EDUCATION: More than job-training

No More Red Ink!

Back in the 1960s I worked for an English headmistress who marked papers with green ink. She did it to distinguish her marks from those of the teachers, who made their corrections in red.

Many years later, I had an American college professor who marked his students’ papers in green ink. He was into mythology and Jung and understood the symbolic properties of the color red.

Red is the favorite color of a lot of people. In many contexts it symbolizes positive things: success, happiness. However, red also represents danger, anger, and dominance. In the Bible, sin is “scarlet,” like the letter worn by Hester Prynne.

In some quarters, teachers are being urged to retire red ink for marking school assignments. Some school administrators are merely suggesting that teachers use a different color; some schools in England have actually laid down regulations banning the use of red ink by teachers.

According to Snopes, the widespread belief that drivers of red cars, stimulated by the color, get more speeding tickets and have more accidents is a myth, but according to studies and opinion in Europe, the United States, and Australia, wielding a red pen awakes feelings of aggression in teachers and feelings of insecurity in children. Marking in red is even thought to cause teachers to grade more harshly than they would if they used a different color.

According to California State University Northridge psychologist Abraham Rutchick, Tufts University psychologist Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris of Phillips Exeter Academy, “the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers’] evaluations.”

Queensland teachers were given mental health kits which included the government suggestion

“don’t mark in red pen (which can be seen as aggressive) – use a different color.” –2008 Reuters story

A story in the Boston Globe discusses the growing popularity of purple ink in place of red:

“I do not use red,” said Robin Slipakoff, who teaches second and third grades at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla. “Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot.”

“The concept of purple as a replacement for red is a pretty good idea,” said Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute in Carlstadt, N.J., and author of five books on color. “You soften the blow of red. Red is a bit over-the-top in its aggression.”

I suspect that it’s the over-use of red on students’ papers that has created Rhodophobia in school children. If a teacher is going to mark every single error in a child’s early efforts at composition, it won’t be long before purple or green or any other replacement color will carry the same connotations of disapproval and failure to please.

Tests are one thing. Every incorrect answer must be marked on a test.

Daily assignments, however, and essays, do not require Search and Destroy tactics. If a student’s paper is riddled with errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, there’s no law says the teacher has to pounce on every single one.

A teacher can focus on on or two types of error per assignment. For example, all the pronoun errors and two or three misspelled words. Other errors can be noted the next time around.

By all means, use purple or green if you wish, but don’t imagine that it’s the color that discourages children in their efforts. It’s the failure of teachers to set realistic goals, focus on a few things at a time, and provide kindly, but unrelenting correction until the faults disappear.

Reuters story

Boston Globe story

MailOnline (ban on red ink in UK schools)



7 Responses

  1. I’m sorry, but the author of this article could very well be right about other ink colors eventually evoking the same emotions in students as red does at this point in time. Also, at least to a certain point, students need to learn how to deal with negative emotions, as they are a part of life. Now, don’t get me wrong, I would remind teachers that they are expected to at least be cognizant of any emotions their students might be experiencing, and to apologize when a student feels wronged.

  2. Are you kidding me? 100% papers are marked in red ink also. You people are literally making something of nothing. It is today’s educators that scare me especially if they believe this tripe.

    There is absolutely no value in giving out a 100th place ribbon. Stop coddling these kids or they will not be prepared for the real world. If they fail so be it they will try harder or be lazy and fail again or find something to which they do excel. People are not good at everything, get use to it. This is THE important life lesson.

    If the kid is afraid of red ink he/she has bigger problems and needs serious help, get it for them.

  3. Red ink. I stopped using it decades ago. It IS very much overly aggressive and hurtful. I use pencil, dark, for many reasons. If you change your mind, you can go back, reconsider, and correct yourself. Red ink, any ink that isn’t easily erasable, in essence locks the teacher into her or his own mistakes that become issues of egotistical defense. And we know that teachers are likely to miscorrect about 25% of the time. We’re not deities.

    As for being offensive, here’s a little episode I gladly share with students. I was on the elevator, trapped with two grammar nazis, and they were complaining about reading student papers. One of them said, “Oh, yes! I BLED all over my students essays last weekend. They were terrible.” This is verbatim, including the emphasis.

    I like my students to revise and reconsider. Red ink is a nail in the coffin. Sorry, inksters. It’s just wrong to “bleed” as if you were shot by a “rule” that may not even be a rule anymore. Such as splitting infinitives.

  4. If there is a concern regarding childrens self confidence in conjunction with their schoolwork, I don’t feel that abolishing a color is the way to go.

    We need to stop raising this generation as pampered babies!

    If a child (or anyone for that matter) finds red ink distressing in terms of marking, the concern lies with their self confidence, not the color.

    As other commentors have said, much of the problem lies in how the paper is marked or how criticism is delivered. Ideally a teacher is there to “teach” and not just point out mistakes. Teaching style will not change with pen color.

    Children need to learn that making mistakes is ok, children need to be taught resilience and develop drive to overcome mistakes and weaknesses and better themselves.

    How we’ve come to worry about pen color, in a time where we could be focussing on family dynamics, teacher dynamics, effects of social media and so many other vastly more important components is baffling to me. I feel it’s continuing a trend where as a whole, North American society is babying it’s youth into complacency and I worry about how they will function once released into the real world where they have to interact on an adult level within jobs and relationships and face adversity on a number of levels.

    To echo another commentator: Please don’t blame the red ink!

    Instead ask yourself how can we raise our generation to be self supportive and emotionally resilient, and able to build a future for themselves.

  5. Using red is not really the problem.. we have to remember that most if not all of us have experience to have a red mark in our exams or cards. does it affect you? why are we changing a tradition made and pass unto us.. red is not really the problem, the problem lies on how teachers mark their paper.. dont blame the red ink please…

  6. Wise advice indeed. My 7th Grade creative writing teacher did what you suggest. She summarized the mistakes instead of highlighting every instance. She did it with humor and class, too, which reduced the stigma.

  7. My first college English prof. gave two grades for compositions. One grade was for content (always got high marks) the other for composition (not always so high). With this method, creative and talented writers can be encouraged while also beginning to understand that mechanics are important too.

    The article,in part, pictured teachers slashing the papers with red ink and great glee. Probably not much hope for a teacher joyfully finding mistakes – regardless of the ink color.

    All that said, I agree that giving red ink a rest is a positive idea.

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