Typically writing classrooms are quiet. People often regard writing as a personal and solo activity, intense and full of concentration. It does not have to be this way.
Collaborative classrooms are vibrant, interactive and tick all four boxes of speaking, writing, reading and listening in literacy. It is certainly possible for students to work together when writing.
What’s more, the benefits are huge: ‘individuals are able to achieve higher levels of learning and retain more information when they work in a group rather than individually’. Gokhale (1995)
Most importantly, however, collaborative learning engages students and makes learning far more efficient and enjoyable.
Verbal is vital
While physical writing is seen as an important part of the literacy process, speaking and listening are often not valued as highly. However, the National Curriculum stresses that, ‘language, verbal or non-verbal, is critical for the development of literacy skills’ (ACARA).
Orality is a common theme in academic research worldwide. ‘An important, albeit obvious, early marker needs to be entered here that listening and speaking are the roots of reading and writing.’ (www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/1175/Rose_Review.pdf)
In the USA, an addendum was added to the Common Core curriculum, highlighting the need for teachers to focus more strongly on verbal literacy. ‘Reading, writing, speaking, and listening should span the school day from K–12 as integral parts of every subject.’
Talk is a vital scaffold for writing for all students; it is the first step in literacy. It is also particularly important for students from ESL (EAL/D) backgrounds and those with learning difficulties.
Collaborative writing lesson
Here is an example of a collaborative writing lesson on writing a Tightening Tension™ scene in narratives.
Imagine. One topic. Four students. Their heads are close. They are engaged, interested and on task.
The topic is a churchyard (or graveyard) late at night.
They are all contributing ideas. One of them is quickly recording the ideas. The others are talking even faster, thinking, brains working freely. Here’s what they might be saying…
Names, births and deaths carved in stone
Broken bricks in grass
Breath coming fast
Cold, too cold on skin
Trees or bushes
Cobwebs on skin
Coat hugged tighter
Fear, bitter in mouth
Strange tingling on tongue
Jonquils – too sweet, and out of season
Something old, very old
New mown grass
Then comes the call: TIME’S UP! The brainstorming all stops. Kids suddenly scramble to their desks, hauling out paper, grabbing pens. Ready, set, WRITE!
In 30 seconds they are writing furiously. No hesitation, no resistance.
For four minutes they write. They are passionate and confident. Then come the words: STOP writing.
They groan in frustration, and refuse to look up. But gradually, finally they finish their last sentence, sit back and smile with pride.
Given the brainstorming above, here’s what students might have written in just four minutes.
If only I hadn’t been late home, I would never have taken a short cut through the churchyard.
The night was cold, far too cold. I hugged my coat tighter around me. It was weirdly dark too. There were all these shadows around me, tombstones and monuments of people long dead. Names, births, deaths…and now the broken bricks and long grass tells the true story – they are forgotten.
If only I had started home earlier. It would not have been so dark. And so cold…
The wind picked up, cutting through me. I smelt fresh mown grass, someone was paid to care. But over it all was a smell of sweetness. Too sweet.
I put my head down and walked faster.
Then the scream pierced the darkness. Heart pounding, I ran.
If only, if only, if only…
Writing does not have to be silent
Writing is brainstorming and creating first, and actually pushing the pen second. So to aid in creation, writers use collaboration as a tool. There has been a long history of this collaboration:
- Script writers for TV shows work in groups, bouncing ideas off each other, arguing over what to include, piggybacking on each other’s ideas quickly and creatively to create great shows fast.
- Remember the ‘soiree society’? Famous authors Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, or expatriate Americans living in France in the 1920s and 1930s such as Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde…they all hung out with fellow author friends and gained inspiration (and companionship) from each other.
- Modern authors gather in critique groups either in person or online, to share ideas, inspiration and get feedback on their latest work. For example, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Australia: http://www.scbwiaustralianz.com/our-blog/2016/3/31/online-critique-group-update.
Compare this style of writing to the ‘cone of silence’ where we give students a topic, don’t let them talk and ask them to write individually for a whole lesson. We have given them few support structures and no way to tap into the help and creativity of others.
A collaborative classroom
- 3–4 is the optimal size of groups.
- Lower ability students work better in mixed groups.
- Medium ability students are best placed with peers of their own ability.
- Higher ability students are not affected by the mix of the group according to research. Lou, Y., Others (1996)
In collaborative classrooms, group members are intensely curious about what their fellow students have written. Taking the writing back to the group is an essential part of the process. After writing, students read out or pass their work to other group members. The benefits of this are enormous:
- It is a form of publication where writing is shared and celebrated. Enthusiastic faces nodding, smiling and laughing at humour…these are all forms of feedback that real authors never get.
- Students learn from each other: ‘Hey, I loved the way you used dialogue there. I’m going to use that too.’
- Students are analysing each other’s writing – some good, some not so strong. This gives them a basis for comparison and learning.
- Engagement is dramatically increased. Compare the passive nature of ‘students write, teacher corrects’ with the dynamic nature of sharing students’ work. Sharing in groups IS the assessment and the feedback and it comes from multiple people rather than just one teacher.
Sharing effort and product is an important part of collaboration and a great way to improve students’ writing.
Teachers are often concerned that students will ‘steal ideas’ from each other. However, you will be surprised at how students can take the same material and shape it according to their own skill sets and experience into something completely different.
Try out the sample lesson on Tightening Tension™ (see link below) and see the extraordinary diversity of writing that comes from each student – even if they were part of the same group.
The positive impact of collaboration
The positive impact of a collaborative classroom is that it increases student engagement and improves their results. Research has shown that when students work collaboratively they learn more, retain more and have a far more positive attitude towards learning. They also have a lot more enjoyment and engagement every day in their classes.
As teachers we don’t want to just ‘stand and deliver’ information. Students love to know that we have the confidence to allow them to be active learners and that we trust them to learn, listen and share with each other throughout the learning process.
To access the sample lesson on Tightening Tension™ go to: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/lessonplans/.
For more collaborative lesson plans become a member of Seven Steps Online: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.