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The influence of peer group response: building teacher and student expertise in the writing classroom

Stephanie Dix
Gail Cawkwell
Stephanie Dix and Gail Cawkwell are senior lecturers in arts and language education at the University of Wakaito

Adapted from the authors' article of the same title published in English Teaching: Practice and Critique December 2011.

National data in New Zealand shows that students in the middle and upper school achieve better results in reading than they do in writing. Assessment data for 2006, provided by the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP), demonstrated that 'the writing ability of a large number of secondary students was not improving beyond curriculum level 3 (that is, they only wrote as well as many primary school children)'. The findings indicated that secondary students writing at years 11 and 12 only reached level 4, whereas their reading and mathematics achievement levels were at level 5 (Ministry of Education & University of Auckland, 2006, 2, 3).

At the same time, other research indicates that New Zealand educators do not feel that they are currently effective enough as teachers of writing. One report found that many teachers 'lacked confidence in analysing writing and using data from assessment of writing to inform their teaching. Many of these teachers admitted gaps in their own knowledge about writing and instructional strategies that focus on teaching and learning for a particular purpose' (Limbrick et al 34).

This lack of confidence should be seen in the context of the multiple changes in curriculum that teachers have experienced over the past two decades. These changes have not only signalled major shifts in educational policy in terms of writing theory and practice, but have also placed greater accountability loadings on teachers in relation to assessment of learners (Dix & Amoore, 2010).

The writing workshop

In 2010–11 a small-scale New Zealand research project explored ways to develop teachers' skills, and the sense of their own efficacy, as writing instructors. The project involved six teachers from four secondary schools, eight teachers from four primary schools, and four academic researchers.

The project was centred on a writing workshop: a five-day, intensive experience designed to establish a community of practice as a means to develop teachers as writers and to cultivate teachers' self-efficacy, or belief in their own effectiveness, as teachers of writing. The workshop was based on the design created by the National Writing Project (NWP) in the USA. To assist the New Zealand project, an expert from North California State University co-led two six-day, intensive writing workshops in January 2010 and 2011, where many of the principles and elements of the NWP were implemented (Locke et al., 2011).

The project leaders introduced participants to new strategies to teach writing. One key strategy discussed was how teachers could model the writing process in class for students – for example, by verbalising their own thinking as they write. However, the main thrust of the workshops was to develop teachers' ability to help one another, through peer support within their own community of writers. This reflects the principle that the best teacher of writing is another writing teacher – those who experience the writing process and are aware of the challenges. Importantly, the workshop showed how the benefits of peer collaboration could be passed on to students themselves and how students' writing would benefit from exposure to an audience of their peers, as students learn how to respond and comment on each other's writing. The workshop also emphasised the importance of practising the writing process – students must experience the processes of planning, crafting, revising and editing before publishing.

This approach is expressed in the concept of peer group response (PGR). Responses from peers encourage writers to revisit, re-evaluate and revise the messages in their texts (Dix, 2006; Fitzgerald, 1987; Graves, 1983; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007).

During 2010, the primary school group of teachers continued to build a community of practice and met monthly on the university premises. An action research cycle enabled student data to be collected at specific points to demonstrate shifts and changes in response to professional development and teaching interventions.

Led by the university researchers, the project also undertook case studies of individual teacher participants' experiences in transferring insights from the workshop to their own classroom practice. These case studies allowed for personalisation of classroom issues, investigations into specific foci, designing teaching interventions and trialling strategies, as well as enabling the team to collectively gather rich qualitative data.

A case study

This article describes one case study, involving the primary teacher 'Jasmine'. It relates her personal experiences of PGR in the writing workshop and how she in turn implemented this approach in her own classroom. Evidence was obtained from Jasmine's reflective journal, individual and group interviews, and her response to teacher surveys and questionnaires.

Jasmine teaches in a large rural school of 370 students from years 1–6. The school draws its student base from a relatively affluent community of professional and business people. Jasmine is regarded by her principal as an experienced and successful teacher and was appointed to a literacy leadership role in the school. Her class was a group of year 2 students (six-year-olds) beginning their second year at school. In this group there were eight boys and ten girls. The ethnic make-up included Indian/Māori, South African, American and New Zealand Pakeha students. In terms of literacy/writing, all the children were working at level 1 of the New Zealand Curriculum English Exemplars: Written language (Ministry of Education, 2003). This first level is set out in three progressive sub-levels to demonstrate beginner writers' developmental learning progression assessed against levelled indicators. Jasmine stated that this group of children exhibited a range of writing skills and they generally had a positive self-image of themselves as writers, enjoying a range of writing tasks in the classroom.

Before the writing workshops, Jasmine herself did not identify as a writer. Outside the classroom her writing consisted mainly of personal emails, letters and shopping lists. At the outset of the workshop, she felt 'overwhelmed' and 'slightly intimidated', her pen 'frozen' as she organised her thinking. However, she felt that the situation was turned around by the safe environment of the workshop, the trust created, and the existence of guidelines and rules that set expectations of participants.

