21 nov 2014 Five bad excuses for not doing peer revision of writing in the EFL classroom
My dear colleague Luiz Otávio Barros wrote a recent post providing ten tips to help teachers give feedback on writing. The ten tips are all very useful and are certainly in-keeping with contemporary ESL/EFL writing pedagogy.
Just like Luiz Otávio, I also consider White and Arndt’s 1991 book Process Writing a seminal work on how to teach process writing in the ESL/EFL classroom. Other books that have contributed to enhancing my knowledge on second language writing are Campbell’s 1998 book , Teaching Second-language Writing: Interaction with Text, the University of Michigan Press’s 2002 series on Second Language Writing (Carnagarajah,2002; Ferris, 2002, Liu and Hansen, 2002), and Ferris and Hedgcock’s 2005 book Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, process, and practice.
However, no other book or article on teaching writing has impacted me as much as the 1984 book The Art of Teaching Writing, by Lucy Calkins. Though written for teachers of L1 writing, not ESL/EFL, it brings valuable insights on how the writing class needs to be structured as a writing workshop, so as to favor individualization of instruction, student interaction, and discovery learning, placing students at the center of the learning process. Within this perspective, an essential element of a student-centered writing curriculum needs to be peer feedback on writing, or what is commonly called peer revision.
Hence, in this post, I’d like to complement Luiz Otávio’s excellent advice by making the case for peer revision in the EFL classroom, providing five main arguments used against peer revision and then my counter-arguments in favor of this pedagogical practice.
First, though, let’s clarify the terminology. Peer revision of writing is not restricted to peer editing, that is, students correcting each other’s language errors. It’s about having students give feedback on each other’s writing with regard to content, organization of ideas (cohesion and coherence) and form. I, for one, have focused most of my peer revision activities on content and organization of ideas, keeping form secondary at this stage.
Peer revision of EFL writing has been my main academic interest since my Master’s studies in the late 90’s. Since then, I’ve given numerous talks at my institution and elsewhere on the benefits of peer revision and provided tips on how to conduct it effectively. I also focused on peer revision of writing in my doctoral thesis and provided evidence that it is possible to teach teenagers to become effective peer reviewers. The ultimate goal of having students revise each other’s writing is to help them develop their ability to revise their own writing, going from the social to the individual, as suggested by Vygostsky. It’s hard to argue against this, right?
Even so, despite all my efforts, I still find a lot of resistance from teachers towards conducting peer revision in their classrooms. Why is this so? I’m going to present the common arguments against peer revision and then discuss each one.
1) It’s difficult to carry out this type of activity when students have never done it in their L1 writing classes. It’s totally alien to them and they don’t understand why they should do it.
To me, this is actually a reason why we should invest in peer revision of writing in our EFL classrooms. Not only will we help students become more competent reviewers of their own L2 writing, but we will also expose them to student-centered pedagogical practices that they aren’t familiar with, thus expanding their educational experiences and even helping them become more autonomous writers in their own language, not only in EFL. This way, we make an even greater contribution to our learners’ education than “only” teaching them English.
2) Students don’t like to receive feedback from their peers. They want to receive feedback from their teacher.
It’s true that students’ first reaction to peer revision is usually negative and they don’t understand why they should revise their peer’s writing when it’s actually the teacher’s job to do so. However, if the peer revision activities are well scaffolded and the teacher is able to show to students that both the classmates’ and the teacher’s feedback can be useful, and that they actually complement each other, they buy into the idea and end up appreciating it. This was one of the conclusions of my doctoral research on teaching process writing in a product-oriented context.
3) Students feel reluctant to “criticize” their peers and end up just providing vague praise.
Yes, it’s also true that when you do peer revision for the first time, students will feel reluctant and will indeed tend to provide only congratulatory comments. They all want to save face and don’t want to seem overly critical, as they also expect to receive compliments rather than criticism. Again, scaffolding the peer revision task is key. The activity needs to be well structured, and the feedback students give needs to be very objective and factual, rather than judgmental. It’s all about how well the peer revision task is designed. It’s also about time and developing maturity as peer reviewers. We need to teach students how to provide effective feedback and also how to take their peers’ feedback into account and decide what to incorporate into their revisions and what not to incorporate.
4) Peer revision of writing sounds great in theory, but it is not practical in the real world. I’ve tried it out and it didn’t work.
Believe me, peer revision will never work the first time you try it, especially in product-oriented contexts like ours in Brazil. Providing feedback to peers, peer assessment, and self-assessment are not part of our students’ frames, unfortunately. Our schools are still very teacher-centered in most cases and focus on preparing students for high-stakes exams. However, you can teach students how to become effective peer reviewers, but this takes time and patience, just like most of the things worth doing in education and in life. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work as expected the first time. However, do make sure you structure your activity well so that the chances of everything being a mess are reduced. Peer revision is not about asking students to exchange their writings and give feedback whichever way they want. They need a clear task with clear guidelines, and the activity needs to be modeled with the whole class first.
5) Not all students hand in their writing on time, so peer revision becomes impossible.
No one said it would be easy! This is a practical issue that we need to be ready to face. You need to have a plan in place and consider all the possibilities. We are all used to thinking of a plan B or C in our classrooms, and peer revision should be no different. What I usually do is have the students who do not bring their own writings pair up with a classmate to give feedback to a peer. They will be involved in the peer revision task, which is my main goal. Since I only conduct my peer revision activities in class and never have students take their peer’s writings home to provide feedback, this means that the students who don’t bring their writings on the peer revision day don’t receive feedback from a peer, only from me. This is not ideal, but for me it’s not a reason not to do peer revision. Most students do bring their writings on time if you have a clear policy and most students will thus benefit from the peer revision process. Not bringing the writing on the peer revision date is an exception, not a rule, and we shouldn’t make pedagogical decisions based on exceptions. An effective alternative is to use blogs, wikis or the like for your peer review work, where students can post their writings and give and receive feedback.
I hope I’ve managed to convince you to try peer revision of writing in your ESL or EFL classroom if you haven’t already. In my next month’s post, I’m going to provide practical tips on how to conduct successful peer review activities, even with younger teens. Hope to see you back here!
CALKINS, L. M. The Art of Teaching Writing – New Edition. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH. 1994.
CAMPBELL, C. Teaching second-language writing: Interaction with text. Canada: Heinle & Heinle, 1998.
FERRIS, D. Treatment of error. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.
FERRIS, D.; HEDGCOCK, J. Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, process, and practice. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2005.
CANAGARAJAH, A.S. Critical academic writing and multilingual students. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002
LIU, J.; HANSEN, J. G. Peer response in second language writing classrooms. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2002.
VYGOTSKY, L.S. A formação social da mente. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2000.
WHITE, E.; ARNDT, V. Process writing. New York: Longman, 1991.
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