The Power of Peer Conferring

May 21st, 2015

If you are thinking about introducing peer conferences into your writing workshop, Mark Overmeyer has some advice for you! His new book, Let’s Talk! is full of ideas on how to make conferences more manageable and meaningful.

The Power of Peer Conferring
By Mark Overmeyer

lets-talkStudents should be encouraged to confer with one another about their writing. But if peer conferring is not carefully framed for students, some unintentional things may happen.

If your writers think that working with a peer is an opportunity to “be the teacher,” there may be some negative side effects. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a young child. Whenever I had the opportunity to work with a partner, I tended to be a bit bossy. And because I desperately wanted to “teach” something, I would make things up if I had nothing to offer. So, if asked to work with a peer in writing, I loved marking his or her paper up and giving it some kind of score or grade. My desire to be a teacher led me to take over the writing for another student, which, of course, did not help the writer at all.

Here are some tips for making peer conferences successful for all students:

Suggest that peers question and wonder rather than jump straight to giving advice.

Peers might be more successful at asking questions of one another than giving advice, especially early in a peer-conferring experience. After a writer shares, the reader might ask a few clarifying questions that can then nudge the writer to think of more details to add. I find that peers have more authentic wonderings because they often experience the world in the same way as their peers. They might ask better clarifying questions than an adult because they have less experience with filling in the blanks of a slightly confusing narrative.

Make the roles of reader/listener and writer clear.

The reader/listener can begin by praising the writer for something specifically accomplished, followed by suggestions. It is perhaps best to think of these offerings as “suggestions” rather than “teaching points,” because successful peer conferences require the writer to make final decisions about what to add, delete, or change based on peer suggestions. In a teacher-student conference, it is more likely that a teacher will actually require a writer to try something to improve the writing, because the teacher’s role includes helping the student to become a more flexible writer. In a peer conference, however, the writer has to make the final decision about what advice to take and what changes, if any, to make.

Let the writer take the lead.

Another way to increase the success of a peer conference is to ask the writer to begin by writing on a sticky note where he or she thinks support is needed. If the writer sets the agenda for the conference, he or she is more likely to receive helpful advice from the peer reader.

Focus on content, not grammar and mechanics.

One key to successful peer conferences is to ask students to focus on content rather than on conventions. All writers in your classroom have the advantage of having lived as long as their peers in your class. They have similar life experiences in the sense that fourth graders see the world through fourth-grade eyes, not through adult eyes. When the focus is on content and not on conventions, I no longer have to worry about grouping a “strong” writer with a “struggling” writer. These kinds of labels limit expectations for writers in general, but they can cause particular harm in a peer conference. When setting up peer conferences, I am careful about grouping students together for the purposes of supporting one another but not based on my assumptions about the levels of their writing. Remember what Carl Anderson says about writing conferences: they provide an opportunity for conversation. I firmly believe that all of my students can engage in meaningful conversations about their work if the focus is on content.

The biggest danger in allowing peers to provide advice on conventions is that students tend to take their friends’ advice, even if it is wrong. A peer may unknowingly “help” a fellow writer by correcting a mistake that wasn’t an error to begin with. Editing for conventions is the work of the writer, with the support of the teacher—not the work of his or her peers.

Make peer conferences a choice, not a requirement.

I believe in the power of peer conferences, but once they are established and students can meet with peers independently, I do not require students to confer for every piece of writing. My writers need to know that although it is okay to seek advice from a peer at any stage of the writing process, it is also okay to continue writing without seeking support. I find that, when given a choice, students work with peers in more meaningful and authentic ways because they aren’t doing so to please me or to meet the requirement on a checklist. They are meeting with a peer because they want to meet with another writer.

Debrief with students about the benefits and potential pitfalls of peer conferences.

If you want to know how peer conferences are working in your classroom, go directly to the source: ask your students. After a few rounds of peer conferences, you might gather your students and ask for their honest feedback about the opportunity to talk with their peers. Consider asking questions like, “What do you think about peer conferences? What is working? What might make it better?”

Make sure you encourage students to speak in positive terms, and do not allow them to name the peers they worked with as writing partners. This is why I suggest that you debrief after a few sessions of practicing peer conferences. If you debrief after only one opportunity for peers to work together, some students may feel singled out. They may interpret their partners’ comments as a negative reflection on them.

Students might be given a few language frames to help with this debrief:

“One thing that helps me as a writer is when the reader . . .”

“The kind of advice that helped me the most was when . . .”

“It would have been better if . . .”

When used effectively, peer conferences are a powerful tool for creating more independent, motivated writers in your classroom. An added benefit is that students tend to use more age-appropriate voice in their writing. When students confer only with me, my writing biases tend to bleed through: I love descriptive writing and the use of dialogue. I don’t know much about how to infuse humor. I struggle with passive voice, so sometimes I don’t even notice that writers are not using active verbs. Allowing peers to work together on their writing content lets them grow in ways I can’t provide as just one voice offering praise and advice.

Entry Filed under: Writing

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