Collaborative writing activities

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Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)

Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better  ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]

Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.

Planning collaboratively

Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.

In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.

One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.

Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.

Writing collaboratively

The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.

One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text

What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?

52 Comments

Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

52 responses to “Collaborative writing activities

  1. creativitiesefl

    I’m a big fan of collaborative writing! I think the circle writing activity can work with a follow-up (I’ll write this up for my blog sometime). I also have a nice collaborative idea writing a newspaper story using pictures from newspapers that I should write up so thanks for giving me some ideas!
    Some great new ideas for me here too. I think collaborative writing can be a really good way of getting students to write ‘by stealth’ but you do have to be careful that it doesn’t just end up with the stronger writers doing all the work…

    • Hi Jo,
      Thanks for the comment, and looking forward to hearing about your circle writing activity. I agree that there is sometimes an issue with stronger writers taking over, which is why I think it usually works best when everyone has a fairly defined role.

  2. Right confession time coming up.
    I often say that writing is important and that it should be given class time because of that… I usually use class time only when I need to kill time (which I’m sure the students take as some alternative message to writing is an important skill that you must practice and takes effort)

    Having got that off my chest there are occasions when I love group work on writing collaboratively. I did a really fun extension on the classic game consequences where I encouraged pairs to use their game as an outline for a story. I was amazed (and scared by the results)

    I also really love my mixed up stories activity where you get every students activity from the weekend/holiday, jumble them up on the board and then students have to guess (and write up) what other people did that weekend/holiday great fun.

    In my experience it has only worked when I have given it significant class time.

    • Thanks for commenting and adding your ideas- I especially like the sound of the mixed up stories. I agree that writing often needs a decent amount of time and, in my experience, having it as a final activity nearly always leads to it being abandoned and ‘finished for homework.’

  3. Hi Rachael,
    I’ve been blogging recently on writing activities over at http://dogmediaries.wordpress.com/ , in particular, circular writing, which you don’t like🙂 I guess much depends on the level of the writing level of the students. What are the students learning, you ask. Well, for one thing, they enjoy the activity, so motivation is high, which leads to greater learning possibilities. Second, I monitor and correct constantly, so I hope they are learning to write better. Bear in mind that, at this stage, I’m more worried about their writing in structurally correct sentences than their writing style.

    • Really, sorry, Chiew, don’t know how I missed this comment. Yes, motivation is a key factor, and, actually, I don;’t think there’s anything wrong with ‘writing for fluency’ sometimes. It’s just the way that circle texts are necessarily disjointed and incoherent that I’m not that keen on. Though, of course, they can be used as the basis for further work.

      • Haha, and there I was thinking you were ignoring me on purpose😉
        I actually disagree with your “necessarily” – why should it be disjointed and incoherent? It’s a challenge for the students to maintain some kind of flow; they have to read what was written before they start writing. It becomes not only a writing activity, but a reading one, too.
        Thanks for somehow finding my “lost” comment and replying!🙂

      • Fair enough, I guess it shouldn’t be disjointed, but,in my experience, stds generally don’t bother worrying too much about coherence and cohesion.
        I would never ignore you!😉

      • Haha, that’s very sweet of you🙂
        I suppose it depends on many factors – level, aims, number of students, etc. Just as in so many other circumstances, it’s the teacher who has to know if a certain activity is apt for the class or not, I think.

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  5. i have not really used collab writing so your post is v useful and just been reading chris wilson’s post on wiki writing so lots of things to think about. the first individual writing activity you describe involving getting others in the class to write questions on student-chosen topic i find appealing.

    i guess a benefit of group writing is a way to get students to think of a reading audience beyond their teacher? does the fact that they need to co-construct a text lead to such audience questions more than individual writing?

    the paper you cite, Storch, showed that most time was spent on generating ideas, which i find the problematic stage in individual writing. as seen by how relatively poor the outcome is terms of content.

    ta
    mura

    • I think audience is very important (see post on Real Life Writing) and getting the audience involved like this works well. This is reminding me now of something else I’ve read recently…will think what it was.
      I also agree that getting ideas is often problematic- especially, perhaps, for IELTS students who are asked to write about issues they often have never thought about before.
      Thanks for more thought provocation!

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m particularly fond of collaborative planning. I often use a “post-it” chat activity to prepare for writing. It’s a silent conversation that produces a thread of sticky notes that can be re-arranged afterwards to be used as a writing plan.
    I blogged about it here for the first time: http://mrschenk.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/silent-post-it-chats/
    and elaborated on it here:
    http://mrschenk.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/multiple-post-it-chats/

  7. Masaad, Abduazim

    Dear sir,
    U touched the integration of writing and reading or actually how writing could help in developing the skill reading. I want to ask about the importance of following up of the four skills as well as the sequence of the syllabus and the teacher”s marking as an instructional procedure in the process of ELT.

    • Thanks for commenting. I think in most situations it’s important to have a balance between the skills, and ideally, they should be integrated.
      Marking or feedback is an important area, and I plan to blog on this soon- there are some interesting comments on this after my post on genre writing too.

