consuming English-language media. You could probably get a LOT of mileage out of movietalk with vines and youtube vids that they all share.

      I have been told the Japanese in schools are somewhat reticent– I imagine that TPRS will work nicely with people who aren’t used to talking in school.

      My colleague Adriana teaches E.S.L. to mostly Chinese-born Chinese speaking teenagers, and she does exactly what she does with her Spanish classes. She finds the Blaine Ray and other TPRS-focused novels good for both languages.

      1. Most Japanese teenagers consumer no English media. We have them on an extensive reading/listening program (books w/ audiobooks), but that’s the only media most of them get in English.

        We have Japanese teachers who handle the ER program, but we have native speakers of English to do other classes with the students. These teachers generally do not speak Japanese so they can’t provide translations or pop-up grammar in class.

        I’m assuming your colleague doesn’t speak Chinese, so her experiences are probably applicable to our school.

      2. Yes she speaks zero Chinese. However the kids (most of them) are not true beginners– they have had a bit of English back in China. I’ll see if I can get her to respond to this.

  6. Hi Chris. I was interested in Mark’s question about ELL and TPRS. I am starting with an ELL class tomorrow. A mix of languages that I don’t speak–Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Thai, Korean. I would love it if Adriana could respond with some suggestions re resources. I will likely translate the stories that I have from her and from Blaine Ray, but it would be nice to find some ready-made ELL resources. I have had trouble finding stuff online as well. Of course, the students will be all different levels. Some quite fluent verbally, others with very low ability. Looking forward to giving the TPRS a go, though…

    1. When I worked with S.O.I.C.S. last year, we dealt with this mixed L1 problem. They have Punjabi and Spanish as L1. The concrete, specific suggestions that I made were

      A) seat them with another speaker of the language. If you can, seat a relative newbie with someone more experienced. ANY support that makes English more comprehensible is what you want, even if it is Vienh’s buddy talking to her in Vietnamese.

      B) encourage them to use cellphones, dictionaries, partners etc to clarify meaning. You may have to slow down a fair bit because the various groups are going to have to look things up at certain points.

      C) You put the story words on board in English). If you have an LCD or can draw, add a simple picture.

      D) unlike a high-school class, these guys are probably very much going to want to write things down. I would encourage them to bring a notebook etc. I would also give them a bit of time to write as they go if they need that.

    1. The problem with providing writing (or oral) feedback is that this is conscious-mind stuff, and, as the research (and, in my case, 16 years in the classroom) show, conscious feedback does not transfer into the subconscious mind where acquired language “lives.”

      For one kid in twenty, feedback works, but for most, what I get is, immediate corrections on the thing they are saying (or writing), and then, when I do speedwrites, they make exactly the same errors.

      I actually no longer do any kind of writing except for speedwrites and timed writes (100 words in 5 min on a specific topic, and 800 words in 40 min while writing a story). I see writing (and speech) as the result of acqusition, so I overload the kids with reading and listening, and writing “demonstrates” acquisition.

      Leanda and Adriana and others and I have talked about this, and we feel the best “feedback” we can ask for is to ask for more detail. How many sisters does she have? Why did she not like the first red elephant? What time was it? When we do this, we get more detail and occasionally we can “trigger” the kids into generating output that addresses another “grammar point,” like maybe the past tense or something.

      In my view, writing and speaking should be done with zero reflection, because that way we get a picture of real unthinking automatic acquisition, and not conscious mental gymnastics.

      In upper levels– like 4th year– some writing feedback will be useful (like in an English class on essays etc) but the foundations should be input, input, and then more input.

      I recently read a VanPatten study of English speakers’ acquisition of subjunctive Spanish structures. It turns out that input alone generated big gains, input plus a SMALL amount of output did close to as well, while more output than input significantly reduced quality of comprehension and output.

      This was the biggest hurdle for me: letting go of a need for kid output, and realising that output is the result (and signifier),not the cause, of acquisition.

  7. I agree with your ideas here. I almost always have kids do 5 minute writings on a free (or suggested) topic, and I just write a response to the content of their writing. Every third or fourth class, I’ll do a longer in-class writing (20 or 30 minutes). I also try to rewrite one or two of their sentences to make it more natural, but I don’t know if that does any good or not. We see students once a week for 3 hours

    One problem is that in Japan, people think it’s very important to have a piece of writing fully corrected in red pen so that students can see their mistakes. Parents often demand this, and many students expect it too. It can be difficult to explain that this doesn’t do any good. Do you not face any demand for this? Of course, people here also believe that explicit instruction in grammatical rules is very important…..

    Personally, I use Lang-8 for writing practice, and I like seeing corrections on my writing. I tend to think that seeing the mistakes I made will make me more attentive when I’m reading and listening. I don’t have any research to support that though.

    1. My kids and parents do not demand anything specific in terms of correction, rule explanation, etc. When I get grammar questions (e.g. “Why do we say yo vivo for ‘I live’ but me gusta for ‘I like’? Why can’t we say “yo gusto”?) I answer them then move on. Only 1-2 kids in 20 want that anyway. The rest are happy just understanding.

      Also when the kids and parents see that Suzy or Baninder can write a 750-word story (in 3 tenses) with no problems, they are happy.

      There is a HUUUUGE amount of education that needs to happen with public re: how languages are acquired.

    2. There are still WAY too many people– also in North America– who think that conscious feedback, errors being pointed out, etc, improve learning. The language teaching profession has two challenges: modernising, and educating people about methods.

      One thing I tried that was good was, I “read aloud” studnt work– fixing the errors as I went– after tests. They usually come up with pretty good stories and it can be a real kick for a weaker kid to have his/her work read aloud (I don’t even know if they know I am fixing mistakes). That provides more comprehensible input.

      1. Hi Chris, how can I show admin that feedback is not helpful to acquisition? Is there specific research you can point me to so I can show them? Is it perhaps in Krashen’s book?

  8. Not sure if anyone above asked this yet, but what do you do for students who are writing 100+ words in say a 10 minute free write. How would you alter the word bonus? I have a range of levels in my, say, Spanish 2 classes. Some kids are writing 150 words in 10 minutes and others are writing 25.

      1. Last Fall, you mentioned taking a look at those grammar marks being part of the grade. Based on your recent student work on another post, do you think there’s still a good reason to grade half of the timed writes on grammar, or is it too early to tell?

      2. I really don’t know about this. I always question marks because, well, what is the point of having them? They don’t work as feedback to the kids (who will get their papers back and look straight at the Numberz they got…and a Number doesn’t really help us much…plus, even if kids DID read feedback, we know that conscious statements about language (e.g. corrections) don’t end up in the subconscious.

        But I do need to be able to give ppl a “rough barometer” of where they are. They get a wordcount mark and a grammar mark and I tell them “if your mark is low, it is because you are either not listening or not reading, or not letting me know when you don’t understand.”

  9. To your last point, someone told me recently that there will always be students who don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification, or giving signals to slow down, repeat etc., but that these students are still in our classes, so what is it that we are doing to help them? This infuriates me. What happened to accountability? There is definitely a lack of “do your part as a student,” but people don’t want to hear that. I have not found an acceptable response to the question. Have you?

  10. I tell them “you learn by listening and reading what you understand. If you tune out, you learn less.” Never had a complaint (tho now in April I sometimes get “stories are boooooring” which is a cue for read, copy Nd translate 😜)

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