Cooperative Learning in English Writing Instruction through
Aichi Prefectural University
This paper reports the use of peer feedback (or response) in English writing instruction at a university in Japan. In peer feedback, students receive feedback about their writing from their peers. The use of peer feedback is justified by numerous concepts in education, such as the process approach to the teaching of writing, Vygotskian sociocultural theory, and the well-established role of student-student interactions in second language acquisition theory (Liu & Hansen, 2002). Peer feedback also fits well with the five basic principles of cooperative learning proposed by Johnson and Johnson (1998): positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face promotive interaction, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing. In peer feedback, students are expected to have opportunities to work collaboratively with peers and to improve their writing abilities individually. Furthermore, when students learn collaborative skills with which to work with one another, their peer feedback session can be more effective (Murphy & Jacobs, 2000).
Despite its expected strengths, however, the use of peer feedback is still a controversial issue in English writing pedagogy and research. Little is known about its effectiveness empirically, especially in English as a foreign language (EFL) classrooms. Previous research, mainly done in English as a second language (ESL) settings, reported mixed findings. Mangelsdorf (1992), for example, found both advantages and problems students perceived with peer feedback. The study examined what 40 advanced students thought about peer feedback in a freshman composition course at an American university. On one hand, the students considered peer feedback especially beneficial in improving the content of compositions. On the other hand, they did not trust peer feedback due either to student inability to critique peers’ texts or to student disinterest in the texts. More specifically, Carson and Nelson (1996) pointed to its problems with ESL students from East Asia, who did not have much experience with collaborative learning. Furthermore, Zhang (1995) reported that students preferred teacher feedback to peer feedback.
Nevertheless, the use of peer feedback in EFL writing courses is becoming common (e.g., Hirose, 2001), and empirical research on its effectiveness has started to emerge. The present study is in line with such emerging empirical research.
The Present Study
This study aimed to explore how Japanese university students with no prior peer feedback experience interacted with each other using peer feedback in a semester-long English writing course. The study also aimed to explore what the students focused on with each other in peer feedback activities.
The participants were 15 Japanese university students (1 male and 14 females) in an intact English writing class taught by the author. They were fourth-year students (age=22) whose major was other than English, such as French, Spanish, German, and Chinese, in the Faculty of Foreign Studies. The course was an elective English writing course that was required only of those who intended to gain a teaching certificate of English. (One student passed a highly competitive teacher employment test and became an English teacher upon graduation.) Thus, the students were heterogeneous in terms of academic major, but they were homogeneous in terms of English proficiency and motivation to take the course. Their English proficiency levels ranged from intermediate to advanced, the majority of them belonging to the high-intermediate level.
A pre-course questionnaire ensured that no students had previously experienced peer feedback activities as implemented in the course.
The course met once a week for 90 minutes over a semester. For 12 weeks, prior to each class, the students were required to write a minimum one-paragraph long composition. They were free to choose any topic on which to write. The first half of the class time (45 minutes) was spent on peer feedback activities based on the writing assignments, while the other half was spent studying a course book that dealt specifically with forms of paragraph organization such as time order and cause and effect.
In every class, they exchanged writing assignments with new partners and experienced in English both spoken and written feedback activities during pair work. In pairs, the students filled out and then exchanged a one-page A4-sized reader response sheet with each other (see Appendix for a reduced version of the peer feedback sheet). After reading the partner’s responses, each pair was free to talk about any topic that emerged from each other’s compositions and responses. The students spent approximately a quarter of the class time (about 20 minutes) reading each other’s compositions and writing feedback, and another quarter was spent providing spoken feedback.
Both spoken and written feedback data were collected for the present study. The students wrote responses to their partners’ compositions in English. The copies of student feedback sheets were the written feedback data. The spoken feedback portion of each class was videotaped by a research assistant, and a portion of each peer interaction was collected as spoken feedback data.
This paper focuses on analysis of the written feedback data in order to examine what and how each student reacted in response to peers’ compositions. Video excerpts of their spoken interactions will be used to supplement the analysis of written data.
Results and Discussion
The students’ written and spoken feedback data showed not only the dynamic interactions between peers but also variations in such interactions. The students’ feedback covered multiple functions such as asking questions, giving additional related information, making suggestions, and reacting (responding) to numerous aspects of their peers’ compositions. The results also suggest that peer feedback is a promising activity for students to work cooperatively, benefit from each other, and improve their writing or, more broadly, communication skills in English. From pedagogical viewpoints, many other methods of peer feedback ought to be devised to facilitate student-student interactions that will increasingly aid students in becoming more skillful peer reviewers.
Carson, J., & Nelson, G. (1996). Chinese students’ perceptions of ESL peer response group interaction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 5, 1-19.
Hirose, K. (2001). Realizing a giant first step toward improved English writing: A case in a Japanese university. In I. Leki (Ed.), Academic writing programs (pp. 35-46). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1998). Learning together and alone: Cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning (5th edition). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Liu, J., & Hansen, J. (2002). Peer response in second language writing classrooms. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Mangelsdorf, K. (1992). Peer reviews in the ESL composition classroom: What do the students think? ELT Journal, 46, 274-284.
Murphy, T., & Jacobs, G. M. (2000). Encouraging critical collaborative autonomy. JALT Journal, 22, 228-244.
Zhang, S. (1995). Reexamining the affective advantage of peer feedback in the ESL writing class. Journal of Second Language Writing, 4, 209-22.