College writing is meant to be a meaningful experience, at least for the writer, and if it goes well, for the reader as well. At its best, a paper brings new knowledge into the world. But it often takes a bit of struggle to get beyond the obvious and into that new territory.
In order to help beginning second language writers experience that breakthrough, teachers often employ conferencing and peer review to foster a connection between the writer and reader.
One-on-one conferencing can allow the teacher to show an individual student how lessons might be applied to their specific paper. Yet conferencing can be time-consuming. One way to make it more efficient is a flexible editing checklist that can focus the conference on one or two areas. The following is an example prepared for a two-paragraph assignment in a high beginning writing class.
I. Before Conferencing
The teacher can check the items that work and write notes next to one or two that she will address in the conference. When given to the student before or at the start of the conference, it communicates the strengths of the paper and the promise of something specific to work on.
II. During Conferencing
While a focused conference can improve efficiency, there’s still the issue of what the other students are going to do while waiting for their turn. It’s perfectly reasonable to give them time to work on their drafts, but sometimes it makes sense to give them a task. Ideally the activity should be…
- at level so that students can do it without guidance and feel successful.
- done with a partner or group to maximize the potential practice opportunities in the room.
- relevant to the current assignment or module.
- easy to make and mark.
Activity 1: Sentence Building
The following is a set of challenges that pairs or groups can do to practice the sentence patterns taught in their chapter.
Activity 2: Collaborative Writing
For a more challenging task, students can write collaboratively. In the following example, pairs build a paper that reviews all the elements on the checklist and can be done in an hour.
Students can be pulled out for a five to ten minute talk that focuses on exactly what will be useful to them in the next draft with the teacher playing various roles as needed.
While the teacher can play multiple roles during a conference, peer review is a little less useful in terms of advising the writer. But advising is only one way to respond to a paper. Peers might play a more helpful role by simply appreciating the writer.
Peers can be encouraged to enjoy each other’s work, which is something anyone is qualified to do. One way to structure appreciation is as a publishing session on due day. Before they turn in their assignments, students exchange papers with a partner. The instruction is to find something you like in the paper, tell the writer, and ask a follow up question. This basic habit can be tweaked in other ways. Are you similar or different from the writer? What does this make you think about? Give just one or two questions to create a meaningful moment for writers who have worked hard to communicate their ideas clearly and accurately.