Peer Response for Second Language Learners Research Paper Starter

Peer Response for Second Language Learners

(Research Starters)

Peer response is a method for teaching writing that is used in college, secondary, and elementary classrooms. In peer response, students read and respond to their peers' writing with written or oral feedback. While peer response is believed to offer many benefits, such as helping students to develop audience awareness and to become critical readers of their own work, the use of peer response with second language learners remains somewhat controversial. This is because there are many language and cultural barriers that make the use of peer response more difficult in second language classrooms. Nevertheless, research shows that these obstacles can be overcome if students are properly trained to use the technique. The benefits of peer response for second language learners include improved writing and language skills.

Keywords: Collaborative Learning; Communicative Competence; Constructivism; Direct Error Feedback; Indirect Error Feedback; Intercultural Communication; Peer Response; Peer Review; Second Language Writing; Sociocultural Theory; Target Language; Writing Workshop


Peer response is an accepted component of writing classes at the university, secondary, and elementary levels. In peer response, students' read one another's papers and provide oral or written feedback to the writer. Comments may concern positive or negative reactions to the content or structure as well as suggestions for improvement.

For native speakers of a language, the benefits of peer response are largely heralded without question. Supported by theories of rhetoric and composition which say that writing is both a social act and a process, peer response is believed to provide an ideal opportunity for learners to develop audience awareness, to become more critical of their own writing, and to gain a better understanding of revision as an integral part of the writing process. These are all important to the development of strong writing skills.

However, when peer response involves second language speakers, questions arise as to whether the same kinds of benefits are accrued. On the one hand, Sociocultural Theory and Constructivism are theories which provide a foundation for using peer response with second language learners. Both theories say that learning occurs through social interaction. Sociocultural Theory adds that learners learn by interacting with those who already hold the skills and knowledge being acquired. Constructivism views learners as constructing knowledge by integrating new skills and information with that which is already known. In peer response, readers and writers interact in ways which allows scaffolding one another's learning (DeGuerrero & Villamil, 2000; Teo, 2006) and constructing knowledge of the writing process. Furthermore, reading and responding to a text or writer is an opportunity to negotiate for meaning in an authentic environment (Riley, 1995). This is an essential skill that aids in both language acquisition and writing development.

On the other hand, students still developing language skills may have a more difficult time providing and interpreting feedback. Student attitudes, cultural backgrounds, and language proficiency can also pose obstacles to the successful implementation of peer response among second language learners (Nelson, 1997; Rollison, 2005). Thus, the use of this methodology with second language learners still invites debate and research whether these students are in the second language or regular composition classroom.

Further Insights

Barriers to Second Language Peer Response

The barriers to second language peer response begin with the most prominent, which is language proficiency. Fundamentally, reading and responding to someone's writing requires the ability to understand and craft sentences in the language of the paper. Can someone who is still learning grammar, vocabulary, and syntax effectively perform these tasks? Furthermore, writing in any language is governed by discourse rules that may be different from those of the reviewer. Could the reviewer's unfamiliarity with common discourse structures in the target language make it difficult to identify global errors related to organization and coherence?

Along with these language issues, culture and attitudes can also be obstacles to effective peer response. Many cultures do not encourage student interaction in the classroom, and students may be unfamiliar with or resistant to the idea of group work (Liu & Littlewood, 1997). Moreover, even when students are willing to work together, they must adjust to each other's communicative styles, which are heavily influenced by cultural norms. For instance, cultures vary in the manner in which individuals take turns in a conversation. For some cultures , a long pause many indicate that it is time for someone else to take a turn in the conversation, while in other cultures a shorter pause or an overlap in speech may occur (Alfaraz, 2009; Stivers et. al., 2009). Differences in communicative style can create miscommunication that causes frustration for group participants.

Nelson (1997) identifies four dimensions of intercultural communication which can impact peer response group interactions:

  • Individualism vs. collectivism,
  • Preservation of "face,"
  • Power distance, and
  • Communication style.

Individualism vs. collectivism refers to how individuals of a given culture perceive their identity in relationship to a group. In individualistic cultures, members of the culture separate their identities from that of the group. Though they may belong to many groups, they see these memberships as being the result of personal choice and convenience, and membership can be terminated without damaging self-identity. In collectivistic cultures, individual identities are defined by the group. Individuals belong to fewer groups, and one of their primary goals as a member is to maintain group harmony by maintaining relationships. This cultural dimension may impact peer response interactions because the practices of a peer response group run counter to the practices of a collectivist culture. The purpose of a peer response group is to provide constructive feedback to individuals so that they can individually improve their papers. However, individuals from collectivist cultures may feel that providing feedback threatens the feelings of their peers and negatively impacts the group climate. Thus, they may be reluctant to make critical comments, especially if those comments must be spoken out loud.

Preserving the feelings of others is also characteristic of the preservation of "face" which is a concept of politeness studies that refers to an individuals' positive self-image. Generally, people try to limit face-threatening acts, which could harm someone else's self-image. In some cultures, the preservation of face has considerable social significance. Thus, individuals from such cultures may have more difficulty giving and receiving feedback that could be perceived as threatening their or others' self-image. Carson and Nelson (1996) found that Chinese students in mixed peer response groups purposefully kept their comments to themselves in order to avoid hurting others' feelings and to avoid a divisive group climate. Zhu (2006) noted a similar behavior by English as a second language students in mixed peer response groups. During peer discussions, second language students were found to take fewer turns and to more readily give up their turns if they were interrupted while giving feedback. At the same time, they willingly provided critical feedback through written comments. While Zhu's study focused on turn-taking behaviors and did not draw any conclusions about the intercultural dimension of face preservation; it could be that students who gave up their turns or did not provide feedback did so because they did not want to threaten others' face.

The dimension of power distance refers to the social and status distance between two individuals. In some cultures, teachers are regarded as having significant social status. In these cultures, students regard their teachers as the dispensers of knowledge and accord them very high levels of respect. For students from such cultures, peer response groups may pose a challenge because students may be resistant to the idea that their peers — who fall lower in the status hierarchy — have anything useful to contribute to their writing. This may be especially true if their peers are also second language learners, causing them to distrust both their knowledge base and their language skills. Furthermore, students accustomed to passively accepting knowledge from their teachers may not trust their own skills...

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