The Internet TESL Journal

Using a Peer Assisted Writing Activity to Promote ESL/EFL Students' Narrative Writing Skills

Adeline (Lei) K. Teo
adelineteo2001 [at]
Chung Shan Medical University (Taichung, Taiwan)


Collaborative writing has been used in composition research and pedagogy in U.S. educational institutes since the 1970s. Collaborative writing encourages social interaction among writers and their peers through activities such as peer response (Ferris and Hedgcock, 1998). This social interaction and dialogue with others are considered crucial for learning by social interactionist theorists, such as Vygotsky (2000), who stated that learning involves the internalization of social interaction processes, which helps the learner progress from complex to conceptual thinking.

In peer response, students are given plenty of opportunities to brainstorm ideas in pairs or groups, to give feedback on each other's writing and to proofread and edit for each other. While increasingly more mainstream classroom teachers are encouraging students to write in collaboration, ESL/EFL writing instructors sometimes have reservations about its effectiveness due mainly to the concern that students lack cognitive sophistication and linguistic skills in judging writing and in revising and editing a piece of work (Jacobs, 1989).

Researchers in the field of second language (L2) writing such as Peregoy and Boyle (2001) pointed out that pairing students up in writing is an ideal way to promote learning effectiveness. It not only gives teachers more quality time to work with students but also provides students with plenty of opportunities to brainstorm ideas and to learn from each other. However, Peregoy and Boyle also emphasized that students in the peer response groups need explicit guidelines in giving their partners constructive feedback so as to benefit their partners' writing. Adopting Peregoy and Bolye's suggestion and Vygotsky's (2000) concept in which an individual learns to extend his/her current competence through the guidance of a more experienced individual, I developed a structured and easy-to-implement peer assisted writing activity to compensate for the lack of structures in many existing paired writing methods. 

The Peer Assisted Writing Activity

In this activity, a more proficient student is paired up with a less proficient one with the intention of utilizing the knowledge and experience of the former to assist the latter in writing. In addition, this activity was based on a balanced approach (Scarcella, 2003), which emphasizes teachers' explicit instruction on both meaningful communication (such as content and organization) and specific features of the English language (such as grammar and mechanics). In many existing peer response writing activities, students are expected to proofread and edit each other's writing on their own without the teachers' intervention. However, I strongly believe that when a peer-assisted writing activity is implemented in an ESL/EFL setting, the teachers' intervention and direct feedback will help writers to overcome problems, such as grammatical errors in their writing, as well as to learn how to generate ideas for better content. Since writing is a complex problem-solving process, teachers are recommended to intervene at points in the writing process that can most benefit the writers. Thus, in the final step, The Teacher Evaluates, of this activity, the teacher meets with each pair and comments on the meaning, order, style, spelling, and punctuation of the writing. This is unlike many peer response activities, which do not require teachers to edit students' writing.

The structured guidelines listed in the activity are designed to help promote ESL/EFL students' narrative writing skills. This activity is appropriate for all grade levels. The following is a detailed description of how to implement this peer assisted writing activity in an ESL/EFL classroom to achieve its optimal effectiveness.

Pair Up Students

Before doing the activity, teachers pair up students based on their writing level. The one who is at a higher writing level plays the role of a Helper, and the one who is at a lower writing level a Writer.

Warm Up Activities

After pairing up students, the teacher has each pair perform warm-up activities to create a comfortable atmosphere that helps the pair establish mutual trust. The activities should focus on promoting students' friendship and helping them get to know each other.

Steps in the Activity

After the students get to know each other better and feel comfortable working together, teachers may begin to train them to follow the six steps.  Teachers are encouraged to print out the guidelines (see Appendix) and pass it out to each student. Teachers should go over the handout with students and model each step for them before they practice the activity in pairs. The description below shows the tasks that need to be done in each step by the Helper and the Writer. 

Step 1: Ideas

In order to help ESL/EFL writers understand the important components in narrative writing such as character, setting, problem, and solution, students are provided with complete questions that mostly begin with "wh" words to generate ideas. The questions are as follows:

To help the Writer stimulate ideas, the Helper begins by asking the Writer the list of questions stated above. The Helper could raise the questions with the Writer in any relevant order. The "ask any question" option on the list above is provided to indicate that the Helper can think up his/her own questions. As the Writer responds verbally to the questions asked by the Helper, the Writer also makes a note of key words. The Writer might also add to the notes any relevant information he/she wants to write about.

The pair then reviews the keywords in the notes and determines if the order or organization should be changed. This could be indicated by numbering the ideas. Alternatively, the ideas may seem to fall into obvious sections, which can be dealt with in turn. Such sections can be color-coded and the ideas belonging to them underlined or highlighted with a marker. Pairs may also choose to draw lines linking or around related ideas, so that a "semantic map" is constructed.

Step 2: Draft

The key words in the notes created in Step 1 should be placed where both members of the pair can easily see them. In this step, there are five different stages as shown below, varying from the simplest to the most challenging degrees of task difficulty:

Stage 1: Helper writes it all, Writer copies it all
Stage 2: Helper writes hard words for Writer
Stage 3: Helper writes hard words in rough, Writer copies in
Stage 4: Helper says how to spell hard words
Stage 5: Writer writers it all

The teacher chooses one specific stage from the five stages given to the students before they move on to writing. However, one should keep in mind that the stages chosen should not be stagnant. They should rely on the students' writing development. In other words, teachers may choose a higher stage for the pair to work on when the students progress in their writing. They may also go back one stage (or more) when they find that their students encounter a particularly difficult stage.

