Writing up to the challenge

Parul Parihar

Improving English writing skills of students is a challenge all teachers encounter. I discovered this challenge while teaching the students of grade 3. I observed that students were having a tough time expressing themselves through the written form of English. Though some of them could speak quite well in English, they faced problems in putting down their thoughts in the written form. Most students had no interest in writing, which further pushed them to be poor writers, score low in their subjects, submit homework with errors, write run of the mill sentences and create incoherent paragraphs. Many of the students in my class were quite adept at the art of camouflaging their lack of reading and writing skills; so it was difficult for me to identify their weakness until they submitted their papers, or wrote tests. It is then that I decided I needed to do something to improve their English writing skills.

I discussed this problem with my colleagues and seniors. They suggested several solutions, such as strategies like POW (Pick ideas, Organize their notes, Write and say more) which work wonders for primary students. They also advised me to establish a supportive environment in my classroom to foster a community of writers who are motivated to write well. Also, there were suggestions like making students read more, building their vocabulary, and modelling the perseverance required to create a good piece of writing.

I felt that while all these suggestions were good, they were a little complicated for younger students. Also, I was keen that I do not get busy with the mechanics of writing, but wanted them to write unreservedly with correct grammar while sticking to the topic. One of the insights, I was fortunate to pick out was that my students were very motivated to learn when they were working together. I had seen that all collaborative learning strategies that I had implemented worked really well. Therefore, I decided to solve the problem of poor English writing skills by incorporating their desire to work together. After my desk research, I zeroed in on the idea of Peer Editing and Reviewing Strategies.

My next challenge was to train my young students in these strategies. In retrospect, I find that I had to invest at least two days in explaining to them what the strategy is about and what is expected of them. At times, the entire idea of peer editing and reviewing went for a complete toss when students got into the competitive game of putting as many crosses on their partner’s work as possible. Since I was implementing the strategies on students who were barely 10 years old, I had to spend a lot of time in designing and planning the strategies that would meet their requirements as they were developing writers. I also knew I would not be able to go through the whole process in a day. Since it was their first exposure, I decided to deal with each part on a separate day. Time and again I had to model the peer editing strategy so they knew exactly what they are required to do.

I spent almost two months in carrying out my interventions, and on deciding upon the effectiveness of this solution that I thought might yield results for my students. During this period, I focused on four main areas of writing – organization of ideas, ideas themselves, word choice and conventions. The three performance sources that I selected for recording effectiveness of the interventions were: essay writing (topic provided by me), essay writing (topic provided by another teacher) and story writing (from words taken from the word wall).

During these two months, I trained students in four strategies, each for a period of two weeks. I decided to break the strategy into parts so that it did not become too complicated for my students. In addition, I spent a lot of time motivating the students to write first and then worry about other intricacies of writing. I particularly kept in mind, while selecting and sequencing the strategies that the complexity level moves from simple to difficult. The four strategies that I trained students on were:

Strategy 1

Circle – Circle the first word of each sentence of your partner’s work. Questions to think about: Is there variety?
Underline – Underline each adjective. Think about: Are the adjectives strong and specific? Then, remind them to look at the big picture. After doing that they had to make comparisons and add suggestions about what the student needs to add, adjust or remove.
Cross – Put a small cross in front of every spelling error.

For example, students were asked to write a short story using the words from the word wall. As this was the first strategy, it was very essential to make the students write. In order to do so, I familiarized the students with how authors create stories and what the different parts of a story are. I also introduced visual or written prompts that inspired them to think of story ideas and encourage them to plan before starting to write. This helped the students to create a mind map of the story before actually penning it down. Also, to encourage the students to write, I kept asking questions like: What is the beginning of the story? Who are the characters? What do you like about them? Where does the story take place? Is there a problem that occurs in the story? If so, how does it get resolved?

After the students were done, they exchanged their work with their partners and started reviewing the work. Also to help students review it better, I made them think of questions like, “Can you think of a better way to start the story other than “Once upon a time…”. What other words can you use for “happy” and “large”?

Strategy 2

Provide students clue cards printed with one of the following:
1.Choice of words
2. Organization of ideas
3. Punctuation
4. Spellings

Each student had to look for the same in his partner’s work (with support and assistance provided by the facilitator). After the students were done, they discussed their observations in a group.

For instance, students were asked to write an essay on “Most memorable incident.” After they completed their essay, they exchanged their work with their partners. As mentioned above, each student got one clue card, or task card. The student had to look for the same in his partner’s work. Once everybody was done with their tasks, observations were discussed in the group.

Strategy 3
I taught students about “revision sandwich”: compliment, suggest, and correct. I reminded students that when reviewing someone’s work, always start out by saying what they like about their work. Next, make a suggestion and converse with the partner. Then ask questions on areas that they particularly felt could have been written in a better way, leading to making corrections. After that each student came forward to share his observations with the class.

For example, I used this strategy while I was revising the writing section with the students. It was performed orally, where the students had to follow the sandwich approach while reviewing their partner’s work. While revising message writing, the students were asked to compliment the best thing they liked in that message; make suggestions if anything could have been better and correct mistakes, particularly spellings and punctuation in their partner’s work.

Strategy 4
Peer editing system: I assembled a checklist for the purpose of generating greater discussion among the students. I wanted my students to consider many ways of constructing meaning through their writing. For instance, students wrote an essay and then were asked to fill a checklist after reviewing their partner’s work. The topic of the essay was “First Day of my school.” The checklist consisted of prompts like, “Best part of the essay, improvements you would like to make, correction of mechanics, etc.” So here, instead of discussing the output of the checklist in the whole group, I gave it to the student for whom it was filled. This gave them an opportunity to reflect on their writing.

This strategy, clearly, was the most complicated of all strategies as here the students actually had to get into the mechanism of editing and were asked to look at the writing as a whole and not in parts. The exciting part was that some students actually made some insightful observations in their partner’s work which probably I would have missed.

All that I have described above was part of an action research that I had undertaken as I was breaking into regular teaching. All research is data driven, and demands evidence. So after conducting my interventions for more than two months, I found that peer editing and reviewing is an effective tool for improving the writing skills of students. The effect size of improvement from three performance sources was – 0.43, 0.86 and 0.08. Statistically, effect size of 0.30 or more is taken to be significant.

To conclude, I would highly recommend that teachers train their students on peer reviewing and editing, and they would certainly see significant improvement in their writing skills. Training students is likely to take a lot of effort, especially if one is dealing with younger students, but the effort will be worth its while.

The author teaches at DPSG School, NCR. She can be reached at parul@teachersity.org.

Related articles

From research in action to action research
Can vocabulary enhancement increase classroom participation?
When words confuse the numbers