Peer Writing in an Elementary Classroom

I always treat my classroom as a team. We all work together to ensure our environment is clean, safe, friendly, and welcoming. We discuss thoughts, share ideas, and do tons of group projects.  I strive for a collaborative classroom community.

Even though most of my classroom culture is collaborative and group focused, my writing block was not. I used to view writing as an individual activity. Kids brainstormed, planned, and wrote their own paragraphs or essays independently. I modeled writing strategies for students, but when it came to the actual writing, they worked a lot on their own.  The only time I used any sort of “peer writing” was during the editing phase of the writing process. I used to simply have students check each other’s writing for spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. But that’s it. That is the most teamwork that you would see in my writing block.

However, during the last couple years, I started to embrace collaborative peer writing strategies. You know the old saying, "Two heads are better than one?" Why should it be any different with writing? With a collaborative, peer writing culture in the classroom, students inspire each other, become exemplars, generate dynamic ideas, increase confidence, and become critical observers.

Peer Writing in an Elementary Classroom

Now, instead of having students work through the entire writing process on their own, I incorporate peer writing opportunities throughout.

Here are some strategies to help your students work collaboratively throughout the writing process.

Brainstorming/Sharing Ideas

“I don’t know what to write.” A phrase that makes me cringe. However, many people encounter writing blocks. It happens. Sometimes you just need a little inspiration to trigger an awesome brainstorming session. I know how inspired I feel after brainstorming ideas with teacher colleagues. It usually leads to more creative and unique ideas. Just like with adults, student peer collaboration is a great way to help students move past writing blocks and get their ideas flowing.

  • Group/Partner Share: Have students share their brainstorms with a partner or table. Give students time to brainstorm on their own, but then have them come together to share their brainstorms with a partner or small group. If a student had a difficult time gearing ideas, they are often inspired after hearing other student ideas.
  • Community Brainstorm: When students are brainstorming topics to write about, have them do a group brainstorm. Set the timer for 5 minutes, designate a writer, and have them all collaboratively share ideas. The timer helps to create a sense of urgency and I find that my students generate more ideas when they have limited time. If someone is stuck brainstorming on their own, they will often have more success in a community brainstorming session. Better yet, if you have 1 to 1 devices, use a google doc and have all students contribute ideas to the brainstorm
  • Whole Class Brainstorm - start a brainstorming session as a whole group and have the teacher write down the ideas. Or if you have 1 to 1 devices, use a website like padlet.com to have a very interactive whole group brainstorm.

Drafting 

To really see an improvement with student writing, use peer writing during the drafting phase of the writing process. During this phase, peers have the opportunity to become exemplars. Students learn writing techniques and strategies from their peers (instead of just from the teacher). They may hear a writing style or see a technique from another student, and then apply to their own writing.

For example, have students work on writing leads together as a group. Have each group pick 2 or 3 of their favorite leads and share them with the class. Next, have students write their own leads. This gives all students a variety of ideas for them to apply and adapt for their own writing. You will notice that students take their favorite elements from different leads and make them their own.

Almost like a mini-lesson, you could use peer writing to focus on different elements of writing. For instance, students could share leads, elaborate description, transitional words & phrases, supporting details, or topic sentences to name a few. It is always a good idea to give students a narrowed focus on what to collaborate on in this area. Giving them a specific target, like transitional phrases, allows them to narrow their focus and improve this one area.

Peer Review through the writing process

Revising/Feedback

Don’t wait until the very end of a writing assignment to have the students peer edit. take the opportunity to have students collaborate with revision by giving feedback.

I think it is best to break writing up into smaller chunks for peer revision. For example, if your students are writing a five paragraph essay, break the revision process up into paragraphs. After the introduction paragraph, have students read each other’s paragraph and give constructive feedback. This might include giving tips on ways to make their writing stronger, point out where more elaboration is needed, mention any parts that are confusing, or if it sounds choppy. For example, students might suggest more powerful verbs or adjectives (instead of dead words), ask for more detail, or give ideas about how they could make it better.

I use Ron Berger’s practice of being kind, helpful, and specific when giving feedback. If you are unfamiliar with this, check out the YouTube Video of “The Story of Austin’s Butterfly.”

Since students usually don’t have much experience with giving constructive feedback, you will need to model how this is done. Demonstrate how you want students to give feedback that is kind (highlights the positive), helpful (offers suggestions for improvement), and specific (targets certain elements). Also, once students start giving feedback, I like to look for student exemplars and highlight their feedback for the class.

If you don’t use any other peer writing strategies in your classroom, try this one. Having students give peer feedback during the revision phase really improves student writing. It also teaches students to be active readers and critical observers.

Editing

This is often the most used peer review strategy, and it definitely has its place. Just like it is good to have someone proof your writing, students can help each other catch their mistakes.

I like to make peer editing fun by playing music. During each song, students are reading a paper for a specific focus. After the song, they pass the papers to the person on their right. For example, while one song is playing students read someone’s paper and edit for spelling errors. Then everyone passes their paper to the right. During another song, students check the new paper for end punctuation and run-on sentences. After they switch papers again, another song plays, and they circle any dead words they find. Giving a specific area to focus their attention helps students to catch more errors. Additionally, having them switch papers means that it is not just one person’s responsibility for editing another student's paper.

Give it a try. Peer writing through the writing process is not only fun, but it helps student writing improve. If you are like me and strive for a collaborative classroom community, try some of these strategies to foster a collaborative culture. It takes support and teamwork through out the writing process to grow as a writer.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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I’m Whitney Ebert, founder of ElementaryWritingCoach.com. As you may have guessed, teaching young authors to develop their craft and feel confident in their writing skills is kind of my thing. 

I have 10+ years teaching experience in elementary education, and I've taught every grade level from kindergarten to sixth grade (except first). My teaching passions include interest-based learning, creative technology, project based learning, and building confident writers. Additionally, I have my M.S. in Instructional Media, so I frequently incorporate digital flare into projects and writing assignments.

 I live in a sunny beach town with my husband & 2 kids. When I'm not teaching, blogging, or designing new lesson plans, you can find me at the beach with the family.

Find out more about the Elementary Writing Coach at www.elementarywritingcoach.com