Leveraging Peer Power to Improve Writing
Conferencing is crucial for young writers, but there’s only one teacher. Here’s how to model peer conferences to help kids improve their writing skills.
In “Peer Conferences Keep the Writing Momentum Going,” Lynne R. Dorfman writes about the crucial role of continuous feedback during the writing process. While teacher-student writing conferences are valuable, there’s a bottleneck issue: There is only one teacher, and often dozens of peers.
Dorfman says peer-to-peer conferences are a natural way to supplement teacher-led conferencing, but they have other benefits as well: peer-to-peer feedback exposes students to the struggles of other young writers and allows them to practice the “nomenclature of writers." Peers have “similar life experiences” and a common frame of reference, and students are more inclined to listen to constructive criticism from their peers because the power dynamic of their relationship is different than that of teacher-student.
Dorfman models conferencing before turning the process over to students to try independently. ”Sometimes, I create brief video clips of successful conferences to share with small groups or even whole group during instructional time,” she says. And she cautions that the goal of this collaborative process is not to create a litany of problems and fixes, but to help students “generate ideas, craft or process rather than corrections.” Dorfman suggests several techniques for student conferences:
Ear Conference: In an ear conference, students sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face and listen to a reading of their work, or a portion of it. Without the distraction of looking at the written words, students are able to focus on the flow of the writing and offer critiques of the overall structure of a piece. They offer feedback to each other after hearing the work.
Praise/Question/Polish: This type of conference may be done in a large group or in pairs. Students offer specific praise of the writing, and then identify any holes or questions they have about the piece. Finally, students offer “one key suggestion to improve the piece.” This quick strategy allows students to improve their writing while developing strong evaluative and assessment abilities.
Read-Retell-Respond: Students are divided into groups of three, and one student reads his writing to the group. A second student is tasked with providing a summary of what she heard. The writer may offer clarification or additional information in response, if needed. The third student gives specific praise of the work. The roles rotate until each student has had an opportunity to receive feedback on their work.
Whatever the format, encouraging collaboration, checking in, and remodeling your chosen process to keep everyone on track is key. Dorfman advises offering prompts students might use in the conversations, such as “Tell me more.” Give students autonomy to decide when and how to confer with a fellow student, and encourage active listening and positive feedback.