Collaborative Writing for Academic English
Jonathan is an English language teacher at Insearch: University of Technology Sydney, a pathway to university centre. Jonathan has worked in the education industry for over a decade. With a background in ESL, he has worked with students in a variety of educational contexts, from primary through to tertiary education. As a student of language, studying Korean language and Literature at Yonsei University in Seoul, he developed a particular interest in student motivation for language learning, exploring how and why we learn and use second languages. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our school is designed to prepare students for education in an Australian university environment. The goal is to enable students to work confidently and interact in a second language. However, there are stages in this process in which our students repeatedly seem to encounter the same road blocks. In some of these classes, students fail to progress numerous times. I felt like repeating the same teaching methodologies was not offering these students a path to success. I felt it was not their inherent language inability holding them back, but rather we needed to explore some alternative approaches to engage these students in their studies. When considering how this could be done, I was working with these types of students over the course of a year, and what emerged from classroom practice and my research, was an approach to teaching which focused on group dynamics, use of L1 languages, and peer collaboration. Below, are the results of my classroom research.
Rationale - self-evaluation & transformation of ideas
Students are usually familiar with the grammar rules they think they need to be successful in English. However, they are often unaware of their own writing limitations as they think this grammatical understanding is all they need to have success. In reality, students’ attitude towards writing, and their ability to not only plan and write, but also to evaluate their own writing are all key skills that students need to write successfully (Giridharan, 2012). There are two areas in which L2 language learners often fall short. In her research of foundation students at Curtin University, in Western Australia, Giridharan identifies that the first key contributing factor to students’ limitations with academic writing is often their inability to evaluate their own work. Myles’ (2002) research shows that the second overarching weakness of L2 language learners is that students are unable to rephrase key information and transform this information for the creation of new texts. What is needed is an approach to learning that allows students to simultaneously experiment with creating, drafting, revising and editing ideas. Given the individually-centred approach to assessment that takes place in most tertiary academic institutions, this has to involve a pedagogical approach that allows students to internalize these processes and develop their own voice (Matsuda, 2003). As Myles (2002) explains, this internalization will be associated with a gradual elimination of errors.
To develop a depth of knowledge on how this issue pertains to the students at Insearch:UTS, this research was designed to draw on multiple data sources. Semi structured interviews were used to achieve a more in-depth probing of learner perceptions and attitudes towards writing in a way that allowed for unexpected responses (Burns, 2010). Writing samples combined with assessment results were used to analyse whether an approach to teaching writing, which involved collaborative experimentation with revision, editing, and drafting, could assist in this internalization of writing skills and the desired corresponding elimination of errors. And lastly, a research journal was used to reflect on adaptations that could be made to maximise student engagement and enjoyment during these activities (Burns, 2010). Interviews were designed to assess students’ attitudes towards planning, writing, and evaluating, in an attempt to gauge students’ beliefs on what was actually being asked of them in an academic writing context, on their own understanding of what their weaknesses might be, and how they thought these weaknesses might best be addressed. The aim was to analyse how these might differ from teacher perceptions, and how these perceptions might change in response to the planned intervention.
The research was conducted over 4 cycles with each cycle pertaining to a separate five-week academic term. The students were all native Chinese speakers (a variety of Cantonese and Mandarin). The students ranged in age from 17 to 23 years old. They were all entering an undergraduate bachelor program, this being their first experience of formal education at a tertiary level. The classes ranged from 14 to 17 students, with on average a 75:25 ratio of male to female students. The students were all accepted into the course with an English level that corresponded to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR)’s criteria of between a B1 to B2 level (CEFR, 2018), with an IELTS level 5 to 5.5 in Writing (IELTS, 2018). The in-house criteria, which were used during this research project to assess these students, were developed based on a combination of these CEFR and IELT’s criteria (Hughes, 2016) (appendix A). However, an important caveat, was that the students were all repeating the course, meaning they had failed the necessary exit exams to progress to the next stage of their academic studies. The background research that was done on these students, demonstrated that this failing was usually a consequence of their inability to fulfil the necessary writing outcomes (appendix B). The students clearly demonstrated the two key weaknesses relating to academic writing which this intervention was designed to address.
