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WHAT IS PEER CONFERENCING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Referred to as peer conferencing, peer review, peer response groups, or writing groups, the process of having students read and respond to the writing of their classmates can be a powerful tool during any stage of the writing process. Although some people assume that the goal of peer conferencing is to help students edit their papers (primarily for language conventions), students can benefit from sharing their work during all stages of writing as they select a topic, develop the essay, and revise a draft. Peer conferencing works best when it is an established routine in the class, students are given explicit instruction in how to respond to writing, students are held accountable for their performance as writers and reviewers, and students are able to see growth in their writing as a result of the effort.

Setting the Stage for Peer Conferencing
A teacher must make several decisions when setting up opportunities for peer conferencing. First, he or she must be clear about the purpose of the activity. Is the goal to provide support as students generate ideas, help the writer see the writing with "new eyes," or to do a detailed review of a complete draft? Second, the teacher must decide how to structure the activity. What size groups will be used? What will be the make-up of the groups? Will students give feedback orally, in writing, or electronically? What kind of guidance will students get about the kind of feedback to give? How will the room be arranged? How long will students have to review each paper? Third, the teacher will need to decide how to ensure accountability for the process. Will students be given credit for reviewing each other's papers? Will the teacher evaluate peer feedback for appropriateness? How will groups be monitored? The answer to these questions will depend on the purpose of the activity, the dynamics of the class, and the nature of the writing assignment.

Zemelman and Daniels (1988) caution that teachers may be frustrated if they simply put students into groups and tell them to read and respond to each other's writing without taking the time and energy to prepare them for the experience. They recommend training students over time to be participants in groups by structuring a series of activities that ultimately lead to reviewing each other's papers through peer conferencing. First, they recommend giving students opportunities to practice collaboration in other kinds of class activities and critique those experiences. Next, they suggest allowing students to collaborate on prewriting activities (in pairs and then in small groups) to offer "support" before they move toward "evaluation." The next stage involves using a training paper(written by the teacher or used by an unidentified student from outside the class with his or her permission) for practicing the skills of response using a guidesheet. After that students move into guided peer review of each other's essays and finally end up becoming members of autonomous and flexible groups which can function during all stages of the process with limited teacher monitoring. Scarborough (2001) emphasizes that during this kind of community building it is particularly important for content area teachers to engage students in collaboration that is tied to the content of the class and not just "touchy-feely" activities in order to maximize their value.

Teaching Students to Give Good Feedback
Even with instruction in collaborative group work, however, some students have difficulty knowing how to give effective feedback on writing because they lack confidence, skills, or knowledge. It is important, therefore, that students receive instruction in this process. This can be done by modeling the process of reviewing a paper on an overhead transparency, creating guiding questions for review of an essay, discussing elements of an effective essay, and asking students to generate a list of things they feel that they should look for when reviewing each other's papers. The goal is to "demystify" the process for students so that they can go beyond giving comments such as "This is great" or "Your paper stinks."

Zemelman and Daniels (1988) offer specific suggestions to help encourage students to give helpful feedback to each other. First, they recommend giving students a critiquing guidesheet appropriate for the assignment and the stage of the writing in order to help students stay on task and give equal attention to each paper in the group. For example, for an opinion paper, they recommend including questions such as the following: "Is the opinion of the writer clear? What does the writer believe?", "Does the writer clearly show how or why s/he has reached his/her opinion?", and "Has the writer linked ideas where necessary? State where links might be inserted."

Second, they recommend establishing a basic formula to use whenever students respond to each other's papers. They suggest including items such as the following: identifying one good part of the writing and explaining what makes it good, asking at least one question about the writing, and identifying one place where they would like to hear more.

A third technique that they recommend is having peer readers mirror what is in the essay by simply telling the writer what they think the writing says as a way of seeing whether or not the writer communicated ideas effectively.

Finally, they recommend having the writer list issues or concerns he or she has with the writing to elicit specific feedback on areas of concern. Students benefit from this self-reflection and often know what kind of feedback would be most helpful for them.

Making Feedback More Visual and Concrete
Some student writers benefit from peer feedback that is more visual and concrete than a guidesheet will typically allow. For example, students can respond to each other's paper using different color highlighters as way of identifying specific kinds of content. In a point of view essay, for example, where students are stating an opinion, identifying reasons for that opinion, and supporting the reasons with elaboration, students could switch papers and use three different color highlighters to verify that the writer has stated an opinion (highlighting with blue), identified reasons (highlighting with pink), and supported those reasons with elaboration (highlighting with yellow). This technique can also be used to draw attention to a stylistic device such as use of vivid verbs, a language convention such as spelling errors, or an organizational issue such as use of transition. When students get their papers back they can easily see whether or not another reader was able to identify these elements in the essay.

Peer Conferencing When Time is Limited

Strong's (2001) list of "shorthand symbols" can be helpful for giving quick feedback when time for peer conferencing is limited. He instructs students to read each other's papers and use the following four symbols to give feedback:

+ means "I like this"

* means "Say more here"

? means "This puzzled me"

(check mark) means "Check for an error."

Peer reviewers can use the symbols for individual words and sentences or put brackets around paragraphs or more extensive text with the symbol in the margin.

Another marking system that Strong recommends is the following:

  • use underlining to indicate especially strong uses of language (for example, vivid details, memorable phrases)
  • use wavy lines under words that are empty, repetitious, or ineffective
  • put brackets [ ] around sentences that could be combined
  • use parenthesis ( ) to indicate sentences which feel too full or are unclear.

The specific symbols used are not as important as establishing a system. Schools may even consider discussing and establishing a consistent marking system.

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