Red ink

When a former student was starting her first job as a teacher, Jessica Lahey gave her a fountain pen and bottles of red ink.

She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.

Lahey asked around and discovered bans on red-ink corrections are common — and despised.

From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”

. . . From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”

. . . From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’”

And again, from that same professor: “Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.”

She found research by Abram Rutchick, a Cal State Northridge psychology professor, showing that people identify more errors and give lower grades when using a red pen, compared to those using a blue pen. NPR asked the professor what color pen he uses to grade papers. “I used a red pen, actually,” Rutchick said. “I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.”

Yet Lahey is switching to green ink this year. “I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable,” she writes.  She hopes students will accept feedback more readily in a color that doesn’t say, “You messed up.”

Or her students will come to fear green ink.

About Joanne


  1. This is stupidity of the highest level. When this sort of thing is accepted as normal, you know the Western world is dying. When are we going to reject this PC nonesense and get back our common sense?

  2. Schools should forget about self-esteem; they already have too many whiny, lazy students who thinl they should be rewarded with praise and good grades, just for existing. I wish they’d go back to a strong promotion of self-control; that might really improve things.

  3. lightly seasoned says:

    Slow news day? The red ink thing has been around since the 70’s.

    • And it’s just as ridiculously stupid today as it was then.

    • Like all the bad ideas, it resurfaces every decade or so. Why don’t the good ideas, like solid mastery of the fundamentals in ES, also resurface within the ed world? It seems they only get attention on sites like these.

  4. Peace Corps says:

    I correct and grade in pink and purple. I do it because it makes me happier than using red.

  5. For just the right mix of attention-grabbing color and intimidation, I suggest writing comments in blood. For good measure, slap a biohazard sticker on the student’s paper and lecture the kids on universal precautions.

    The blood should be sufficiently rust-colored after it dries that you could sell an administrator on the color – ‘It’s not red, it’s more of a maroon.”. Bonus: If a student has a dog at home, he just might get the opportunity to tell his parents, “The dog ate my teacher’s comments.”

    • I have written with a fountain pen for almost 20 years (it slows down my hand and makes my writing a little more legible). I recommend Noodler’s Red for that blood-like effect. I find that using red makes the students take me seriously. I will only grade/comment in a non-red color to make a point about something that’s not a deduction from a paper.

  6. lightly seasoned says:

    Actually, I grade essays in pencil. Old habit from pre-teaching days. I’m going to try the voice feature on Turnitin this year, though, just to be sure the kids understand my sarcasm.

    Aaron, for bonus points, “It’s not red, it’s wine-dark!”

  7. In 20 years of teaching I have never been told I cannot grade papers in red.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’ve been told I shouldn’t, but no one has ever taken me to task for it.

  9. When i was in high school in the early 80s my German teacher had a student teacher; she once told me that she’d always grade papers in green, not red. I never planned on becoming a teacher, but for some reason I never forgot that “wisdom”.

    Fast forward to the late 90s, when I started teaching, and I thought I’d try the green ink thing. It lasted one school year, maybe two.

    Why? Red stands out more. You may think that green ink would stand out against pencil, but after you’ve graded a hundred papers it just doesn’t. Red does.

    And practicality wins over theory.

  10. I also like blue, not for any particular reason, but I find it stands out well from pencil and the older I get the more I want my marks to stand out.