In my writing classes, the formative assessment technique that
delivers the highest payoff for the smallest investment is scripted
oral peer coaching.
What is oral peer coaching?
At its most basic level, peer coaching is little more than one
student asking another, "How's your paper coming?"
By providing students with specific questions to ask, writing
teachers raise that basic, "How's it coming?" inquiry
to greater usefulness.
With a teacher-provided script for guidance,
students can talk one another through application of writing
strategies even if the questioner is not an competent or experienced
Students often find it easier to talk about writing than
to write. And in conversation, especially one on one, they don't
feel terribly uncomfortable asking, "What do you mean?"
Where's the formative assessment?
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If students do not have an answer to a question asked by a peer
when their essays are still in the formative stages, they know
they need to find an answer before they proceed much farther.
That feedback means students don't have to wait until they get
their graded essay back to learn something was missing that they
needed in order to get a passing grade.
As students go through the oral activity with a partner a few
times, they learn how to think through a writing assignment
without a partner. Thus peer coaching becomes a true collaborative
learning experience as well as a formative assessment
I had been using the this techniques for several years when I
came across a similar suggestion by
Donald L. Rubin and William M. Dodd in their 1987 book Talking
into Writing: Exercises for Basic Writers.
If you would like the benefits of using peers for formative assessment
in teaching writing without the hassle of developing your own
instruments, check out my Talk
It Out materials for writers of thesis-and-support essays.
Why peer coaching will work well
Peer coaching allows writing teachers a way to provide formative
assessment to novice writers who are most in need of individual
Teacher control. The teacher
prepares the basic script so while the students act as questioners,
they work within established parameters.
Many students find it easier to talk about what they want to write
than to prepare a plan on paper.
Each student is walked through his or her essay preparation individually.
Minimal reading. The questions
are short, focused. Even students who read poorly can learn the
drill by hearing the questions a few times.
Suitability for unskilled writers.
Students don't need highly developed writing skills to provide
useful feedback to their peers.
Peer pressure. Few students
want to look bad before their peers even on something they may
regard as silly, such as an English assignment.
Assistance. Students quickly
realize that just having someone make them think through their
writing project makes writing easier.
Socialization. Teens like
to be in a social group. Most of writing is an isolated activity.
Limited bullying potential.
Compared to other peer learning techniques, peer coaching offers
fewer opportunities for students to exert negative pressure on
Why peer coaching could fail
Like all collaborative
learning activities, peer coaching requires preparation and
Students need to see peer coaching being done. They won't learn
just from hearing about it.
Questions must be clear, concise, appropriate, and sensibly arranged.
Like all writing strategies, peer coaching has to be used often
enough that students memorize it so they don't need to consult
Inadequate supervision. Teachers
cannot pass out the script and assume students will use it correctly.
Students require supervision and feedback.
Teachers must pay attention to the social interaction between
students so one student does not dominate the coaching exchanges.