Collaboration & L1 languages
To reiterate, two of the central weaknesses of L2 language learners with academic writing are students’ inabilities to evaluate their own work, and to transform information for the creation of new texts. The key idea which underlies this intervention is the idea that students can overcome both of these weaknesses through the co-creation and joint-creation of texts. A commonly accepted idea in language and literacy classrooms is the concept that a fluent understanding of a language involves the ability to take part in social conversations, whether that be in written or oral form (Hellermann, 2008). Heathfield’s idea that these conversations are not a one-way process (Heathfield, 2015) is important to academic writing. As Heathfield (2015) explains, storytelling is a co-creative act. As such, lessons which are designed to develop students’ skills in this area, should encourage students to build on each other’s responses and develop as a community of learners. A key point to keep in mind is that this intervention having the desired cognitive effect of teaching students how to both break down a complex problem into smaller components, and how to partake in effective self-evaluation, does not depend on English. In fact, whilst this may seem counter-intuitive to the idea of learning through immersion, research shows that allowing students freedom to use L1 whilst discussing and giving feedback can really aid in building both fluency and clarity of meaning (Heathfield, 2005). Therefore, when using this teaching technique, I allow students to communicate in their first language. Students’ native languages are consequently an important point to take into consideration when allocating groups.
Fostering positive group dynamics
One important factor, that plays a large role in determining the efficacy of collaborative writing, is the dynamics of pair interactions. Particularly as a tool to improve students’ evaluative abilities, a cooperative approach to pair work is important. This lesson technique involves a deconstruction, and then a collaborative reconstruction of texts, with lessoning degrees of teacher involvement and more emphasis on co-collaboration as the term progresses. Donato refers to this process as “collective scaffolding” (Donato, 1994). Storch’s (2002) research demonstrates that a huge amount of the collaborative knowledge students produce during this process is transferred into student’s individual language production. However, this process of internalisation only occurs in groups which demonstrate cooperative approaches to group work. Therefore, the role of lesson activities which can help foster positive group dynamics, cannot be underplayed. I found that allocating some time every class for building a positive group relationship, really improved my students’ outcomes. To give an example, one exercise which has become a staple of my teaching, is to employ a free speaking exercise immediately before the students’ half hour break. Students are instructed to find out one new piece of information about a partner which I do not already know. Partners are changed every day and arbitrary answers which I already know are not accepted. This really encourages the students to interact with all of their classmates in a little more depth. They often discover things about one another that genuinely interested them. Given the monolingual context, I do not discourage students from digressing into L1 language. This exercise is not intended to be a form of speaking practice, but rather I just want to foster student interaction. This exercise very often mutates into an extended discussion into the break, on varying issues that the students have far greater interest in than their assigned course materials. This proved to be an extremely useful mechanism in building more cooperative group dynamics.
A further point to take into consideration when allocating partners for pair work, is the relative abilities of each learner. A point that Storch (2002) makes is that the roles students assign to themselves and each other, as either students or teachers, are not only surprisingly fluid, but more so, are incredibly beneficial to both parties. As Allwright (1984) explains, one of the clearest ways for students to gain a better understanding of their own knowledge is through the teaching of others. Therefore, randomly assigning students to work in pairs, or even allowing students to determine their own partners, is not going to create conditions conducive to learning (Storch, 2002). Instead, teachers must carefully consider what kind of partnership is going to be most beneficial for each particular student. The issue, however, is that students are largely unaware and unwilling to accept Allwright’s idea. They often see pair work as beneficial, only when they are given an opportunity to learn from someone they consider to have an equal or greater ability than themselves. A purely anecdotal trend, which became clear during this research process, was students’ reluctance to work with classmates they deemed to be of a lesser ability to themselves, and therefore not someone whose help they thought they could benefit from. The solution, which I came up with, was to partner students in a way in which they considered the choice of partner to be arbitrary, whilst in reality I had carefully considered which students were working together. The technique I use to do this, is to start the lesson with a warmer which takes the form of a relaxed discussion. I then assign students partners based on any similarities which fit my purpose, such as shared hobbies, interests, characteristics, or areas of study. In this way, I can make decisions on how to pair students, without students feeling that they are either being punished or rewarded based on their abilities.
