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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer

Throughout the writing process, peer response can help young adolescents develop as thinkers and writers. In this session, participants explore strategies for structuring peer interactions and for teaching students to respond positively and productively to each other's work.

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Overview Workshop 7

Peer responses provide a tremendous learning opportunity for young writers. These interactions help students with topic generation and idea development, increase their confidence about sharing their work, force them to look more objectively at their own writing, give them valuable feedback for possible revisions, and allow them to learn from the writing successes and challenges of their peers. Peer response also helps students learn how to give constructive feedback to others, an important life skill.

“Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer” visits the classrooms of three teachers—fifth-grade teacher Jack Wilde, seventh-grade teacher Velvet McReynolds, and eighth-grade teacher Vivian Johnson—to explore various ways that teachers can structure student interactions, from whole-class responses to informal writing partnerships.

The video highlights teaching strategies that help students learn how to respond appropriately and meaningfully to each other’s writing. Both Jack and Velvet model response using their own writing, and Jack and his students demonstrate how a whole-class response to an individual writer can help all the students hone their conferencing skills. We also sit in as Jack facilitates a small response group, another way of helping students learn how to respond to each other’s writing effectively.

“Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer” abounds with classroom examples of students interacting with each other. It also features interview segments with the three teachers, as well as comments from Linda Rief, an eighth-grade English teacher and the author of Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 7

In this workshop, you will see effective practices for helping students respond to each other as writers. These practices include the following:

  • Teachers recognize that peer conferences not only contribute to better writing but also validate students and build respect and responsibility in a community of writers. Teachers carefully create conditions for peer conferences in which the students feel safe as writers and as respondents. The workshop shows students engaged in their work as writers, participating in a positive atmosphere.
  • Through peer response, students experience an authentic reader of their writing, a reader other than the teacher and a reader who is important to them. This experience stimulates students’ interest in writing—and in revising. It also helps students develop reader awareness, an important skill in writing.
  • In peer conferences, students focus on their drafts and try to improve them; however, the teachers’ goals are not merely to help the students develop better pieces of writing but also to help students develop as writers. Teachers’ explanations focus on strategies and skills that students can apply when writing other pieces. The practices used in the peer conferences help students gain more independence in their thinking about writing. Though students in a small-group peer conference focus on the work of one author, the discussion indirectly helps the other students as they apply ideas to their own writing.
  • Peer conferences are organized in different ways—for example, whole-class response to a peer, small-group response (three to four students), response between writing partners, and teacher-mentored small-group response. Sometimes teachers determine the groups, and sometimes students decide with whom they will work. Partners or groups may work together for a relatively long period of time, or the make-up of the group may vary. Even in classes led by highly experienced teachers, problems occur in groups, and teachers, as well as students, may change the groups to help students.
  • Teachers establish a methodical procedure for peer conferences. They model response and conduct mini-lessons on how to respond effectively and with respect. They also schedule regular times for students to share their writing with each other. Routines may vary, but a typical approach is for the student author to read the draft aloud and raise specific questions. Students may record their responses on a feedback sheet or sticky note and refer to these notes as they discuss the work with the author. In their responses, classmates identify what they think is going well and address the author’s questions. To preserve the writer’s ownership of his or her work, classmates phrase their responses in terms of possibilities for change. As peers discuss a piece, the writer often takes notes to help with revision. The writer may end the exchange by explaining plans for change.
  • As students work together on their writing, the teacher circulates, asks questions, offers suggestions, and listens. Sometimes, the teacher calls attention to a student’s work and asks the student to read and talk about changes and the advice offered by classmates. Mini-lessons often are based upon what teachers observe in peer conferences.
  • Teachers often model response by reading a piece they have written themselves, and then leading the students in responding to the draft. Teachers are genuine in asking questions about their work. They listen carefully and often emphasize principles and language that can help students work with their own writing. Teachers also model a positive attitude; they are not defensive when advice is offered, and they demonstrate that writers consider the views of readers but also assume ownership of their work. In modeling their writing, teachers often use the overhead projector and/or provide copies, so that students not only hear the work read aloud, but also see and read it themselves. Students, too, can be asked to model for the class, reading their drafts aloud and asking for response.
  • Aware of the pressure students usually feel in responding to each other, teachers take steps to reduce the pressure or risk in a peer conference. Modeling and establishing a routine are important ways to help students feel less pressure and be more open in discussing writing. Teachers often arrange classroom furniture to foster discussion. One of the most important ways to reduce the pressure is for the teacher to affirm students’ accomplishments in peer conferences. The workshop showcases students who enjoy their experience in writing and in talking with classmates about writing. Teachers consciously foster such a positive experience.
  • Teachers do not assume that students automatically will be effective in peer conferences. They intentionally coach the students, they conduct mini-lessons, and they also set aside time to help students reflect on conferences. These discussions call attention to the results of revision based on peer conferences. Teachers affirm the value of writing, and help students practice a “writer’s language,” which helps students think about their own writing.