  8. Hello Rachael,
    and thanks for this post!
    I liked the various activities you listed and described, and I must say I have tried most of them in my classes. However, even though at first I am extremely enthusiastic about the exercises, sometimes the reality bites and I have to eliminate an activity from the list. Why? Well, I teach extremely mixed-level classes. I work in an art school getting students from different walks of life with vary different levels of English yet the final objective is fixed by the programme, so some students have to accomplish an incredible lot, whereas others are almost there immediately.
    So, in a nutshell, I have for example 15 students with levels from A2 to B2. Now, in a situation like that some activities simply won’t work, no matter how much I would like them to.
    However, some collaborative writing I do use regularly. For the very reason you pointed out quoting Vygotsky. I like having a group of three different level students composing a story together. It can be so useful, efficient and rewarding. Useful for everyone: weaker students have their peers helping them in a non threatening environment. They have time, they dare to ask for more explanation, they won’t shy away when something’s not clear. The stronger students can only solidify their knowledge! It’s efficient because instead of one teacher dragging along 15 students, then correcting 15 different stories, what we get is a cluster of groups working on their own and producing one hopefully well-polished writing in the end!
    And it’s rewarding – classroom time has been used efficiently and there is an end product everyone has contributed to.
    So to answer your question – the writing activities that work really well in a mixed-level class like mine is writing together as a group.

    • Thanks for the comment, that’s a great example. It’s also not unusual in UK ESOL classes to have a great spread of levels, so this kind of approach can work there too.
      You might also be interested in the Language Experience Approach if you don’t already know about it, as another way of dealing with mixed level groups productively.

      • Thanx Rachael for the tip. No, I didn’t know about this approach. Really glad to hear about methods suitable for mixed level classes. Really in need of that!!!!!

  9. expatseek

    Great resource for teachers.

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  14. geraldvonbourdeau

    Hey Rachael, I really enjoyed this piece. I write a blog on Dogme ELT (http://geraldvonbourdeau.wordpress.com/) in the writing classroom and will certainly give some of these ideas a shot in my classes. Cheers!

  15. geraldvonbourdeau

    Reblogged this on Teaching Unplugged in the Triggering Town and commented:
    Excellent collaborative writing ideas from Rachael Roberts.

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  17. Hi, great post. I really like your comments and ideas. I’m looking forward to using some of them soon.

    I do a lot of collaborative writing projects using a Wiki with my classes. Wikis are great as a tool for writing and sharing. If you are interested, check out a post I did about it.

    http://1brainsandwich.blogspot.com/2013/02/classroom-make-over.html

    Thanks again and keep the posts coming!!

  18. Chetlal Chaudhary

    Lots of thanks Rachael Roberts, I bombed your technique of collaborative writing, so fantastic and implementable. I used the technique in my real class and my students enjoyed a lot.Hope some more from you in the days to come.
    Chetlal Chaudhary
    Nepal
    c.chetlal@yahoo.com

  19. Pingback: Collaborative writing activities | elt-resourceful | LEARNING ENGLISH WITH TANIA

  20. Mehran

    hi
    thanks for this post. it was very helpful.
    by the way,i need to find a collaborative writing topic for my class. actually, it is for a research on collaborative writing in wikisapces. can you help me in this regard?

  21. Hiya,

    Fab blog post, very much enjoyed. Am just about to embark on a project where a group of under-16s and I are writing and producing our own film – want them to tell their own story, what affects them and their peers, and present it in a new and unique way. Hoping that some of these collaborative writing exercises will get them going at our first session this evening!

    Thanks,

    Charlie

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  23. John

    Reblogged this on Talking About Writing and commented:
    I’ve been doing my collaborative writing exclusively with advanced students, preparing for IELTS. Here are some ideas for other student groups.

  24. vera

    Hi, Rachael…
    I am a student, actually, I have been doing my research about Story Circle Activity (I found it on Harmer’s book (2007)). I just wonder that It seems as same as Genre Circle Writing. I really need the theory of Story Circle Activity (or Genre Circle Writing) to support my research. Do you have some references about it? and if you don’t mind, could you share it to me, please?
    Thank you🙂

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  26. Kamran

    Hi professor I am a English Language teacher in junior school and also ELT MA students I am writting proposals please guide me
    my topics:
    1- Turn taking problems.
    2- Group working.
    3- pretask activity for teaching reading.

  27. Mohan Saud

    Collaborative Writing can sure increase the students’ communicative competence and writing performance too.

    However I disagree that Theory of JPD is of use in Collaborative Writing. For JPD-Theory, we need two standards of ability : one who they don’t know more and next who do know more. And in a class, learners tend to be of nearly the same ability!

    • Hi Mohan,

      Thanks for commenting. In my experience, no two students know exactly the same things, so there is always room for students to help each other and provide scaffolding, as Vygotsky suggests.

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  29. Shehla

    Very useful activities. I got great ideas to teach all age groups. I am too much thankful
    for all suggestions.

  30. Pingback: Does Collaborative Fiction Writing Work – RMScottWriter

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