Amazing Grading Systems For Teachers (or How To Not Drown In Grading as a High School English Teacher)

Amazing Grading Systems For Teachers (or How To Not Drown In Grading as a High School English Teacher)

If you are going to stay the course as an English teacher, you need to implement an amazing grading system right away because this is, hands-down, the hardest part of the job, if you ask me. 

Let's get real for a minute. Have you ever done the math on the time it takes to grade a full essay for all of your students? If you have 30 students per class, and you teach 5 classes, then that is 150 students. If you spend 15 minutes grading each essay (like I used to do), that means you will spend 2,250 minutes grading this one assignment, or 37 and a half hours. 

WHAT?! Over 37 hours for one essay??? It's staggering, right? And it's impossible. You can not spend an entire week of full-time work grading one essay. So you absolutely have to figure out a better system than spending 15 minutes on each essay. 

Let's jump into how to change this, stat. 

banner with the words "how not to drown in grading as an English teacher"

A Grading Mindset Shift Is Required

First, let's adjust our mindset and talk truth. You don’t have to grade everything. Actually it's far better for your students if you don't!  And yes, I'm even saying that you don't have to grade every essay.

Why? Because if we grade everything students become too dependent on the teacher to tell them what is "good" or "bad" in terms of writing, when really students should start developing strategies for them to self-evaluate and improve their writing. Plus, the more time teachers spend grading, the less time they have to make creative lessons.

And there is research to support this concept. In “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)” researchers Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner examine grading in higher education but their findings are apt for high school too. In one section, they ask “Does grading provide feedback to help students understand and improve upon their deficiencies?” and then expand on evaluative versus descriptive feedback. Evaluative feedback is the grade put on the work whereas descriptive feedback indicates areas of concern and provides guidance to improve. 

The key point from the Schinske and Tanner article though is in the final section. They write “... underlying the less encouraging news about grades are numerous opportunities for faculty members to make assessment and evaluation more productive, better aligned with student learning, and less burdensome for faculty and students. Notably, many of the practices (…) would appear to involve faculty members spending less time grading. The time and energy spent on grading has been often pinpointed as a key barrier to instructors becoming more innovative in their teaching. [...] … just because students generate work does not mean instructors need to grade that work for accuracy.” 

With that in mind, here are four tips that I’ve collected to help you on this path of less grading and more time for other things. Read on for strategies to streamline your teacher grading system!

Strategies For Streamlining Your Grading System

Tip 1: Have students highlight specifics in their work

I recently shared on Instagram about how highlighters can be your best friend as a secondary high school English teacher. There are many ways to use these bright-colored wonders to cut your grading time substantially while helping students self-evaluate.

If you’re working on grammar concepts such as action verbs, students write a sentence or series of sentences. With those sentences, students go through with a highlighter and highlight the action verbs they have included in their sentences. 

In a similar vein, you can have students write an informal quick write in class, but have them craft one or two sentences thinking about a specific concept like opening adverbs or participial phrases. Then they highlight the one sentence where they did this. 


picture of quick write writing prompts with highlighters


Another option is when students write their first paragraph of the year, ask them to highlight, in different colors, their topic sentence, example(s), analysis, and concluding sentence in different colors. This will make clear if students understand each part of a paragraph before you launch into those next essays. They can also see, quick quickly, their ratio of examples vs. analysis, and they can determine if this is roughly what they should have in a paragraph for the type of writing they're doing (for instance, I typically encourage at least twice as much analysis as examples in a standard literary analysis). 

When students use the highlighters to go through their own work, this is their opportunity to self-assess and become better writers, all without any grading on your part. 

Curious about how to get started doing this? We include a few of these for free in our parts of speech unit that you can get when you click below. 

Tip 2: Use a Coding System

What I wouldn't give to have known this method as a new teacher! Hold on to your cardigans; this may change your life.

We all know that as we grade there are common errors that exist in students’ work - the comma splice, misplaced modifiers, and so on. Rather than write out that idea on each student paper, another strategy to add to your teacher grading system is to provide students with a list of codes that align with common errors. For example, number 3 on the list might be a comma splice. Every time you see a comma splice, you simply write a "3" near it.

After you've done this on a full essay, a student might have numbers all over the place! And that's ok! Students will then go through the list you provide that tells what each number signifies (such as a 3 being a comma splice). They can see for themselves what their most prevalent errors are by doing this. 