Related Reading

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Vivian Johnson

Vivian Johnson and a peer group respond to a student’s poem.

Vivian Johnson‘s eighth-grade students respond to each other’s writing both formally and informally, in pairs, in small groups, and as a class.

At the beginning of the year, Vivian uses humor to illustrate good conference manners by modeling what a bad conference looks like—the responder appears distracted, fails to listen, and is rude and obnoxious in other ways. After a discussion of the actual characteristics of an effective conference, Vivian relies on lots of practice to help her students become more successful in responding to their peers’ writing.

Vivian’s classroom segments in Workshop 7 include examples of pair conferences, small-group response, and whole-class response as well as her use of a technique adapted from Linda Rief’s book Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents, which uses a conference form and sticky notes to allow many students to write responses to a single piece of writing.

Velvet McReynolds' Lesson

Velvet McReynolds’ students apply a mini-lesson on revision.

Velvet McReynolds’ Lesson

Graphic organizers and acronyms are often helpful tools for students as they acquire new skills. To introduce peer conferencing, Velvet McReynolds uses the acronym PATS (Praise, Ask a question, Tell what stuck in your mind, Suggest a change for improvement), a response protocol that gives her students an anchor in unfamiliar waters.

To familiarize the class with the PATS technique and with responding to writing in general, Velvet relies on another successful instructional strategy—sharing her own writing. Velvet reads a draft of a personal narrative and then uses PATS to solicit feedback. After modeling the peer conference, Velvet organizes the students into pairs. Then the students share and respond to each other’s writing using the PATS technique.

Materials for Velvet McReynolds' Lesson

  • PATS Form – Praise, Ask a question, Tell what stuck in your mind, Suggest a change for improvement (pdf)
  • PATS handout (pdf)

Velvet McReynolds' Reflections

Peer conference organizer
“PATS helps, because it actually tells you what to say.”

Read the transcript of Velvet RcReynolds’ reflections.

Jack Wilde's Lesson

Jack uses the whole class to model peer conferencing.

Jack Wilde employs an intentional approach to teaching his fifth-grade students to respond to each other’s writing. His practice includes using reader’s/writer’s notebooks to respond to literature, modeling response during class read-alouds, using his own writing to model response, having the whole class respond to pieces of student writing, setting up adult-mentored conference groups, and pairing the students into independent response partnerships. By November—the time his class was videotaped—Jack’s students are comfortable with peer conferences. However, Jack is still using all the strategies listed above to help his students learn to respond more effectively and independently.

Workshop 7 features extensive classroom footage of four of these strategies—Jack using his own writing as a response model, a whole class response to a student’s piece, an example of a response group comprised of four students and facilitated by Jack, and a peer conference featuring two students. Additionally, Jack offers insight into his methods of teaching peer conferencing and the process his students use in each conference.

Jack Wilde's Reflections

On conference protocol:
“The first thing that we’re going to do in the conference is to have it—have the focus be on what’s working, what’s effective, because that makes it safe.”

On using literature to teach conferencing techniques and conference group rules:
“I do teach them to be good listeners in the sense that we conference the books I read aloud to them at my read-aloud time.”

Grouping students for peer conferencing
“When I create the conference groups, the first thing I want to do is have gender parity.”

On the importance of teachers as part of the writing community:
“That was an authentic first draft piece of writing that I shared with my kids.”

On teaching appropriate and meaningful responses to writing:
“I think one of the things that can be hard for kids in responding to each other is feeling they’re going to hurt somebody else’s feelings… .”

On providing writers with an ongoing and authentic audience:
“So in asking them to sort of become more self-aware of what’s going on in the conferences, the first thing that my kids tend to say is that they look forward to it, that they enjoy sharing.”

Teaching students to respond to what’s effective in writing:
“There’s some talk when we start talking about what was effective in their writing.”

Read the transcript of Jack Wilde’s reflections.

Additional Resources

Note: For more resources related to conferencing and responding, consult “Additional Resources” for Workshop 6: “Responding to Writing: Teacher to Student.”

Almeda. Cheryl. “In the End All Books Are Written for Your Friends: Motivating Writing Through Peer Audiences.” In Why Workshop? Changing Course in 7-12 English, edited by Richard Bullock, 57-66. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 1998. ISBN: 1571100849.

Ammer, Jerome. “Peer Evaluation Model for Enhancing Writing Performance of Students With Learning Disabilities.” Reading and Writing Quarterly (July/September, 1998): 263.

Barron, Ronald. “What I Wish I Had Known About Peer Response Groups But Didn’t.” English Journal 80.5 (1991): 24-34.

