My last column discussed how teachers might establish an overall supportive environment that encourages students to revise their writing. I suggested that you first teach your students the purpose of revising: To send the reader a clear message.
For skilled writers to revise their work so their message is clear, focused, and precise takes considerable time. Once students understand the purpose of revising, they need to learn how to revise—an excellent teaching strategy for accomplishing this reflective dialog. Thus, this column will show you how to create and encourage reflective dialog between you and your students, and between students themselves.
The Need for Reflective Dialog
Once students understand the purpose of revising, you need to structure your writing workshop to create opportunities for writers and readers to come together and discuss the clarity of a written piece.
Often, when students finish their initial drafts, they think their job is done—their written piece is perfectly clear. Not surprisingly, they’re usually wrong.
The only way to know is their piece is clear is to have someone else read the piece and to provide detailed feedback about its meaning. Thus, you need to establish a feedback system that makes extensive use of mini-conferences.
Mini-conferences can provide feedback from a variety of sources: yourself, peers, or even outside experts. Feedback from these sources is essential, as it becomes the momentum for revising. Most likely, it provides students with new ways of looking at their work. It challenges their assumptions about clarity. It may also challenge their assumption about the message they want to send.
The overall structure of conferencing is a read-respond-revise cycle. One effective way of arranging this process is peer-conferencing.
Because many students consider only the sound of their voice when they write, they need to hear other voices discuss what they have written. In many classrooms, teachers attempt to provide that voice through conferences. This is a great strategy; however, because of the large numbers of students in their classrooms, teachers cannot provide all the feedback and reflection needed. It’s physically impossible. If this is your situation, a solution is available: Spread out the labor. Develop reflective critics in your class by teaching your students how to talk to each other about their writing in peer conferences.
A peer conference is an interactive dialog between writers. Its effectiveness depends on initially following this format.
Two students conference with the teacher.
One student is the author and the other the critic. The author provides the critic and the teacher a copy of his composition to read. (Don’t be put off by the label of “critic”; it’s a valid title for a professional who is skilled in analyzing writing.)
The teacher and critic silently read the composition. While reading, they underline ambiguities.
The critic then asks the author to explain and perhaps elaborate on the ambiguities.
The teacher prompts the critic to provide possible suggestions.
The teacher assists the critic to articulate questions.
The teacher assists the author by suggesting revisions.
When the critic is finished, the teacher may make suggestions for tricky areas the critic may have missed.
The author and the critic then switch roles and repeat the cycle.
The students then make the recommended revisions and return individually for a second conference with the teacher only.
If students are crafting a long or complex piece, repeat the cycle.
For each piece of writing, repeat this cycle at least once.
Since initially students will need considerable support or scaffolding, you will have to be extremely involved in the conferences; but as students become comfortable and adept at conferencing, you can step back and let the pairs work independently. Here, your role is to monitor and, if needed, to provide support.
An interactive peer conference dialogue cycle offers your writers several advantages. It helps them find errors, fix awkward sentences, clarify meaning, and craft solutions (Wong, Butler, Ficzere, & Kuperis, 1997). It provides valuable insight into the roles of audience and critic (Marchisan & Alber, 2001). Finally, it helps students learn to better understand their thoughts and begin to write from another’s perspective (Wong et al, 1997).
Marchisan, M. L. & Alber, S. R. (2001). The write way: Tips for teaching the writing process to resistant writers. Intervention in School and Clinic, 36, 154 – 162.
Wong, B. Y. L., Butler, D. L, Ficzere, S. A., & Kuperis, S. (1997). Teaching adolescents with learning disabilities and low achievers to plan, write, and revise compare and contrast essays. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 12, 2 – 15.
Bruce Saddler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology Department, Division of Special Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His current research interests include writing disabilities, self-regulation, and inclusion.