In a middle school classroom where student writing is self-corrected or peer-corrected, how can a student writing improve without adult guidance?

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Catherine Holland, Parent and education researcher

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Both of my kids attended schools (elementary, middle, and high) where this practice was used, and it was implemented most effectively in classrooms where the teachers had shared a rubric with the standards to look for in written work, where there were at least two peer reviewers, and where the teacher provided additional regular, periodic reviews of the student-reviewed work. While this last step did not occur as frequently as the peer reviews, it was typically enough to enable the teacher to gauge each student's progress and areas where one or more of the children was struggling.

My suggestion is to raise your concerns with your child's teacher and ask how she or he addresses the potential benefits and drawbacks of this practice. I also recommend asking if a rubric is used during peer reviews and requesting a copy of it. Many students learn how to strengthen their own writing by thoughtfully reviewing the work of their peers, and self-correction can similarly serve to build writing skills as students closely examine their work after having been taught particular rules or skills.

You may also want to take a look at this resource from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that describes how to implement peer review successfully.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Catherine gives you good advice. I studied this type of writing instruction while a college student in the late nineties... it became famous after the success of Nancie Atwell's book In the Middle, which discussed how to best engage middle school learners.

My first instinct is to question whether the teacher is using self and peer reviews as part of the writing process. Does he/she eventually have the students compile their drafts in a portfolio? If so, does he/she have students track their changes, suggest a grade for themselves, and then defend that grade in a self-reflection? If so, that is a definite teaching philosophy. But, as Atwell would articulate, part of that process should include teacher conferencing, a time when teachers point out areas that need improvement with the expectation that students will revise them.

Should you follow Catherine's advice and contact the teacher, consider asking this question: "What kind of instruction do you offer during teacher conferencing?"

Maryann Aita, Writer and Expert Tutor

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Other experts have offered great advice here. Having a clear rubric and instructions for peer review is crucial to the process. After all, how can you expect someone to learn when they don't have any material to draw from? That being said, I've seen students, especially in middle school, rely too much on having every step laid out for them. While this may be helpful initially, it limits creativity and keeps students from taking initiative.

Mastering the writing process and improving writing skills are valuable to teach students how to be self-guided, to critique their own work, and to make sure they are communicating clearly and effectively. So, in a situation where students have no adult instruction or guidelines to follow, as you've asked about, peer review can be a very useful tool to help students improve if implemented appropriately. I teach a creative writing class to a group of seventh graders and have come to learn that these students have had little opportunity to work on open-ended, creative assignments. They ask questions about font size, what happens if they go fifty words over the word count maximum, is it OK if they write about this or that etc. They get hung up on getting it "right" instead of experimenting and having fun in their writing. While I find myself providing more clear guidelines for them, I also want to encourage originality and creativity. This is one way that peer review can really help student writing.

From my experience, I would suggest that, to be successful, the peer review process should:

1) Include a class discussion in which students work together to formulate guidelines for editing and revision. This should be discussion of what to look for AND how to be a constructive commenter. What is particularly important here is that students should not only look for things like spelling and grammar, but for coherence, flow, and arguments/research (in persuasive writing). I find this is best done by having students formulate questions they should ask as they read. For instance: Do the paragraphs make sense in this order? Am I ever confused by what the author is saying? Does the author contradict herself anywhere?

2) Students should give positive feedback and constructive criticism. Peer editing helps students be better readers of their own work, but if they only learn how to look for what needs to be fixed, it will discourage them from reviewing work in the future. Positive feedback is not just a pat on the shoulder. It encourages students to want to continue writing and helps them understand their strengths as a writer so that they know what to continue doing.

3) Involve approximately 3 random peer editors per paper. In a class of 20 or 30 students, some will pick up on the peer review process immediately and others will struggle. If a paper is passed around to several students, chances are they will see different things. This also allows the reviewers to see what other students have commented, which will help their own review process. Most importantly, students should not be passing papers back and forth between friends.

4) Ideally, review should be anonymous. Even adults have a hard time remaining unbiased so it's a lot to ask of middle schoolers. If possible, students should not know whose papers they are reading.

Peer review, even without adult guidance, is a way for students to practice reading. It will be difficult at first, but as students receive feedback, they'll notice what is helpful to them and what isn't. Then, they can learn to implement this in their own writing. Above all, though, I believe the peer review process is an excellent way for students to learn skills beyond merely how to write well. They learn how to communicate and how to be independent learners, which is far more valuable to them than being given a list of rules to memorize.

Barbara Bellesi, Writer, Editor, and Educator

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Peer review is effective when there is clear guidance for student reviewers, such as a rubric, as Catherine mentioned above. To improve writing skills, students need some combination of class lecture (the mechanics of an essay, for example) and individual feedback on the writing process. The benefits of peer review, when executed well, is twofold: 1) It allows your student's work to have additional individual attention and feedback and 2) It allows students to recognizes strengths and weaknesses in the writing of their classmates.

Peer review is also a great way of allowing a student to have another chance to strengthen a draft of an essay/paper before submitting it to the teacher for grading. If you are unsure of how peer review is meant to benefit your student, you can always ask the teacher.

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M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher

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Typically, the teacher will go over what comments the students have made, whether it's during peer or self-reflection, but at times they may not. The only reason they wouldn't would be if, as an expert above mentioned, this is part of the writing process. Usually this would happen as part of a 1st draft or possibly a 2nd, but the teacher knows that they will still have to complete a final draft, which will be graded by the teacher, and so in order to help their writing process, the have them reflect on their own. Peer reflection also helps students improve their eye for mistakes, and pointing out grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors also helps to make them better writers themselves (not to mention editors). It also helps them examine other styles of writing than their own, and gives them the opportunity to exercise their social skills in class by working with partners. These are some of the many reasons why these activities are very beneficial for students, but a good teacher will always be checking in on the students' progress in doing these. If a teacher is leaving students out on an island after self reflection or peer commenting, then you may have to address that. But otherwise, it really is another part of, and a very good part ofthe writing process. Hope that helps!

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Is the writing being "corrected" or commented on? Those are two different things. It seems to me that students might not have the ability to correct each other's papers; however, because they are readers, they can certainly comment on word choice, interest, and focus. Peer review is a wonderful tool because it helps the reviewers gain a keener eye. All of this being said, I am assuming that "correcting" will result in a grade administered by the teacher, so I would suggest you seek out information about the ways your child will get a final grade: portfolio? peer reviews? traditional, summative assignments?

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