(This post was originally written for the Richmondshare blog.)
My last post addressed the main excuses given for not doing peer revision of writing in the EFL classroom, especially in contexts such as Brazil, where peer revision is unheard of in most L1 writing classrooms.
Having hopefully convinced you that it is worth at least trying peer revision in your classroom, I will now focus on some helpful tips for effective peer revision activities.
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- Start small
One of the biggest mistakes teachers can make is to be too ambitious and want to have students revise their peers’ writing like pros. Let’s face it: it is hard even for us to decide what to focus on and to provide effective feedback to our students. My suggestion is to choose a few points to focus on and to prioritize macro elements of writing, rather than small details. For example, students can be asked to verify if the paragraph has a topic sentence, at least three different arguments to support it, and a conclusion that restates the thesis. As simple as that for a start! This can be done with a short checklist.
- Start with written feedback
In cultures in which students are not used to providing feedback to each other, having students sit face to face and talk about one another’s writing can be daunting. The natural tendency to save face will prevail and the feedback will not be productive. I’m not saying that face-to-face feedback should be avoided. Quite the contrary: I believe it should be our ultimate goal, but we have to train students to reach this stage.
- Use a peer review sheet
I don’t know if this will apply to other cultures, but my experience with Brazilian students is that they don’t like it when their peers write comments on their paper or make corrections. Likewise, peer reviewers are reluctant to write on their peers’ sheets. I always use a separate peer review sheet with questions addressing what I want to focus on, such as the checklist mentioned above.
- Customize your peer review sheet for the writing task at hand and the age of the learners
Just as the ideal scoring rubrics should be customized for the writing task, so should your peer review form. Don’t use a general form for every piece of writing. The peer revision focus will also vary according to the genre and the specific writing sub-skill you are focusing on. For example, if it’s a descriptive piece, you will necessarily want to address whether the writer had used a variety of adjectives to describe vividly whatever it is they are describing. For younger learners, you can use smiling faces or sad faces and include very simple elements such as whether the first paragraph is indented, if there are periods at the end of each sentence, if the writer addressed all the questions in the pre-writing task, etc.
- Make sure you include feedback on the ideas, not just the writing
The ultimate reason why we read what other people write is not to give feedback on the quality of the writing per se, but rather, because we are interested in what the writer has to say. Though the purpose of the peer revision activity is to provide feedback on the writing, make sure you add an item or two about what the writer has to say. Questions such as “Do you agree with the writer’s point of view?” or “Does the writing make you want to visit the place being described?” should also be part of the peer review sheet.
- Model the activity with the whole class
The ability to provide effective feedback on writing is not innate. We have to teach this to our students. The best way to do it is to model the peer review task with the whole class. I suggest asking a fellow teacher for an anonymous piece of writing on the same topic, but by a student from another class, and projecting the writing for everyone to see. You can hand out the peer review form and elicit responses from students as you fill out a collective form. Alternatively, students can work in pairs or groups to fill out the peer review sheet and then whole-class debriefing can ensue. Students need this type of scaffolding.
- Start with anonymous feedback
I know this is arguable, but my experience doing peer revision and asking for constant feedback from students regarding what works and what doesn’t work has shown me that they feel less intimidated when they provide anonymous feedback to an anonymous writer. I guess this makes sense, for peer reviewers for prestigious journals are always anonymous and so are the authors whose papers they are assessing. Later on, when students gain more confidence, they can start by exchanging papers with someone they feel comfortable with. At a third stage, when this type of activity has become a more natural step in the class, they accept exchanging papers with less familiar classmates. Having students from different groups of the same level revise each other’s writing works well, too.
- Vary your peer revision activities
I suggested you start with a checklist, a simple, straightforward way to verify if the writing fulfills the basic requirements. Then you can move on to a mixed form, with a checklist and one or two open-ended questions. After that, you can add more and more open ended questions until students are ready to even suggest what they should look for in the writing. To me, the “nirvana” stage is when students can just read each other’s writing, look each other in the eyes, and provide honest, constructive, non-judgmental feedback in a symmetrical conversation. It takes time, effort, and a lot of modeling to reach this stage, but it is possible. Also, make sure you focus on different aspects of writing, such as organization of ideas, how ideas are linked between sentences and between paragraphs, the use of low-frequency words, etc. The genre will also naturally dictate what to focus on in the peer revision.
- Validate the peers’ comments in your own comments
Peer feedback does not substitute teacher feedback. Of course, when students are seasoned peer reviewers, you can provide your feedback at a later stage of the process. Until then, I suggest you collect the pieces of writing with the corresponding peer review sheet and add your comments to the peer’s comments. When you agree with the peer reviewer, make sure you mention that. This validates the peer’s feedback and makes the writer more confident to follow the suggestion.
- Be consistent and persistent
If you decide that peer revision of writing is a stage of the writing process that you value and want to include in your lesson plan, make sure you do it in all your writing activities. Be aware that it won’t work well the first time and that students will probably complain the first few times you do it, but it will slowly become a natural, transparent stage in your class if you are persistent enough. Don’t give students mixed messages by doing peer revision with some writing tasks but not with others. When you assign homework, the first things students do the following class is to ask when you are going to correct it, right? Peer revision will have become a consistent and transparent stage in your class when students bring their writings on the due date and ask you, “Can we exchange papers now?” Believe me, it is possible!!!