Collaborative Writing, Common Core, and ELLs

By pairing up to write narratives developing experiences, events, or characters, English-language learners can produce better texts in terms of task fulfillment, grammatical accuracy, and complexity.

March 24, 2016
Photo credit: Nanda Melonio via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Editor's note: This second 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.

Student collaboration is only mentioned in the writing standard related to using technology for developing and publishing writing, but that doesn't mean that it can't be an important strategy to help meet the standards in this domain. In addition to helping students develop the explicit academic knowledge listed in the standards, collaborative writing has been found to be particularly helpful (PDF) to English-language learners (ELLs) in lowering anxiety and increasing self-confidence and motivation.

Before we share some non-tech ways to use collaboration in writing -- apart from its more common usages in the classroom like think-write-pair-share -- we want to distinguish collaborative learning from cooperative learning. In collaborative writing, students would do their own thinking and writing first and then connect with others to provide and receive feedback for improvement. Or, as is the case with the collaborative story-writing ideas that we'll be discussing, there is explicit space made for students to first use their own intellectual abilities. Then, student interaction can follow so that the end product is one to which everyone has contributed and is superior to what a student creates on his or her own. This kind of collaborative learning contrasts with what is often called cooperative learning in classrooms. Cooperative writing often involves students in a group completing individual parts of a writing task without peer feedback and then putting the pieces together to present as a final product.


We have long used a fun and simple collaborative storytelling exercise. We still like it and sometimes use it in the same way. However, we have also since revised it to reflect our new understanding of collaboration (instead of cooperation), as well as enhanced the way in which it helps students learn the important elements in narrative writing, as described by the Common Core:

In our new version, students work in pairs, instead of groups of three. We have found that a smaller number increases the chances that everybody is actively participating in the learning exercise, while still providing important collaborative opportunities that would be missed by working alone. Research has found (PDF) that ELLs working in pairs (versus working alone) "produced shorter but better texts in terms of task fulfillment, grammatical accuracy, and complexity."

First, we explain to the class that they are going to write a story with their partner and respond to questions (see below) that we are going to write on the overhead and read aloud. When we ask the question, though, students first have to be silent for one minute as they think about their response. After we say that the minute is over, they will have two to five minutes (depending on the question) to share their answers and decide together which one they want to write down on the big easel paper that each pair has in front of them. After they have answered each of our questions, they will have time the next day to write a simple version of their story (with illustrations), practice telling it, and then present it to another small group.

Sometimes we use this exercise as an introduction to a unit on stories, and other times we use it during or after the unit as a reinforcement or review activity. If it is done as an introduction, the teacher may need to spend a short time modeling a response to each question, and the exercise may take longer to complete.

12 Guiding Questions

Our previous version of this exercise did not include the individual "thinking time" and had fewer and more simplistic questions. We want to emphasize that we don't use all of the questions from the following list in a single lesson because the number would be overwhelming. For example, sometimes we omit questions 7 and 8, and other times we don't cover 5 and 6. We wouldn't want this part of the lesson to take up more than one fast-paced full class period:

  1. What is the setting? In other words, when and where does the story take place? Use the five senses (smell, touch, see, taste, feel) to describe it.
  2. Who is the protagonist in the story? In other words, who is the main character? What does he or she look like?
  3. Who is the antagonist in the story? In other words, who is the protagonist's opponent? What does he or she look like?
  4. What is the main problem in the story?
  5. What is the protagonist's history? In other words, what has happened to this person before that has led him or her to the problem in the story?
  6. What is the antagonist's history? In other words, what has happened to this person before that has led him or her to the problem in the story?
  7. What is something that the protagonist is thinking to him- or herself?
  8. What is something that the antagonist is thinking to him- or herself?
  9. What is a dialogue the protagonist and antagonist have with each other?
  10. What is one good thing that happens?
  11. What is one bad thing that happens?
  12. How does it end?

There are also many free online sites specifically designed for writers to create stories with others. Some allow students and teachers to create private groups, and some also allow the general public to participate in writing the story (private ones obviously work better). At these sites, one person takes up the story where the other leaves off. We've used these sites on occasion for follow-up homework to the in-class collaborative story assignment described above. For homework, partners can work together to write segments answering similar questions and then post the link to their creation in a class blog.

Part 1 of this series describes the Common Core Writing Standards and shares general strategies that ELL teachers can use to meet them. Part 3 will share more specific suggestions for applying the Common Core Standards in the classroom through collaborative peer review activities.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Learners
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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