A simple lesson plan
This lesson is designed to help students write a problem solution essay, but it can be adapted to any text genre. The students are given a problem solution question related to a particular social or environmental issue. They are given a newspaper or journal article on this issue of approximately 1000 words in length, divided into 5 paragraphs. These texts are modified to make the language demands appropriate for an upper intermediate English language class. Students are asked to answer the question, providing evidence from the provided texts to support their ideas (appendix C). What I found during this research process was that if students are expressing ideas they understand, on topics they are familiar with, and in their own voice, they have the language skills they need to fulfil the writing requirements of this level. However, when they are asked to interpret somebody else’s text, and transform these ideas into their own ideas, these same language skills often become severely compromised. This is consistent with Myles’ (2002) research into the difficulty that L2 language learners have with transformation. What I found with my students, is that they were generally taking chunks of text from the reading, often which were not directly relevant to the question, and they were attempting to swap individual words for synonyms without understanding or being able to express what the author’s actual idea was or how it related to their essay question. Consequently, their sentence structure would go out the window. They would no longer form coherent sentences, often without any logical connections between each ‘chunk of text’ because the students themselves didn’t understand why they were using this information.
The first stage is designed to assist students with the first step of process writing: planning and outlining. Provide students with a detailed outline for the essay, which breaks down the essay question into smaller parts using simple questions (appendix D). Over the course of the term, teacher scaffolding of this outline is gradually reduced until they can come up with their own questions. Put students in groups of four. Each student is given an individual paragraph from the reading article, which can be used to answer a specific question from the outline. So, in our sample (appendix D), the first student’s paragraph would relate to global temperature change, the second melting glaciers, the third sea level rise, and the last habitat destruction. Students are given 5 minutes to read their paragraph which is then removed. As a group, they have to ask a question to the student on their right. The student then answers the question, orally, without the text in front of them, and the person who asked the question writes down their answer. Students continue this process for each member of the group. They do not have to write down coherent sentences, just the main points. This stage really helps students improve their ability to transform ideas, using their own voice.
The second stage is designed to help the students with both the second and third step of process writing: writing and evaluating. It helps students overcome many of their shortcomings with self-evaluation. Students are paired with a classmate. The first student writes a sentence, using the outline they created in stage one. Their partner then reads the sentence, and gives them feedback on any language mistakes they can see. The second student then writes the next sentence, which must logically follow on from this first sentence. Students have to collaboratively link these sentences as a pair. What I found, is that this process very often results in in-depth discussions in which the students have to really explain to their partner what they are trying to say, in order for their partner to be able to continue the same train of thought. The same process then follows on continuously with each student writing a sentence, and their partner providing feedback on language mistakes. As mentioned earlier, the intention of this exercise is to have students learn how to express their own voice when transforming written ideas. As such, students were in no way discouraged from using their native languages if it made it easier to explain themselves to their partners, as the English language production is occurring in written not oral form.
What I wanted to know, was whether collaborative writing can help students to voice evidence based ideas in their own words and to what degree could it help them improve the grammatical accuracy of their writing. I had one major concern: would students be able to internalise this process so they could reproduce it during individual writing assessments. I repeated this intervention four times through the course of a 5-week term. Each time I reduced the degree of scaffolding I provided in the outlining stage. First I provided the outline. Then we collaboratively created the outline as a class, with a good degree of teacher involvement. Then students created the outline in small groups, with some help from the teacher circulating between groups. Then finally, students created the outline in pairs, with no teacher intervention.
