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Writing has always been a fascination and enjoyment for me as an English Language learner since my secondary school years from 1999 to 2003. I still can recall quite vividly how I started to write light poems, and developed my skills in writing narratives and more serious pieces when I reached Form 4 and Form 5. However so, most of the time, writing lessons in the classroom were more of individual basis. As a matter of fact, I could not recall even a single occurrence of writing an essay as a group. Since I was reasonably engrossed and passionate in producing individual essays, I had not even thought before of what collaborative writing had in store for me, and for my other friends.
My personal notion is that writing is deemed as a personal experience which leads to personal satisfaction; which is perfectly exemplified during my school days. As a language learner, I personally believe in the power of writing in bringing forward one's view and opinion. However so, not every individual finds it easy to put ideas into words especially in dealing with a second language.
Enlightened with the idea that collaborative essays are able help lower proficiency students to improve their English Language skills, particularly in the area of writing, I therefore found a mean to explore more on group or collaborative writing in the ESL classroom. Hence, I seized the opportunity during my practicum at a suburban secondary school in the district of Putatan, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah from July to October 2009, to observe a Form Four Science class and employed collaborative learning and group tasks to develop the learners' writing skills and quality. I explored how group tasks and collaborative writing could influence students' writing skills and their inclination towards collaborative tasks.
Background Of Study
Many researches and studies touched on the widely discussed topics of collaborative learning and learning in groups. In a similar scale, various researches and studies are focused on the aspect of collaborative writing and writing in groups. In Malaysia educational setting as well, there are quite a number of recent studies done on group writing as the focus on improving students' writing skills came into awareness. Mohammed Nor and Abd. Samad (2006) stated that group writing is beneficial during the writing process in the classroom and “group writing has accomplished a role during the writing process lessons”. This study indicates that when students write in groups, they produce writings of better quality. Indirectly, collaborative writing deals with social interaction between peers. Since writing is deemed as putting one's thoughts and ideas into words (Chitravelu et al, 1995; Johari, 2004; Sokolik, 2002), in group writing particularly, communications take place in forms of brainstorming and idea-generation between peers. Mohamed Nor (2006) further explained in her recent study of a ‘learning communities' comprises of school community and the publics, the essentially vital need for mutual transfers of knowledge to enhance learning. Thus, the importance of having a support team or group effort in working on a classroom tasks is undeniable in Malaysian education system.
Generally, the Form 4 students, despite being in a Pure Science class, lack the skills in writing good essays. They have already had a preconceived notion that English Language subject is less important compared to other core subjects. Thus, the students pay less attention to improving their skills in writing and reluctant to motivate themselves whether individually or collaboratively. Other than that, the students think that writing bore them because of the conventional way of writing and as merely a task in the classroom and in examinations. Tan (2006) stated that writing assignments in Malaysian schools is evaluated against marking rubrics which is based on Malaysian students' standard. Many a time, the teaching methods employ and focus mostly on individual tasks and the end product (i.e. the final production of an essay), Tran (2006).
The main aim of this study was to find out how collaborative learning tasks and collaborative writing impact student's writing quality. Other than this, this study aimed to find out how the students of Form 4 Al-Razi who ranged from lower-intermediate to lower-advanced levels of proficiency perceive individual and collaborative writing.
Briefly, the objectives of this study was to find out:
a) how group or collaborative writing tasks impact students' writing quality and standards; and
b) how students of varying levels of English proficiencies prefer to write in the ESL classroom.
In order for me to explore more of the nature and advantages of collaborative writing activities and tasks in the ESL classroom, and specifically in Form 4 Al-Razi, I pinpointed and focused on a few vital research questions. These questions aided me to find out more on how the collaborative writing activities and tasks conducted for the students of Form 4 Al-Razi impacted their writing qualities. The research questions were as the following:
a) What are some of the effective collaborative activities in producing quality essays and writings?
b) Does writing collaboratively improve students' skills in writing?
c) What is the preference for ESL students of higher and lower levels of English proficiency in writing?
Significance Of Study
This research is beneficial in understanding in depth the effects of collaborative tasks in students' writing quality. Since Malaysian education system is still exam-oriented, albeit in lesser degree, this study explores the students' inclination towards English language writing in classroom - whether writing is given as much emphasis as the other language skills (i.e. listening, speaking and reading). This study highlights major issues including how good and weak student-writer prefer to write, effective methods in conducting collaborative writing, and most importantly, skills achieved in writing collaboratively. By conducting this research, it is hoped that writing collaboratively improves students' soft skills, and not merely in examinations and classroom tasks.
