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February 28, 2010 Using Small Groups to Build Writing Skills By Justin Lim
Grades 9–12



    Writing is traditionally thought of as something to be done as an individual assignment. Students listen to a lecture, are given their writing prompts, outline their thoughts, and are then left to craft their beautifully written prose on their own. How about having students work through the writing process in small groups? As we all know, essay writing is among the most challenging of assignments that are demanded of students. Why not counteract the anxiety that some of them experience by having them work in a group of peers?

    If writing has become dry and monotonous in your class, then try changing things up with some of these tips:

    1. Use groups to brainstorm - many teachers brainstorm writing ideas as a class activity in order to help some of the weaker students to generate quality material for their essays. While this is effective to a degree, consider breaking students up into groups of 3 - 4 and have them do a group brainstorm. This has the added benefit of engaging students who are normally content to be passive observers. It also gives an opportunity for kids who have trouble opening up to a whole class to shine in a more intimate setting. In addition, using small groups gives you an opportunity to create a structure to target specific student strengths by setting up particular roles. Here is a basic setup that I use:

    • Scribe - The scribe is a student who is responsible for recording the group's discussion. Specifically, it's his job to take note of insights or conclusions that the group might have drawn in addition to how each student contributed. This document can later be collected for credit to ensure that the group is working.
    • Reporter - This individual has the responsibility of reporting to the class the ideas that the group came up with. His job is to stand up, speak clearly, and to address the class (and not just the teacher).
    • Devil's Advocate - It's this student's job to basically disagree with any argument or idea that the other students in the group come up with. It's understood that he isn't arguing his own agenda, but rather creating a forum that forces every member of the group to think critically. Also, it ensures that the discussions are more lively!

    When the group process is complete, the reporters will ensure that the weaker groups have the benefit of drawing ideas from the stronger groups. If needed, you can always list the best content on the board.

    2. Use groups to analyze - For our most recent writing assignment, I had my students not only brainstorm in groups, but also analyze the content that they would be writing on. The prompt concerned a literary analysis assignment that many of them were struggling with. I put them in their groups and had them analyze quotes from our text together. We went through the same sharing process and by the end of the exercise, when asked who felt confident about the essay, all of my students raised their hands.

    3. Use groups to peer edit - Peer editing is a powerful tool because it teaches students to be critical of their own work. Unfortunately, I've heard far to many great teachers share about how their peer editing groups ended up fizzing into mini conversation groups. The key to using small groups to peer edit is to provide structure and procedure. For instance, set up rules for when a student can share and when a student can respond. Set time limits. Give students an instruction sheet where they can organize their positive comments and their critiques. Give your kids specific roles at different stages of the process to ensure good participation. Feel free to download a structured peer editing sheet that I use below:

    Download Peer Evaluation Sheet

    Ultimately, every student has to be responsible for producing his or her own essay. After all, writing is a skill that is absolutely paramount for our kids to succeed at the next level. Small groups though, can be an engaging and fresh approach that just might help your kids to set each other up for success!

    Who else out there uses small groups to teach writing?

    Warm regards,

    Justin Lim

    Rosemead High School

    El Monte Union High School District


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