Collaborative Learning

Peer Review, Common Core, and ELLs

For English-language learners, simple peer review activities that are kind, specific, and helpful will better assist students in improving their writing and learning about writing.

March 30, 2016

Editor's note: This final post in a three-part series is adapted from the new book Navigating the Common Core With English-Language Learners by Larry Ferlazzo and his co-author Katie Hull Sypnieski, an English and ELL/ESL teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The first excerpt from our book reviewed the Common Core Writing Standards and offered general strategies for teachers of English-language learners. Our next post differentiated between cooperative and collaborative learning activities, and suggested collaborative strategies for meeting the Standards. In this post, our third and final excerpt, we share more specific suggestions for implementing another collaborative writing strategy: peer review.

Peer Review

Peer review is one collaborative writing strategy that can assist students in achieving a number of the Common Core Standards, including the one stating that students will improve their writing by "revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach." Research has shown that peer review, done well, results in improved student writing and learning about writing. Not least of these benefits (PDF) has been increasing the ability of ELL students to self-edit and revise their future writing.

We've tried many different methods of peer review -- with an emphasis on the word many. We've found that simpler is better, and have had the greatest success (improved student writing and a positive classroom atmosphere) with two strategies.

The first peer review strategy is a simple one for major student essays that follow a series of heavily scaffolded lessons involving teacher modeling, sharing multiple examples, using graphic organizers, and much student practice. It's a matter of reviewing a Peer Review Sheet (here's one from Teaching Learning, Learning Teaching that is similar to what we use) and modeling its use with an example essay from a previous year, one the teacher has written, or a paper retrieved off the internet. Then, students are strategically divided into partners or groups of three (making sure that no group is composed entirely of less-advanced ELLs), exchange their papers, complete the checklist, and discuss it with each other, after which writers make needed changes to their own drafts.

Kind, Specific, and Helpful

The second peer-review strategy that we have used successfully builds on educator/author Ron Berger's approach to critique and feedback (PDF) that uses three key guidelines:

  • Be kind.
  • Be specific.
  • Be helpful.

In our applied version of this approach (which we have gotten both from Mr. Berger and from educator Andy Tharby), we explain to a class that has just completed a draft of an essay (even a beginner's version) that first we, the teachers, are going to talk about one student’s essay -- what they did well and what they could do better -- and then students are going to do the same with their classmates' essays. Students should see their essays taped on different parts of the walls as they enter the classroom. Each essay should have a number written on it.

We then review the sentence stems developed by educator Andy Tharby, and give each student a copy (for early beginners, we narrow down the number of sentence-starters used). Then, keeping in mind one to three key elements that we want to emphasize, we put a draft of a student's essay that is a good model of these elements on the overhead (with his or her prior permission) and annotate it with a few of the sentence-starters targeting these instructional points. An additional sheet that we have sometimes shared is "Brittany's Story,” which was created by educator Katie Michaels Burke. It visibly shows the impact that helpful peer feedback can have on a student's writing and can help generate a greater sense of seriousness and commitment by students to the process.

Next, students are given sticky notes and assigned a number. They will start by going to the essay corresponding to their assigned number and be given five minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the length of the essay) to write one kind, one specific, and one helpful comment on the sticky note (ideally, the size of the note is large enough to fit all three sentences). Students sign their comments and stick them underneath the essay. Our model critique is left on the overhead and could be referred to by students to remember those one to three key points that they should be noticing. At the end of five minutes, students move to repeat the procedure with the next numbered essay.

We have students review anywhere between three and six essays, depending on available time and classroom energy. Students then collect their own essays with the sticky notes and highlight what feedback they decide is most helpful. Finally, students write a quick reflection of the process, answering these questions:

  • What is the most important thing that you learned from reading and giving feedback to other students' essays?
  • What is the most important thing that you learned from reading the sticky notes students wrote about your essay?

What are your most effective instructional strategies for helping ELLs meet the Common Core Writing Standards? Please share below in the comments section.

Part 1 of this series describes the Common Core Writing Standards and shares general strategies that ELL teachers can use to meet them. Part 2 demonstrates how collaborative learning activities can help ELLs meet the Standards.

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • English Language Learners
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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