Limitations And Delimitations Of The Study
In carrying out this study, several possibilities of limitations and delimitations were taken into consideration. Bearing in mind that the practicum was only for 13 weeks, excluding holidays and school breaks, I narrowed down and specified the scopes of my study as followed:
The samples of this study involved only 24 Form 4 Science 1 students (Form 4 Al-Razi) of SMK Putatan, Penampang, Sabah. The particular class was chosen since I was assigned to the class during the 13-week practicum. Other than that, this class was the best class among the Form Four classes.
b) Research Methodologies and Instrumentations
This study employed the qualitative research method. Methods of collecting data were taken in forms of observations, teacher's checklists, students' essays and reflections. The methods were conducted in real classroom situations during the allocated teaching periods.
c) Collaborative Writing Activities
Considering the fact that there are a wide range of collaborative writing activities applicable for ESL classrooms, only three (3) main collaborative writing activities were selected. There were the 5-paragraph method, peer response and editing, and mock debate. The 5-paragraph method and peer response and editing were interrelated with each other. Peer response and editing took place after the 5-paragraph method. As for the mock debate, it was a preparation for students to write argumentative writing.
Some terms and abbreviations were employed and adapted in this study. For references and clarity purposes, the operational definitions are stated and explained as the following:
a) Collaborative / Group Writing
Joint task in the particular language skill of writing which involved the students of Form 4 Al-Razi of SMK Putatan, Penampang.
b) ESL and ESL Learners
ESL refers to English as a second language. ESL learners refer to the Form Four Al-Razi students of SMK Putatan Penampang.
L2 refers to second language. English Language is regarded as a second language in Malaysia and so thus in the educational context. Second language (L2) learners in this study were the students of Form 4 Al-Razi.
d) 5-Paragraph Method
This method refers to one type of collaborative writing task employed during the ESL classroom. Students were taught the systematic and manageable ways of writing essays (introduction, body, and closure).
e) Peer Response and Editing
This method refers to one type of collaborative writing task employed during the ESL classroom. In groups, students exchanged and provided responses to other group's mistakes and errors in their final essay.
f) Mock Debate
This method refers to one type of collaborative writing task employed during the ESL classroom. This was a smaller-scaled or ‘mini' debate conducted as a pre-writing task to enhance collaborative effort among the Form 4 Al-Razi students.
Review Of Literature
This chapter is organized into three (3) major sections which highlight collaborative learning and writing as well as the possible advantages of collaborative writing in the ESL classroom. This chapter also touches on the implications of collaborative learning and writing in the Malaysian educational setting.
Collaborative Learning In The ESL Classroom
For quite a few decades, collaborative learning has been a subject of interest for educators and researchers. “Collaborative learning” occurs between teacher and students, or amongst students who are working in groups and share ideas and reach a solution for a particular task. Brown (2001) explained the term collaborative learning which implies that students engage with “capable others” including their teachers and peers during the learning process. On another note, the term “collaborative learning” is a big umbrella term encompassing the entire aspect of language skills. Whilst the definition revolves around the meaning of a group of people working together to complete a task and reach a solution, likewise, one language skill which requires collaborative effort is writing skill.
Writing In The ESL Classroom
Writing is one of the four language skills taught in Malaysian school. In accordance to that, the objectives of writing in Malaysian schools had been developed by the Centre of Curriculum Development Ministry of Education since 1986. The Curriculum Specifications developed for Form 5 in 1990 specified that “students should be guided through the planning, drafting, editing and the final writing of the composition”. However, more often than not, in second language writing, the concern is more towards forms (grammatical rule) than functions. Students' writings are evaluated against a set of rubric consisting of grammar, spelling, punctuations, and organization aspects (Sokolik, 2002; Tran, 2006) This ability to write is considered as the overall students' second language proficiency, in this case, English language proficiency. As much as that is the case in second language situations, educators have been aware of the ‘focus on functions' in teaching English as a second language (L2). Tran (2006) shared his view of the English Language instruction which puts greater emphasis on the ‘forms' (i.e. grammatically correct sentences) in Vietnamese schools. He stated further learners need to achieve the communicative competence, the ability for learners to expressively convey ideas and opinions. Hence, the process writing approach in groups.
As “writing is a thinking process” (Brown, 2001: 336), student-writers need to be familiarized with the process in writing. Writing, according to Sokolik (2002) is both a ‘product' and ‘process' approach involving imagining, organizing, drafting, editing, reread and the final product. Having said that, it is noteworthy to state that writing is not a rigid process, instead it is cyclical, recursive and sometimes in a disorganized manner. In support of the product and process approach, Johari (2004) highlight the main focus of both the product and process approach in writing. Briefly explained, the consequences of applying both the product and process approach in classroom writing is the “collaborative effort between teachers and students in making writing a joint contribution of both parties”. Sharing of ideas and opinions in classroom writing is also supported by Sokolik (2002) as parts of the process approach.