Jasmine's personal and successful experiences flowed into her classroom practices, transforming and reshaping her pedagogy.

Implementation in the classroom

In designing a new teaching intervention, Jasmine identified key learning intentions and then developed a sequential program.

She set out to:

  • build a 'listening and response' community
  • develop listening and questioning skills
  • encourage writers to consider peer suggestions
  • support the above objectives through the use of an 'author's chair' (students take the chair and read their writing, audience respond)
  • think about the written message
  • extend and elaborate on ideas by adding detail
  • vary sentence beginnings.

The first four objectives related to peer response as a way to engage students in social conversations about each other's writing. The three other learning intentions encouraged consideration of peer suggestions for self-evaluation, to critically reflect on their own scripts and employ metacognitive decisions on how to enhance their own writing.

During literature time, when reading aloud to students, she modelled fat (open-ended) questions and skinny (closed) questions. The students listened to the story and asked questions during the readings. During writing time, Jasmine called on the children to ask each other fat and skinny questions. In one interview, she noted that many of her students initially found it hard to formulate such questions, leading her to adapt her approach.

'When I went around listening to groups talking, a lot of the questions or comments were still closed … And that's why I changed it to A Star and A Wish. The Star was the compliment and the Wish was the open question … and without a doubt because of my [second] modelling of the open questions, the Wish, it was natural, not forced. They'd say, "I'd like to hear more about … ". They were mini me's … I think the open and closed questions might work with older students' (Interview, June 2010).

One of Jasmine's initial concerns had been whether her students had the maturity and cognitive ability to respond to each other's writing. Could her six-year-old students listen to, evaluate and respond to others' written texts? Her concern as to whether young writers could employ peer group response to generate further ideas and to add detail to their writing was allayed by students' progress in class:

  • The students were more active listeners; they took their roles as peers supporting each other very seriously.
  • Consistent grouping had provided a community of practice, where security and trust developed for all the writers.
  • There was a heightened awareness of the messages in writing.
  • The 'Star and Wish' structured response enabled all children to participate.
  • All of the children revisited their writing, adding further detail.
  • Further 'spillover' of this strategy initiated writing at home; parents noticed differences in their children's engagement with writing and their attitudes towards it.

In her interview, Jasmine made several points regarding the usefulness of PGR as a teaching strategy. The first was the power of peer response; the students 'took on board what their peer group said because it was coming from them'. Her second point related to the time and the explicit instruction she allowed for young writers to rework their texts, which was an unfamiliar idea to these young children. Thirdly, Jasmine noted the engagement that PGR provided for her students; the work was not onerous to them 'because it was being valued, not only by me, but because they wanted to share it with their classmates'. Not least, the result of these processes was a significant improvement in the quality of her students' writing.


The process that Jasmine engaged in throughout her workshop sessions and her personal writing experiences impacted on her professional and personal identity as a writer, enhancing her self-efficacy and strengthening her belief in herself as an author. Jasmine's low self-efficacy was challenged as she realised how peer response experiences in the writing workshops not only enhanced her self-belief as a writer, but also deepened her knowledge of the writing process. It was through her participation in the community of practice and her engagement with peer response as pedagogical process that her efficacy as a teacher of writing bloomed.


Dix, S. (2006). "What did I change and why did I do it?": Young writers revision practices. Literacy, 40(1), 3–10.

Dix, S., & Amoore, L. (2010). Becoming curious about cats: A collaborative writing project. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 33(2), 134–150.

Fitzgerald, J. (1987). Research on revision in writing. Review of Educational Research, 57(4), 481–506.

Flockton, L., & Crooks, T. (2007). National Education Monitoring Project New Zealand, writing assessment results 2006, Report 21. Dunedin, New Zealand: Educational Assessment Research Unit, University of Otago.

Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. London, UK: Heinemann.

Limbrick, L., Buchanan, P., Goodwin, M., & Schwarcz, H. (2008). Improving students' writing: The impact of teacher knowledge and student-focused practice. Set, 2, 34–38.

Locke, T., Whitehead, D., Dix, S., & Cawkwell, G. (2011). New Zealand teachers respond to the 'National Writing Project' experience. Teacher Development, 15(3), 273–291.

Ministry of Education. (2003). New Zealand curriculum English exemplars: Written language. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from http://www.tki.org.nz/r/assessment/exemplars/eng/index_e.php.

Ministry of Education & University of Auckland. (2006). Achievement in writing. A booklet in the information kit: Student achievement in New Zealand. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Pritchard, R., & Honeycutt, R. (2007). Best practices in implementing a process approach to teaching writing. In S. Graham, C. A. MacArthur & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction (pp. 28–49). New York: The Guilford Press.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Primary education
Professional development
New Zealand