If there is one writing strategy I love more than anything else in our educational universe, it must be paired writing. Done well, it can transform a darkened November classroom into an oasis of enthusiastic activity.
I’ll start with the benefits.
• In the process of teaching writing, it fits snugly between the modelling/deconstruction stage and independent writing. Students are independent from the teacher, yet dependent on one another. It is not a substitute to independent writing; instead it is a chance to practise new skills. It could also be used as a DIRT strategy, where whole-class and individual targets could be combined – see my post on using DIRT strategies.
• Within the process that I outline below, students, as coaches, scaffold one-another through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.
• For me, it is peer-assessment in action. Rather than a tagged-on task at the end of the lesson, the peer-assessment is continual and ‘live’. The room is buzzing with questions: Have you used a full-stop here? Why not use a more sophisticated connective? Let’s find a better word for… The link between thought-processes and writing, so often buried and internalised in the teenage mind, is beautifully exhumed in sustained discussion. It can be used in any subject that involves extended writing, not just English. What better way is there for students to familiarise themselves with success criteria?
• It fits into Dylan Wiliam’s mantra for perfect group work: the group need to have a collective goal and individuals must be accountable. There should be no place to hide. See David Didau on this issue.
• Students love the challenge. See how I use extra incentives below.
• And most importantly of all, it is a joy to teach. I can sashay – not a verb I am often associated with – around the classroom, smile, chat to students about the finer points of their work, admire the school field… In the words of my friend and colleague Gavin McCusker, like all great lessons, ‘it runs itself.’
And here’s a way to organise it.
• First, the writing skill to be focused upon needs to be modelled and deconstructed. There are plenty of well-worn ways of doing this. I tend to focus on a single paragraph, so that we can draw out the key criteria we will be working with. This will always be at A* standard, whoever the group, whichever the year group; I do not want to set them up to fail. Read John Tomsett on Growth Mindset if you are not convinced.
• Then the students need to be given – or, even better, need to create – the success criteria they will be working with. This could be made available to all pairs on a simple tick-sheet. Here’s an example I have used for Y8 persuasive writing.
• Although some teachers might find it a little crude, I like to introduce a bit of competition – the winners will be the pair who score the highest number of points on the tick-sheet. (They must keep tally and I will check carefully before anointing winners.)
• Next the pairings need to be arranged. I like my students to work in similar-ability pairs; that way I can differentiate the scaffolding needed to help those who need it towards the best possible outcome. However, there are plenty of other options available. Here are the scaffolded help-sheets I have used with with my year 8s this week:
• A task needs to be set. Naturally, it is sensible that this is based on skills and knowledge developed in previous lessons.
• Before the pairs begin writing, it is important that they plan. (I tend to model the process.)
• Once writing begins, I ensure that time is roughly split equally. For half the time spent writing, one student is the ‘coach’, using the tick-sheet – along with a dictionary and a thesaurus – to verbally support the writer. Halfway through they switch and perform vice-verse roles. It works best on a shared, ‘neutral’ piece of paper.
• It can take time – often 10 minutes – for the pairs to get started, yet that is part of the beauty. They are thinking, discussing and extending. Or, as I like to see it, they are externalising the internal thought-processes that a good writer must go through.
• At the end, students are usually more than happy to read their examples out, without the usual reticence. Here is an example from my year 8 lesson:
Yes, there are some technical errors here, but the ambition, development and range of consciously used devices is very promising. Next lesson they will review their accuracy carefully, correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes in their pairs. For me, however, it is not the finished outcome that is important, but the paired-writing process itself.
I use many other variations on the above sequence, but to me this is the most effective. I sometimes use larger groups of 4 and ask them to write a paragraph each – this is great for teaching discursive markers (connectives) as they have to discuss the organisation of writing in great depth. In odd numbered classes, a group of 3 can become inevitable – be sure to pick your trios wisely.
Perhaps the only trouble with paired-writing, if I am honest, is getting the little blighters to write as well on their own as they do with their mates…