After the teacher chooses a stage, the paired writers will receive instruction from the teacher regarding what they are expected to do in that particular stage. The pair then proceeds to write. The teacher should emphasize that the Writer does not have to worry too much about spelling when he/she is writing a draft. Emphasis at this point should be on having the students continue writing and allowing the ideas to flow.

Step 3: Read

The Writer reads the writing aloud. If he/she reads a word incorrectly, the Helper may provide support if he/she is capable of doing so.

Step 4: Edit

In this step, the Helper and Writer look at the draft together, and the Writer considers whether improvements are necessary. At the same time, the Helper also considers if there are any improvements the Writer might want to make. The problem words, phrases or sentences could be marked with a colored pen, pencil or highlighter. There are five edit levels in this step. They are meaning, order, style, spelling, and punctuation. The Writer and Helper should inspect the draft more than once, checking on different criteria on each occasion. To provide scaffolding to the students, teachers should encourage the Writer to ask himself/herself the following questions:

  1. Does the Helper (H) understand what I want to say in my writing? (idea and meaning)
  2. Did my writing have a clear beginning, middle, and ending? (order)
  3. Did I use all the words and write all the sentences correctly? (style)
  4. Did I spell all the words correctly? (spelling)
  5. Did I put all the punctuation (, . ? ! "…") in the right places? (punctuation)

The questions for the Helper are:

  1. Do I understand what the Writer (W) wants to say in his/her writing? (idea and meaning)
  2. Did the writing have a clear beginning, middle, and ending? (order)
  3. Did W use all the words and write all the sentences correctly? (style)
  4. Did W spell all the words correctly? (spelling)
  5. Did W put all the punctuation (, . ? ! "...") in the right places? (punctuation)

The order of each question shows the ranking of the importance of each criterion, the first question being the most important, and the last being the least. Questions 1 and 2 (which are bolded) are the two most important questions the pair should pay attention to while editing the written products. With the questions in mind, the Helper marks any areas the Writer has missed, and the Writer can make any additional suggestions about changes based on his/her own reflection of their writing. The pair discusses the best correction to make, and when agreement is reached, the new version is inserted in the text (preferably by the Writer). If the pair has doubt about spelling, they may refer to the dictionary.

Step 5: The Final Copy

The Writer then copies out a neat or best version of the corrected draft. The Helper provides help when necessary, depending on the skill of the Writer. The best copy is a joint product of the pair and is then turned in to the teacher.

Step 6: The Teacher Evaluates

Teacher Evaluates is the final step. In this step, students will have an opportunity to receive comments and instructive feedback directly from the teacher. When the Writer and the Helper turn in their best copy, the teacher will meet with them and provide them with explicit writing and grammatical instruction as well as corrective feedback. The teacher's comments focus on meaning/idea, order, style, spelling, and punctuation, which are the five editing criteria stated in Step 4. The writers are then expected to review the correction and feedback together as a pair.


This peer assisted writing activity can help promote ESL/EFL student' narrative writing skills at all grade levels. To achieve its optimal effectiveness, teachers should provide students with constant modeling of the strategies in each step of the activity. Furthermore, teachers should ensure that they constantly promote a trusting relationship between the writing partners throughout the writing process.



Guidelines for the Peer Assisted Writing Activity

H = Helper,   W = Writer
Step 1: IDEAS

H asks W Questions:

Who did what?
What happened?
Where did it happen?
When did it happen?
Who are the main characters in the story?
Why did he/she/they do that?
What was the problem?
How did he/she/they solve the problem?
What happened next?
Then what?
Did anyone learn anything at the end?
What was the lesson the characters learned?
(Ask any questions you can think of.)…………?


W answers and takes notes.
W can add things that are not in H's questions.

Step 2: DRAFT

Teacher will give and explain to you ONE of the following jobs.

H writes it all
W copies it all
H writes hard words for W
H writes hard words in rough, W copies in
H tells how to spell hard words
W writes it all

Use the notes, begin writing. DON'T WORRY about spelling.

Step 3: READ

W reads drafts out loud and makes it sound good!
H corrects words read wrong if he/she can.

Step 4: EDIT

H and W both look at the draft.

W asks himself/herself:

1. Does H understand what I want to say in my writing? (meaning)
2. Did my writing have a clear beginning, middle, and ending? (order)

3. Did I use all the words and write all the sentences correctly? (style)
4. Did I spell all the words correctly? (spelling)
5. Did I put all the punctuation (, . ? ! "....") in the right places? (punctuation)

H asks himself/herself:

1. Do I understand what W wants to say in his/her writing? (meaning)
2. Did the writing have a clear beginning, middle, and ending? (order)

3. Did W use all the words and write all the sentences correctly? (style)
4. Did W spell all the words correctly? (spelling)
5. Did W put all the punctuation (, . ? ! "...") in the right places? (punctuation)


W makes changes. ← → H suggests changes.
Use a dictionary when necessary.


W copies the 'best' writing from Step 4. H may help if necessary.
Turn in the completed copy to teacher.


Teacher comments on meaning, order, style, spelling, and punctuation.
H and W read the teacher's comments together, then discuss and make corrections.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 8, August 2006