Do You Use Red Pens for Writing Corrections?

Hi Everyone,

I recently did a webinar about teaching emerging writers. I mentioned some research that showed negative effects from using red pens for writing corrections. The chat box exploded. A robust debate ensued between red pen lovers and haters.  

As one who saw considerable red ink on my papers in school,  I am firmly in the anti-red pen camp. In workshops, I usually share the story of a Beverly Hillbillies episode where one character buried a red sweater in the backyard because they negatively associated the color red with their teacher's grading in school.

  • Do you use red pens to check your students' work? Why or why not?
  • How do you check work in the virtual environment? 

Thanks in advance for your responses,

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Group 


Hi Steve! I never use red ink when evaluating student writing, but I'm afraid my anti-red pens stance developed not from a moral perspective about how students might feel. I adopted the practice of grading with pencil only for the practical reason that I could erase my remarks and redo them! I often caught myself being too quick with my judgment when marking up a student essay; using a pencil allows me to undo my comments when I finish the essay and consider what I really want to say to the student.

As I thought more about the 'red ink' debate later in my career, I realized I personally associate a red pen with correcting grammar errors and I bet many students do too. In my opinion, we should be guiding students' writing in broader ways (related to development and organization) first, before we start handling the ticky-tacky stuff like grammar and punctuation. Therefore, in my office, it is all mechanical pencils! :) 

Hi Steve and all, I have seen the recommendation to avoid using a red pen to provide feedback on learners' writing. But what if one uses blue ink or even green ink? Would that make any difference? 

A technique that I have found effective is to ask learners to pose questions about their writing by adding comments/questions in the margins. This process encourages learners to reread their work with a different lens. Knowing where learners have questions is effective because this technique gives me specific details to focus on when providing feedback. For example, a student can ask about word choice, grammar, transitions between paragraphs or whether their introduction grabs the reader's attention. 

Students can write their questions in the margins on paper; however, using a word processing program like Google docs enhances learners' digital skills which is a bonus. 

I strongly believe that revising is the key to improving one's writing. So, I have found it important to let learners know that they will be revising based on my feedback to their questions. Peer review can also be effective when the teacher provides a clear structure for it.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Hi Steve,

Since teaching elementary school almost 30 years ago, I have always used a colored pen, but never red.  I agree with Susan about writing comments/questions in the margins to encourage students to reread and rethink their writing.