The crux of the genre: Joint Construction

This post presents a useful description of the ‘joint construction’ phase of collaborative writing, and the importance of scaffolding. I do sometimes worry however, that when I’m doing this with a class I give them a little bit too much support and appropriate their essay …

Nigel Caplan

In part 3 of my series of posts on genre-based (ESL) writing pedagogy, we arrive at the heart of the Teaching/Learning Cycle. In the first stage, the teacher guided students to analyze, or deconstruct, the target genre for its organization, purpose, and language. Now, students collaboratively write a new text in that genre. Although there are different ways to do this collaborative writing, the Australian literature in particular focuses on one activity: teacher-led, whole-class Joint Construction.

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Encouraging collaboration in the writing class

How can we encourage students to work together to produce a successful essay? Perhaps by attending to other aspects of the writing class, we accidentally create the ideal circumstances for collaboration to occur.

I was teaching a four-week writing course to intermediate level students. On the final day I needed them to work on a self-directed task so I could take each student aside to discuss their final grade and conference about the class. So I split them into groups of three and had them, collaboratively, write an essay in response to an IELTS prompt. The results were good! Clear, cohesive writing, responding appropriately to the prompt, and discussing a range of ideas. And the handwritten texts showed clear evidence of multiple revisions – crossing out, erasing – which suggested that much discussion had taken place.

Why so good? Collaboration had never been an explicit aim of the class, and this activity wasn’t being graded. I think a number of features of the previous four weeks laid the groundwork for collaboration.

  1. Happy class. We’d had a lot of fun as I’d really made an effort to run a class that was not just individually completing reading, writing and grammar activities. Most days we started with a warmer, and the best ones got them out of their seats. And as it was a smallish (maximum 16, usually fewer), closed class the students really got to know each other. The fact that it was a multinational school with a strict English-only policy helped. For a writing class there was lots discussion; whole class, groups, and pairs.
  2. Lots of revision. Students wrote one text per week (letter, email, essay, process description), and revised it four times, based on targeted feedback from me. They’d got used to the idea that writing won’t be perfect first time, which is so important for the collaborative process. And they’d been encouraged to turn to their classmates for help when they got stuck, rather than asking the teacher straight off.
  3. Familiarity with the genre. They’d already spent a week writing an essay, although in fact most students only completed a single paragraph of a larger essay, given the time constraints of the course (10 hours a week). So there was already shared knowledge in the class about the generic requirements of an essay which minimised any disagreements over structure, formality etc.

No doubt there were other contributing features too (sheer chance?) but overall I think these things helped to reduce the risk inherent in collaboration. After all, laying yourself open to possible criticism and correction by peers is a risky activity. But rapport, revision practice, and genre knowledge may have helped to reduce the risk and lead to a successful outcome.

Does country of origin have an effect on collaboration?

EFL/ESL Learners‟ Language Related Episodes LREs during Performing Collaborative Writing Tasks | Arshad Abd. Samad – Academia.edu.

The authors of this study used a similar method as I did to research ‘languaging’, or explicit talk about language, between students carrying out a collaborative writing task. They were able to gather a robust set of data by recording and transcribing the talk of four pairs of students on multiple occasions. Interestingly, as the pairs were comprised of students from either Malaysia or Iran they were able to draw some conclusions about the extent to which educational background and the status of English in the home country affected what the students discussed. The students from an EFL background that strongly emphasised grammar and translation were far more likely to talk about grammar, lexis, and mechanics.

This could be useful to know if working with a group of students from the same country of origin; or if doing collaborative activities with a mixed class it might suggest deliberately mixing nationalities to access a range of educational backgrounds. I might return to my data and look more closely at what specific students discussed and if there are any patterns linked to country of origin.

Collaborative writing activities

I’ve been doing my collaborative writing exclusively with advanced students, preparing for IELTS. Here are some ideas for other student groups.

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Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who…

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Distribution of turns

There was a question in the session on Friday about the degree to which some students dominated the discussion. Here’s a table from the presentation with more detail added. In both groups we can see there’s an uneven distribution of turns, with some students in both groups playing very little part in the discussions.

Distribution of turns, by itself, doesn’t give enough information to evaluate the quality of discussion. That’s why I did a more detailed analysis of a ten minute section of the transcript from session 3. It looks from the table as if S2 is dominating the discussion. However, analysing the speech functions showed that the majority of utterances by S1 were declarative and imperative – usually supplying content – S2 was mostly acknowledging, agreeing or asking for clarification. That said, as was shown by the extract in the presentation, S2 also corrected errors and supplied content, so the roles are not as clear cut as speech functions alone would suggest.

Session 1 [27 mins writing] Session 3 [54 mins writing]
# of turns per S %  [turns per min] # of turns per S %  [turns per min]
S1 = 70 47%  [2.6] S1 = 175 36%  [3.2]
S2 = 52 35%  [1.9] S2 = 193 40%  [3.6]
S3 = 27 18%  [1] S3 = 102 21%  [1.9]
S4 = 14 3%  [0.3]
Total = 149 [5.5 turns per min] Total = 484 [9.0 turns per min]