Key Words: writing
Learner English Level: Low intermediate through advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High school through adult
Preparation Time: Varies
Activity Time: Varies
One fear that plagues many writers, especially those writing in a foreign language, is letting someone other than the teacher read what they have written, especially for the purpose of correction. As teachers of English composition, we should be concerned with this anxiety since students who are hesitant to let others read their writings cannot benefit from peer evaluation. The following three activities beguile students into writing for each other lightheartedly so they eagerly read and necessarily act on what others have written.
1. Circulating Sentences (and Paragraphs)
Students should be arranged in circles. The circles' sizes are not particularly important although the larger the circle, the more writings that will be read and students that will participate. Each student should have a piece of paper on which s/he will write a sentence to be passed on down the line; a story will result from the work of groups of authors. Ask students to think a bit about where they expect their opening sentences to lead. As the students write, encourage them to correct any mistakes they come across. In particular, send unintelligible or incomplete sentences back, time permitting; otherwise, strike them out and replace with better sentences. In general, the person corrected will not really "see" the correction, as s/he is busy writing, and mistakes are rarely so severe as to require them to be returned to the writer. While bottlenecks occur, they rarely stop the activity; really bad bottlenecks can be dealt with by either assisting the slow student or passing a few notebooks on, minus a sentence. Short time limits can help as well, perhaps two minutes to exchange notebooks, read the new one, correct, compile thoughts, and write a sentence. After a certain number of sentences, have students stop and read aloud the "story" they have in hand. They should be encouraged to explain what kind of story they expected to develop from the beginning sentence.
A number of constraints can be placed on the authors; for example, you might require that each sentence have an adverbial or relative clause. Some teachers might opt to require a short paragraph from each student. Circles could be very small, requiring each student to add something two or three times so as to have a higher degree of consistency. Lastly, a set number of sentences could be specified, the final one being as sound a concluding sentence as possible.
The activity is simple and enjoyable. It can be time-consuming regarding moving into circles and the number of sentences produced, but students enthusiastically read and expand on others' works. In small classes where students know one another quite well, they might even provide suggestions for improvement after the activity is finished.
2. Drawing from Written Descriptions
Many students have trouble describing things adequately. The following activity requires students to describe objects in small groups for an audience that must then draw the objects described.
Arrange students into groups of three, each student with a notebook or piece of paper. Distribute two or three objects that require some amount of detail to each group; unusual objects and "found art" are best since there is no context on which to draw, necessitating descriptions. I have successfully used, among other things, a cigarette rolling machine and jaw harp. The members should work together to confer about and describe each object; each group will produce as many descriptions of its object(s) as there are members.
Groups exchange descriptions, making sure that the group receiving the descriptions doesn't see any of the objects described. The group members now read aloud and begin drawing from the descriptions. Member should work together to make their drawings as uniform as possible. They should likewise note, in the anonymity of the group, any shortcomings in the descriptions, such as the omission of the object's length or misspellings. When they finish, they should take the descriptions back to the respective group to compare drawings and objects. Usually the students are in a good enough mood, from curiosity, to explain aspects of the descriptions that were lacking.
3. Hidden Sentence
Supply each student with a bit of scrap paper on which to write three sentences. The ideal sentence should be complex, with an independent and a dependent clause, but not too difficult or too long. The sentences are collected and put into a pile from which each student should randomly draw one.
The students must now read their sentences and incorporate them into a paragraph in such a way as to "hide" the chosen sentence. Difficult or bad sentences can be discarded and new ones drawn. The students should begin writing their paragraphs, making sure not to change their sentences or turn them into topic sentences. Once most of the students have completed enough sentences to have a fair paragraph, stop them. Student then exchange notebooks to look for the "hidden sentence"; students who find their own sentences hidden in the paragraphs should alert the instructor to receive a different paragraph. Then, students should correct any problems and underline suspect sentences.
This exercise encourages students to use their top-down knowledge to create valid contexts for potentially unfamiliar topics. They likewise relish the challenge of finding "hidden sentences."
All three activities help prepare students to accept peer reading advice.