A corpus-informed approach to peer response tasks

Daniel O. Jackson, J. F. Oberlin University


Quick guide

  • Key words: writing, hedges, peer response
  • Learner English level: Advanced
  • Learner maturity level: Adult
  • Preparation time: Varies
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Sample dialogue(s), copies of a sample draft, student-prepared drafts


Contemporary approaches to teaching writing acknowledge that professional writing occurs in collaboration with others. In classrooms where students read and comment on each other’s work as an ongoing, formative assessment, spoken corpora can offer a starting point for understanding the expression of social conventions associated with the task of evaluating writing. Below I relate how writing instructors can use samples of spoken discourse in combination with writing samples to enhance peer response sessions, drawing on task-based methodological principles.


Step 1: Collect and analyze samples of spoken discourse appropriate to the task of peer response. Use these to create sample dialogues for your students. You can record and transcribe your own material or, to make the process easier, use online corpora such as the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, MICASE (Simpson, Briggs, Ovens, & Swales, 2002), accessible at <quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micase/>, from which the sample dialogues in the Appendix are adapted. For a helpful demonstration video, go to <lw.lsa.umich.edu/eli/lecture/micase/video.html>.

Step 2: Locate a writing sample for students to practice on. See if you can collect this from a former student who is willing to share.

Step 3: Decide which format will work best for presenting the material, and prepare any additional resources you will need: In my classes, I present sample dialogues using PowerPoint and a video projector.

Step 4: Your students should also bring a completed draft of an assignment.


Step 1: Explain that you are going to present examples of two people talking about an unfinished piece of writing (see Appendix). To begin, students should read the transcripts to comprehend the dialogues.

Step 2: Inform the class that hedges are words or phrases that lessen the impact of a statement. If your students speak Japanese, they will have heard the word chotto used to mitigate directness. L1 examples like this can help them quickly grasp the concept. Ask them to locate hedges in the dialogues. If they cannot, focus on form by using underlining, font changes, color changes, highlighting, animation, or a combination of these. This is easy to do using presentation software. In the Appendix, I have underlined the hedges.

Step 3: Pass out the sample draft paragraph or essay and ask students to read it and jot down comments. These can be general comments related to meaning or, if you are working on a particular feature of writing, you may want students to direct their comments toward punctuation, style, or organization, for instance.

Step 4: Pair students up and ask them to exchange their comments, alternating between reader/writer roles. Encourage them to practice hedging, reminding them that, as suggested in the sample dialogues (see Appendix), hesitation noises (um) and modal constructions (shouldn’t it be) are frequently used when pointing out misspellings, for example.

Step 5: Assess student performance by writing on the board some successful hedges you overheard.

Step 6: Invite the same pairs of students to exchange their own drafts. Repeat steps 3 through 5, above, using these drafts.

Step 7: Request that students revise their drafts based on the suggestions they receive from their partners, as you would normally do after a peer response session.


Present the dialogues using audio (or better yet, both written and aural texts), or employ similar steps to help students respond to peers’ speeches or presentations.


Peer response can cause anxiety either when the linguistic means for softening statements fall outside a student’s repertoire, or when the student does not realize that many speakers employ hedges when commenting on another person’s work, so as to avoid face threat to the listener/writer. Approaches that highlight these interpersonal elements of communication offer opportunities to learn useful language, replacing the discomfort many students feel when asked to do peer response tasks.


Simpson, R. C., Briggs, S. L., Ovens, J., & Swales, J. M. (2002). The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English. Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan.



Sample dialogue 1: A run-on sentence

S1: what do you think? things you would change? if any?

S2: it’s to the point. it’s clear.

S1: <LAUGH> are you just being nice? or do you really feel that way?

S2: um, one thing is that, the last sentence, is that a um, run-on sentence sort of?

S1: hm?

S2: the last sentence of the paragraph, could that be like maybe broken up?

Sample dialogue 2: A misspelled word

S3: um, you used aloud A L O U D...[pause]

S3: shouldn’t it be A L L O W E D?

S4: oh where?

S3: um in the second sentence “since the women of Gilead aren’t allowed.”

S4: oh right...thanks for spotting that.