You can also give students an opportunity to make essay corrections after they've turned in a graded essay. These corrections might count as additional points on their essay or as a separate grade. For the corrections, students should identify the error (i.e. comma splice) and then write a completely new sentence without that error. 

pull out quote that says we must encourage students to self-evaluate and not be so dependent on their teacher's grading

This might sound like it will be too tedious for students, but isn't it tedious to grade hundreds of papers with dozens of comma splices on each paper? If a student is the one doing the tedious work of writing out their corrections, they will be the ones learning from the mistakes! Get it? Give them this chore, and watch their writing and grammar improve.

Laura Randazzo has a great system for this, check out all of her grading hacks in her four-part YouTube video series; it will absolutely be worth your time. 

 Tip 3: Narrow The Focus for Evaluation

We've talked about essays, but what about smaller writing assignments that you think need some feedback? 

Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 uses a star and a wish system to target feedback on many assignments, particularly the smaller ones that can pile up quickly! And no you don’t need to grade all of those assignments but this system can help for the ones you do decide to grade. 

This system works best when there is a clear focus and expectation for the task. In grading, you will ONLY focus on that expectation to review student work using the STAR & WISH system: the star is the thing done well and the wish is the thing that needs improvement. 

gives an explanation for a "star" and "wish" system of grading small assignments; the star is the thing done well, and the wish is the thing that needs improvement

As part of the wish, make sure to provide clear ways students can improve. Is it reviewing the rules of a particular grammatical element or written form? If so, provide a link or source for this. Is it reviewing a recently completed lesson? If so, direct students to that lesson and a specific part of it. This is better than simply providing the correction; you want students to take the next step to take ownership of their learning. 

Read more about Lesa’s approach to assessing growth in students’ skills across the school year

Tip #4: For A Strong Grading System, Use Strong Rubrics

Rubrics are a great way to streamline grading, but you want to make sure your rubric is working for you and not against you. Some rubrics actually make our jobs harder as teachers; this includes rubrics that are either too generic or way too specific. 

A very generic rubric means that just about anything can fit into that category and so students don’t have a clear guide to meet the expectation and you don’t have a clear guide to grade it. A rubric that is far too specific can limit students’ possibilities in completing the assignment and so you end up with cookie cutter assignments. And a really specific rubric that is filled with far too much criteria can cause anxiety for students in thinking they have to do everything!

Sometimes other factors create a poor rubric. I remember spending hours as a new teacher trying to make the grade I wanted to give the student fit into the rubric I had created. Have you done this? For instance, you know the paper is an 88%, but the rubric is saying it's a 72%, and then you have to work some crazy magic to make all the numbers line up. That's a sure sign of a bad rubric.


picture of a checklist-style rubric for a personal narrative essay


A good option is to provide a checklist-style rubric for students to self-assess as they go. These are also good for peer review so that students can assess with some distance a piece of work that is not their own. A checklist rubric can provide guidance for students to see what an “A” paper includes, a “B” paper, and so on. 

Check out these narrative writing prompts with a checklist rubric that are sure to make your life easier! 

Bonus Tip: Give Writing Assignments That Students Care About 

Here's a super short bonus tip: if you give writing assignments that students are passionate about, they'll give you better writing. As much as possible, give students a lot of choice so that they can write about what matters to them. 

I know sometimes students need to write about whatever piece of literature you're examining in class, and sometimes they won't love that piece of literature, but when it's possible, let them write about something that matters to them. 

Some writing assignments that I've found students really get into are narrative writing pieces, movie or music reviews, and persuasive essays on current social issues. 

Takeaways: Grade Less To Stay Sane

Look, you're a teacher, so I know that you are a freakin' hard worker. Even though you are capable of working hard, don't spend that energy on grading everything. You will burn out, and your students truly don't need you to grade everything. Spend your energy on creating amazing lessons, and grading only some writing assignments. Let your students self-asses much much more, and give them tools for how to do this early in the school year. 

Did any of these tips help you? Leave a comment below and let me know!

Related Reading

5 Ways To Spice Up Your Personal Narrative Unit

3 Steps To Measuring Growth In Student Skills from SmithTeaches9to12

10 Great Quick Write Topics That Build Better Writers

5 Alternatives To Writing an Essay

Shop This Post 

50 Quick Writes With a Grammar Focus

Laura Randazzo's 5 Minute Grading System

Narrative Writing Prompts and Checklist-Style Rubric

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