As mentioned earlier, students’ assessment results were collected along with samples of their writing. These were assessed using four criteria. First was content, meaning students’ ability to answer the task. Could they answer the question using their own words to express evidence based ideas? Second was structure, meaning the coherence and cohesion of their writing. How well did their sentences connect to one another? Was there a logical progression of ideas? Could they follow the overall structure of the genre? Third was vocabulary, meaning their lexical resources. Lastly, grammar, meaning the grammatical accuracy of their sentences and the ease with which their ideas could be understood. Students were graded according to the degree to which they could fulfil these criteria, ranging from an F1, meaning they had almost zero ability to achieve the required outcomes for an upper intermediate level student, through to an HD, meaning they went far behind the required outcomes of the level. As mentioned earlier, the students in my classes were all repeating the course for at least the second time. I compared the results from the previous terms writing exam, to their results for the same assessment after this intervention.
On average, the students improved their ability to fulfil all the criteria expected of them in academic writing at this level, and the most significant improvements were in content. Meaning their ability to take ideas from a prescribed text, and transform these ideas to use as evidence to answer an essay question in their own voice.
The process of orally explaining an idea to a peer was something my students found extremely beneficial in trying to find their own written voice. They found it much easier to explain complicated concepts orally rather than in written form. Not only that, but after a time, they seemed to thoroughly engage with and enjoy the process. This was reflected in their interview results, in which they expressed an easing of their anxiety towards academic writing. One of the themes that came through in their interview results was that they had found the process of peer review and peer feedback to be very helpful. A common theme was that they had previously not been able to understand why they were failing writing assessments. However, this process of peer feedback had really helped them to evaluate their own writing, almost subconsciously, and most of the students expressed a fairly clear understanding of how they thought they had improved their own writing throughout the course of the term. My observations as the teacher and researcher, confirmed both Donato’s idea of collective scaffolding (Donato, 1994), and Storch’s idea of students’ roles in pair work (Storch, 2002). It was amazing to see how well the students were able to build on one another’s ideas, and how the interplay of partners allowed them to collectively pool their strengths. The differences in their writing between the start and end of the term, indicated a clear ability for the students to internalize this collective scaffolding. Similarly, I was able to see students really cement skills they had been flirting with through the process of helping and teaching their friends. In line with these academic results, one of the most amazing observations I made, was the way in which these collaborative activities really helped to foster and built relationships in the classroom. Adopting the roles of being teacher and student, took the students outside of their comfort zone. It forced them to behave in ways they may have been previously uncomfortable with, and in doing so, it really seemed to build their confidence. Not only confidence with language, but confidence in their role as an international student in a new and unfamiliar educational environment. As such, even if the results of this research had not been so successful, I would still consider collaborative classroom activities to be an invaluable tool for teachers working with language students in international contexts.
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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). (2018). Companion Volume with New Descriptors, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/cefr-companion-volume-with-new-descriptors-2018/1680787989
Donato, R. (1994). Collective scaffolding in second language learning. In J. P. Lantolf & G. Appel (Eds.), Vgotskian approaches to second language research, Westport: Praeger
Giridharan, B. (2012). Identifying Gaps in Academic Writing of ESL Students. US-China Education Review, 6, 578 – 587
Heathfield, D. (2015). Personal and creative storytelling: telling our stories. In Maley, A., & Peachey. N. (2015). Creativity in the English language classroom, London: British Council
Hellermann, J. (2008). Social Actions for Classroom Language Learning, New York: Multilingual Matters
IELTS. (2018). Writing Task: Band Descriptors. IELTS Scoring in Detail, Retrieved August 23, 2014, from https://www.ielts.org/ielts-for-organisations/ielts-scoring-in-detail
Matsuda, P. K. (2003). Process and post-process: A discursive history. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12:1, 65 – 83
Myles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ, 6:2, Retrieved July 19, 2018, from http://tesl-ej.org/ej22/a1.html
Storch, N. (2002). Patterns of Interaction in ESL Pair Work. Language Learning, 52:1, 119 – 158
Hughes, B. (2016). Entry Benchmark Descriptors for Writing and Speaking Skills. Insearch Academic English Program: Curriculum Guide, Sydney: Insearch Limited
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