• Teaching Tips

The Why and How of Writing Groups

by Kathryn Caprino
June 10, 2014
The Why and How of Writing Groups
photo credit: Jagrap via photopin cc

Each semester, when I announce to my students that they will be in writing groups, I see the same fearful eyes and frustrated faces.

I know that many of them have worked in writing groups in infrequent, sporadic ways and received feedback limited to grammar and surface-level comments. Because of this, they view peer editing only as a proofreading exercise and often do not trust their peers to provide meaningful feedback. Needless to say, writing groups are not always an easy sell to my students.

They were not always an easy sell to me either. In my secondary classroom, I had students “partner up” to read final drafts. Then, when I enrolled in an English education doctoral program, I was introduced to semester-long writing groups of three to four students in a pedagogy course required of first year composition instructors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This pedagogy course taught me how to value the insight of fellow writers who have vastly different backgrounds and interests. As the semester progressed, I realized the ways in which their feedback improved my work. The “partner up” activities I had my students do could have never led to the substantive revisions that the sustained, semester-long writing group did.

Through participating in a meaningful writing group in my pedagogy course and facilitating them in my own first year composition courses, I have come to value the power of writing groups and believe they can work from the primary to the secondary to the college writing classroom.

One aspect a lot of teachers question is how writers with different ability levels can help one another. But the truth is, writers can learn from both effective writers and ineffective writers. In addition, writers who do not have substantive content knowledge can still offer meaningful feedback. Lastly, writing groups emphasize the social aspect of writing.

Here are some simple strategies for how to incorporate writing groups into your writing classroom:

Start small. Don’t feel that you have to create year-long writing groups from the get-go. Try them out for a unit or one writing assignment that will go through many drafts. Solicit responses from your students and reflect on how it went. Make changes as you go forward.

Be random. One question that often arises is how to organize students into writing groups. Some instructors take inventories of their students and observe students during the first few class meetings so as to make writing group decisions. My writing group placements are mostly random, and I generally have three to four students in a group.

Model what soliciting effective feedback looks like. Effective feedback leads to substantive revision. Writers who ask meaningful questions to their peers often receive better feedback, which improves the quality of their writing. Not preparing students to solicit effective peer feedback minimizes the effects of feedback and often results in students doing simple grammar edits of each other’s papers. Ask students to create 2–3 specific questions before engaging in the peer editing sessions. These questions should not be “yes” or “no” questions.

The Why and How of Writing Groups
photo credit: Room 216 via photopin cc

Model what effective feedback looks like. To prevent students from just providing comma edits, they need to be taught how to give effective, substantive feedback that will lead to revisions. After students are arranged in their writing groups, select a model paper and model how to answer a writer’s questions. Help students see how you provide solutions to problems in the writer’s piece so as to help the writer make more meaningful revisions. Participate in your students’ writing groups sometimes so as to model the types of conversations peers should be having with one another.  

Help students understand they do not need to take all feedback. Writers need ownership of their writing. Help students understand that they do not have to take all of the feedback that you or their peers provide. Design a minilesson around helping student writers find a balance between maintaining their own voices and ideas as writers and incorporating peers’ feedback.

Have students reflect on their feedback. Ask students to reflect on whose feedback they used and what kind of feedback was most helpful. Use these comments anonymously during a minilesson to help your students understand the kind of feedback that helps your community of writers.

Do not assess students’ drafts Even though I often provide students feedback in addition to their writing group members’ feedback, every once in a while I have the students peer edit their drafts without me looking at the drafts. Students are still tempted to take only what you say about their writing. So step aside during some writing workshops so as to help your students value their peers’ feedback and to show them that you value the feedback they provide to one another.
But perhaps the best ways to answer the whys and hows of writing groups is to participate in a writing group yourself. It was not until I participated in a sustained writing group that my own anxieties about the practice began to fade. Sharing your experiences in writing groups with your students will also give you credibility as you facilitate your students’ writing groups.

Kathryn Caprino (kcaprino@live.unc.edu) is a Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests are English education, writing pedagogy, technology in the secondary English classroom, and young adult literature. She teaches an English methods course and has taught first year composition. She has also been a teaching assistant in a children's/young adult literature and middle grades methods course. She supervises student teachers and is the social media coordinator for the Adolescent Literacy Alliance adolescentliteracyalliance.ning.com.

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