Collaborative Writing Tn The ESL Classroom
Having explained on collaborative learning and the writing skill process, another term worth knowing in relation to this research is “collaborative writing”. This term is widely used and applied in various classroom teaching and has become one of the pedagogical principles in classroom teachings. Murray's (1992) defined collaborative writing as “those in which the majority of the interaction occurs on paper and those in which the text is constructed through oral discussion.” Emmons (2005) further stated that:
“The basic idea (of collaborative writing) is that all texts are in some way generated by groups of people… in every classroom act of collaborative writing… the members of the text-generating group are identified, their input is analyzed, valued and rehearsed. Through this process the text itself is deconstructed, its formative elements are described, tested, and reinvented for the benefit of students' understanding of the meaning, importance and practice of writing.”
In the L2 classroom, ESL learners need more guidance and scaffolding especially in writing. They find learning the language as constricted to only in classrooms and as part of the examinations. As Tan (2006) puts it that Malaysian students comply with the skills and strategies in answering questions and writing essays as what is expected by examiners.
Such a way to learning English resulted in the passive mode of conducting classroom activities. The patterns of learning in Malaysian education rely on form-focused instruction, rote learning, and ‘spoon-feeding'. This scenario occurs not only in secondary schools, but also at tertiary level. Maesin, et al (2009) stated that the learning styles adopted by Malaysian students are mostly focused on surface and dependent learning and thus resulted in them facing difficulties during their tertiary education. Relevant to those learning styles, tertiary students thus preferred collaborative learning activities especially to enhance their language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). It is shown that although L2 learners are more passive and are tuned in to individual learning styles and activities, they are aware of the effective styles of collaborative learning activities which require analytical thinking and active participation.
Writing As A Social Interaction
Fitzgerald and Stamm (1992) as cited in Mohammed Nor (2003) stated that group writing can assist students in writing composition. Undeniably, writing in groups indirectly exposes them in social interaction with peers. The writing process kicks off with the pre-writing stages of which a lot of questioning, brainstorming of ideas, ‘quickwriting' of spontaneous opinions, and wordmapping. This range of activities, according to Sokolik (2002), are beneficial during the process writing approach and indirectly serves as a platform for constructive communication between peers. Similarly, Chitravelu, et al (1995) pointed out that teacher could associate students' writing tasks with their social needs. Writing takes into consideration students' social needs. Therefore interaction amongst peers in the writing task is as much as important to develop students' idea-generation for the writing tasks.
Murray (1992: 103) further explained of the nature of collaborative writing as a ‘social process' of which writers make an effort to seek for ‘shared understanding' with fellow writers or co-authors. She stated that among the strategies of collaborative writing include; setting common goal, information gap or possessing different knowledge, determining the knowledge of the audience, group interaction, and distancing from the text. Such strategies ideally meet the social and interactional needs of student-writers in ESL classrooms.
Other than that, as has been stated earlier on ‘learning communities', one of its purposes is to provide students with shared learning and knowledge and building relationships. Building relationships include amongst the school communities and also with the immediate surrounding and public. This ‘learning communities' mutually help in sharing and imparting knowledge of subject matter and teaching language skills (Smith and MacGregor, 1992). Similarly, in a smaller scale in an L2 classroom, this joint effort between students and teachers contribute towards active participation. Communication takes place during all stages of the writing process. As previously mentioned, brainstorming, questioning, feedback, editing and revising are the important aspects of enhancing writing skills among students than the final product (i.e. the essay).
Advantages of Collaborative Writing
The old adage of “two heads are better than one” is a suitable one in explaining about collaborative writing. Researchers and educators for the past decades have had positive say on this joint effort of writing in classroom. Needless to say, there are indeed various advantages of collaborative writing. From improvements seen in writing skills to meeting the social and interactional needs of learners, this joint effort of writing certainly serves a new perspective in L2 classrooms.
In a broader sense, there are various of activities and methods used in collaborative learning in English language classroom. Likewise, researchers and educators have fairly recently employed effective methods in teaching writing in ESL classrooms. Also, at the same time, the findings of the researches mentioned of L2 learners' lack of motivation and interest in writing. It tends to be neglected in the English language because the focus is more on the forms (grammar) rather than the functions. There are several methods and strategies which are common and effective to gauge students' interest in writing. These methods are often employed as collaborative effort in the classroom.
Building And Fostering Relationships
It is widely and undeniably agreed upon that one of the advantages of collaborative writing is in building and fostering relationships. The building of relationships could occur between students-students, and teacher-students. Johari (2004) stated that collaborative writing establishes a supportive relationship between teacher and students. Other than as a tool to demonstrate learning in the ESL classroom, collaborative writing is seen as providing the opportunity for strengthening of relationships between peers when they are involved in the various collaborative tasks.
