Putting Our Heads Together

Using peer collaborative writing to improve second language skills

Collaborative learning has been shown to have numerous benefits for students. When scaffolded and implemented effectively, it can help develop knowledge acquisition, as well as problem-solving, interpersonal, and teamwork skills. By pooling their knowledge, students can support each other’s learning, and gain insight from a different perspective and experience.

Peer collaborative writing is one such approach, which involves pairs of students writing a single assignment simultaneously. The focus is on negotiating the content and language choice throughout the writing process. This means that students are not simply writing separate parts of the paper, nor proof-reading the others’ papers. Students are building knowledge together, at the same time, which makes it distinct from most group work projects.

In the language classroom, peer collaborative writing allows second language learners to engage in both talk and writing, building on their previous language and content knowledge. Students not only have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge, and to acquire additional skills, while working with a partner in this way. In a Teaching and Learning study, PhD student Brianna Hilman, Dr. Sylvie Roy, and MA student Jean-Michel Galarneau investigated the potential for peer collaborative writing to support international students learning English.

One Paper, Two Brains

Working in two writing classes for English as a Second Language (ESL) university students, known as English for Academic Purposes (EAP), the research team introduced the students to peer collaborative writing. In their dyads, the students then wrote 3-5 pages for a task, without additional assistance. The students built from brainstorming to writing the outline and drafts together, submitting their work along the way. At the end of the task, the students reviewed and revised their paper together using a checklist created by the researchers.

The team evaluated and compared the results of the collaborative work with the students’ previous assignments, considering their growth using the same rubric areas. Students from the class, as well as the instructor, were also interviewed to gain insights into their experience and thoughts on collaborative writing.  The results showed the students made considerable improvements in their grammar, and use of APA style. The partnership also helped shape the content of the assignment, creating a better-rounded product.

The researchers identified numerous challenges and opportunities for using peer collaborative writing in second language learning. In the EAP class, the students were unused to collaborative work, which meant they sometimes lacked the strategies to build peer relationships and negotiate content with others effectively. Some pairs required support to ensure they completed their work collaboratively, rather than as a typical group project. The different levels of English proficiency, background knowledge, and writing skills of the students also presented some difficulties. Here, knowing which pairs of students may work most effectively together is essential.

Peer Collaboration Strategies

The study highlights the importance of scaffolding the introduction of new ideas and processes in the classroom. By clearly and repeatedly modeling the process, the teacher or instructor can help students gain a better sense of the expectations of their work. Facilitation and guidance can also help keep students on track and support their learning.

Balancing explicit instruction with constructive learning is essential to building skills and knowledge among students. While collaborative writing may not be suitable for all tasks, including it in a teaching repertoire may support different types of learning and experiences for students.