On the Need for Peer Response

Irecently had the opportunity to present at Strategies for Writing, a PA Writing/Literature course. One of my writing institute colleagues was teaching the course and asked me to come in to present on using peer response groups in the classroom (she knew that I had done research and work on this topic).

I was thankful for the opportunity to revisit a lot of the thinking and planning I had done regarding peer response groups. Putting my presentation together and talking with other teachers reminded me of many reasons why peer response groups are so valuable in the classroom. Simply put, students need more authentic feedback on their writing than any single person―me―can give them. If we teach and trust our students with peer response, wonders can happen. (You can view my presentation and materials here.)

In no particular order, some thoughts, takeaways, truths: 

    • Peer response is authentic. It’s what writers do in the real world. They have trusted friends on whom they rely for honest feedback. They rely on these trusted friends to read their work with their unique set of eyes. Many writers talk about the importance of their relationship with their editor, how an editor’s feedback can challenge and inspire.
    • Peer response builds community. Though students can be initially anxious to share their work, over time and with consistent opportunities to share, peer response groups develop trust. When it works, students learn to depend on one another to gather ideas and improve as writers. It’s not uncommon for me to overhear students saying, “Hey, I thought of something for you…” or “I came across something that you could include.” I’ve seen students become invested in each others’ writing lives in a way that I have not seen otherwise.
    • Peer response puts students in charge of their own writing. When students reads their work to their peers and get authentic reactions from them, very often those reactions will vary. This is significant because it means it is up to the author to use his or her authority to decide which revisions and what type of revisions to make.
    • Peer response makes students better listeners. No one wants to be the kid who zones out when another student is sharing. It takes focused attention to listen intently to one another.
    • Peer response allows students  opportunities to read more mentor texts―each others’. Every time students gather together to share their work, they are accumulating additional ideas for what they can do in their own writing. In conferences with students, I’ve heard many students tell me that they got an idea to change X or Y in their essay based on what they saw another student do.
    • Effective and meaningful peer response can be taught. How? Modeling, reflection, and practice. We don’t model enough what real talking about writing looks like. We may talk about writing with or to students, but not for them. Before we started peer response groups, I had two of my colleagues come into my class and workshop a piece I had written about a friend of mine. They had not read it before. After I finished reading it, they reacted and responded with honesty, care, and attention. Our discussion was animated. When they left, one of my students asked me, incredulous, “Is that how English teachers really talk?” She was surprised by the passion and specificity with which we talked about the writing. We need to model our writing lives for students, and that means showing them what getting authentic feedback looks like, too.

… unlike writing that is personally meaningful to students, 5-paragraph essays do not invite response.

  • Because of peer response groups, as a teacher, I began to see the writing I assign differently. Authentic peer response has the power to transform the writing process for students, to give them opportunities to talk about their writing with a group of trusted peers, and to receive feedback that challenges and enlightens them. I once tried to do peer response groups when students had written traditional 5-paragraph essays. It didn’t work. In fact, it was a huge flop. Why? Because unlike writing that is personally meaningful to students, 5-paragraph essays do not invite response. They may invite feedback of the peer editing checklist type, but that is different from personal, qualitative response about content and ideas. Seeing the possibilities of peer response groups made me question the types of writing assignments I was giving.