Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts
Many of us will likely agree that orchestrating productive peer review sessions is incredibly difficult. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve tried every kind of strategy I could think of for supporting students in giving each other good feedback. I’ve created documents for students to use for written feedback with questions ranging from very specific to very vague. I’ve tried a number of different ways to “match” writers in terms of their abilities, the stage they’re at in the writing process, or the kind of relationship they have with each other. While I have had some success with these strategies in various classes at different institutions, I have never felt completely satisfied with the kind of feedback students give each other. Their feedback was either too vague, off the mark, or focused solely on grammar or mechanics.
I needed to try something different. So several years ago, I went on an internet hunt, searching for methods or information that might spark a new idea for peer review. I came across Peter Kittle’s article, “Reading Practices as Revision Strategies: The Gossipy Reading Model” and immediately felt excited. His peer review ideas had strong potential to help my students give each other good revision feedback.
In the article, Kittle describes an activity he designed with Rochelle Ramay for a professional development workshop on teaching effective reading and writing. The activity asked teachers to employ a particular reading strategy to help them revise their writing: Ramay and Kittle named the activity “gossipy reading.” Gossipy reading asks participants to get into groups of three to review one member’s piece of writing. Here’s how it works: the writer remains quiet, while the two other group members employ the “interrupted reading strategy,” stopping at moments where they want to “gossip” about the paper, or in other words, raise questions, make a prediction, call attention to particular details, or make connections. After the gossip session ends, the writer joins in on the “gossip” and leaves the session with good honest revision feedback. This activity, unlike many other peer review activities, positions peers not as “fixers,” but as audience members who are constructing meaning of a text in real time.
Kittle’s peer review strategy is brilliant for a number of reasons: it positions meaning making and peer review as a dialogical interaction, and writing as a social act; it capitalizes on the affordances of talk, both in its ability to function as a site of invention and its invitation to violate “rules” attached to standard written language (an idea I talk about in my posts on The Benefits of Group Conferencing and Using Talk for Learning); and it frames an often dreaded activity as gossip, an activity associated with friends, fun, and a bit of scandal.
I adopted Kittle’s idea and adapted it to create “Gossipy Peer Review.” My version is more structured and directive than Kittle’s yet still maintains the “gossipy” sentiment. I’ve had a tremendous amount of success in using it in my classes and so have many of my colleagues at Salem State University. Below is the handout I give students for the activity.
Gossipy Peer Review Assignment
Step 1: Get into groups of three.
Step 2: Read the assignment aloud.
Step 3: One writer will volunteer their paper to be read aloud; the writer of the paper will remain silent throughout the process, taking notes on how his/her peers are discussing his/her paper.
Step 4: The other two members in the group will take on the role of reader or listener.
Step 5: The reader will begin reading the writer’s paper and stop after two paragraphs. The reader and listener will discuss the paragraphs. Discussion will entail one or several of these actions:
- Reader and/or listener will summarize the overall gist of the paragraph;
- Reader and/or listener will state what they understand or what is clear;
- Reader and/or listener will state what they do not understand or what might be “fuzzy” or “confusing”;
- Reader or listener will predict what they think is coming next or in other words, what they think the writer might do next;
- Reader or listener will ask a question about the writer’s intentions, ideas, claims, arrangement, structure, transition or anything else related to the essay;
- Reader and/or listener will talk about what’s “working” or not “working.”
Step 6: After the reader finishes the text, the writer will then have an opportunity to join in on the gossip. The writer may:
- Talk about what they heard their peers discuss;
- Help clarify anything the reader or listener did not understand;
- Tell the reader and listener what they think they need to revise and ask for feedback on their revision plan.
What is the point of this exercise, you ask?
The writer is literally able to hear how a reader, or in other words, the audience works to construct meaning of his/her text. The writer will get a glimpse into the thoughts the reader/audience has when engaging with the texts, getting a sense of how his/her ideas, claims, evidence, arrangement, structure, and approach is received by an audience. From this gossip session, the writer will be able to identify parts of his/her paper that he/she should keep, discard, clarify, elaborate on and/or add. In other words, the writer will get feedback for revision.
After this activity, each writer composes a revision plan that describes how he/she will revise based on the feedback received during peer review.
 The number of paragraphs the reader will read will depend on the length of the draft. Longer drafts will demand the reader read more than two paragraphs.
There are a couple of challenges that instructors might face in facilitating a “gossipy peer review” session. Some students are shy and may feel reluctant to speak in front of people they don’t know. Thus it’s a good idea to pair shy students with classmates they know or are seemingly comfortable around. Another challenge, which Kittle notes as well, is when students take the “gossiping” too far, perhaps moving from talking about one’s writing to talking about one’s annoying roommate. I would recommend instructors walk around the classroom and listen in on the gossip sessions to intervene when students get off track.