Brady, Suzanne and Suzanne Jacobs. “Children Responding to Children: Writing Groups and Classroom Community.” In Understanding Writing: Ways of Observing, Learning, and Teaching, 2nd Edition, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Nancie Atwell. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0435084410.

Brunce-Crim, Marna. “Ready to Write. Talk It Up: Strategies for More Successful Peer Conferencing.” Instructor (May/June, 1992): 14.

Collins, Jeffrey L. “Establishing Peer Evaluation of Writing: Students Need an Informed Teacher Model.” ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 243122.

Dale, Helen. “Collaborative Research on Collaborative Writing.” English Journal 83.1 (January 1994): 66-71.

Denyer, Jenny and Debra LaFleur. “The Eliot Conference: An Analysis of a Peer Response Group.” Voices From the Middle 9.1 (September 2001): 29-39.

Duke, Charles R. and Rebecca Sanchez. “Giving Students Control Over Their Writing Assignments.” English Journal 83.4 (April 1994): 47-53.

Farnan, Nancy and Leif Fearn. “Writers’ Workshops: Middle School Writers and Readers Collaborating.” Middle School Journal 24 (May 1993): 61-65.

Fletcher, Ralph and Joann Portalupi. Craft Lessons: Teaching Writing K-8. York, MA: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998. ISBN: 1571100733.

Freeman, Marcia. “Modeling an Efficient Peer Conference: Managing the Daily Writing Workshop.” [videotape] ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 432012.

Gillis, Candida. “Writing Partners: Expanding the Audiences for Student Writing.” English Journal 83.3 (March 1994): 64-38.

Green, Robert. “Behind Their Backs: Proximity and Insult in Student Response.” In Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing, edited by Amy Bauman and Art Peterson, 281-293. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project, 2002. ISBN: 1883920183.

Hillebrand, Romana P. “Control and Cohesion: Collaborative Learning and Writing.” English Journal 83.1 (January 1994): 62-66.

Hughes, Judy. “It Really Works: Encouraging Revision Using Peer Writing Tutors.” English Journal 80.5 (1991): 41-42.

Hughes, Richard D. “Falling Off the Skateboard: Experimenting With Peer Conferences” In Why Workshop? Changing Course in 7-12 English, edited by Richard Bullock, 78-91. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 1998. ISBN: 1571100849.

Kerr, Jo-Anne. “Listening in on the Language of Collaboration in a Writing Workshop.” Middle School Journal 30.1 (Sept. 1998): 3-8.

Kirby, Dan, Tom Liner, and Ruth Vinz. Inside Out: Developmental Strategies for Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988.

Kletzien, S. B. and L. Baloche. “The Shifting Muffled Sound of the Pick: Facilitating Student-to-Student Discussion.” Journal of Reading 37.7 (1994): 540-545.

“Making Writing Conferences Fun and Productive With ‘Three Pluses and a Wish.'” Curriculum Review (May 1996): 10.

Manning, Maryann. “Peer Content Conferences.” Teaching Pre K-8 (February 2002): 91-94.

McManus, Ginger and Dan Kirby. “Using Peer Group Instruction To Teach Writing.” English Journal 77.3 (March 1988): 78-80.

Neubert, Gloria and Sally McNelis. “Peer Response: Teaching Specific Revision Strategies.” English Journal 79.5 (Sept. 1990): 52-57.

“Peer Conferencing and Writing Revision: A Study of the Relationship.” ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 260392.

Reisin, Gail. “Learning by Sharing Graded Papers.” English Journal 79.5 (September 1990): 62-65.

Rhodes, Lynn K. and Curt Dudley-Marling. Readers and Writers With a Difference: A Holistic Approach to Teaching Learning Disabled and Remedial Students. 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0435072153.

Schaffer, Jane. “Peer Response That Works.” Journal of Teaching Writing 15.1 (1996): 81-89.

Silver, Kathi O. “The Extended Conference: A Technique To Encourage Writing.” English Journal 78.1 (January 1989): 24-28.

Spear, Karen. Sharing Writing: Peer Response Groups in English Classes. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. ISBN: 0867091894.

Steinlage, Theresa M. “Getting the Wrinkles Out: Students Become Their Own Editors.” English Journal 79.5 (September 1990): 60-62.

Stemper, Julie. “Enhancing Student Revising and Editing Skills Through Writing Conferences and Peer Editing.” ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED165187.

Vatalaro, Paul. “Putting Students in Charge of Peer Review.” Journal of Teaching Writing9.1 (1990): 21-29.

Williams, Tom. “The Gift of Writing Groups.” English Journal 79.4 (April 1990): 58-61.

Zemelman, Steve and Harvey Daniels. A Community of Writers: Teaching Writing in the Junior and Senior High School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0435084631.