The developing of a ‘learning community' occurs when teacher and students are inclined towards the collaborative writing activities. As McGregor (1992) stated that “the classroom is no longer solo teacher and individual students - it becomes more an interdependent community”. Briefly stated, once the classroom evolves into a learning community, spontaneously and without doubt, teacher and students alike will foster their relationships. The role of the teacher no longer is confined as a ‘boss teacher' but rather as a ‘lead teacher' who provides and offer assistance. In the same way, students are learning in a non-threatening environment.
Allows Peer Feedback and Response
Yet another advantage of collaborative writing in the ESL classroom is peer feedback and response. Tompkins (1990) reinforced that “writing cannot occur in a vacuum and must meet the needs of the readers”. Thus feedback is important during the writing process. Writers write for a purpose, which are for readers. In group writing, these readers could be another writing group reading and providing feedback to another group's writing. Davidson (1996) as cited in Krieger (2005) stated that “with many practice, (students) often quickly recognize the flaws in each other's arguments”. This signifies how collaborative writing tasks are able to promote self awareness in recognizing each others' mistakes and errors made. Instead of the teacher correcting them, the students are allowed the autonomy giving feedback and responding to their peers' writing.
An example of an effective collaborative writing in the ESL classroom is the case of a Vietnamese secondary school of which an innovative approach to teaching of writing was employed in enhancing collaborative writing among the students. They employed the writing process approach which included several drafts and re-editing by a group of students. During the ‘revision stage', peer editing and peer feedback were carried out on the first and final draft of their peers' writing. Tran (2006) further explained that this kind of activity allows for peer reader-writer interaction as well as providing students with an opportunity to diagnose their mistakes and refine their writing.
Another example of effective collaborative writing activity in the ESL classroom is debate. Generally speaking, debate is an excellent language learning activity due to its applicability in engaging learners cognitively and linguistically. Teachers and educators who apply the debate activity in the ESL classroom are definitely aware of its potential in providing meaningful listening, speaking, and writing practices.
On another note, apart from providing meaningful listening, speaking and writing practices in general, debate undeniably occurs during collaborative writing activity. In a smaller scale, classroom debate is another fun yet effective way of working cooperatively. Baker (1999) as cited in Munneke and Andriessen (2000) opinionated that ‘argumentative interactions' occur when students are to write an essay in groups. The need to convince the other opposing team is likened to a writer who writes to convince his or her readers. Once again, the features of the process writing approach of brainstorming, questioning and clarifying information are similar to the spoken classroom debate. Idea-generation are spontaneously being stated during the on-going debate. This skill during the pre-writing stage allows for greater attribution of effective and beneficial group writing.
It can be seen that argumentation skills are needed in persuasive speech and also writing. Hence, the incorporation of debate gauges students' thinking skills. Nisbett (2003) as cited in Kieger (2005) stated that “debate is an important educational tool for learning analytical skills and for forcing self-conscious reflection on the validity of one's ideas”. Briefly stated, collaborative writing not only provides ESL learners with the opportunity for a mere debate in the classroom, it spontaneously promotes and enhances the learners' thinking skills and the ability to expand on their argumentative ideas and opinions on certain subject matter.
Comprehension Of Subject Matter
In a research done by Wheeler and McDonald (1998) on using writing to enhance collaborative learning in engineering course in a Virginia Military Institute, they stated three (3) benefits on how writing enhanced collaboration in the specific course; improvements can be seen on group discussions and students comprehend the subject matter better, writing also provides opportunity for instructors to assess students' understanding, and lastly collaborative effort proves to provide greater synergy in peer response and editing. Briefly stated, collaborative writing provide learners of English with improved skills and strategies in writing and comprehend better. Other than that, teachers and educators as well have the opportunity to assess how far students' understanding is in the subject-matter, as in peer feedbacks.
Implications Of Collaborative Writing In Malaysian Schools
The Malaysian education system surely has been on greater ground over the decades. Although secondary school students and in fact, tertiary level students are still facing with difficulties in communicative aspects of English language, the proactive approach for teachers and educators in ESL classroom in conducting collaborative learning, specifically in writing prove to be a stepping stone towards enhancing writing skills and strategies. Mohammed Nor (2006) and Tan (2006) opinionated in the studies they have carried out among upper secondary school students, that the process writing approach in writing definitely serves as one way of collaborate in writing amongst students. This approach of collaborative learning involves active participation and discussion from peers. As Tan (2006) claimed that Malaysian students based their writing standard against the Malaysian standard for examinations, this is a common reason why students are on a lesser grown when it comes to communicative competence. Hence, to promote effective writing skills and eventually to be communicatively competent, joint effort and tasks in the classrooms are undeniably necessary.
In conclusion, various studies and researches supported the incorporation of collaborative learning in the ESL classroom. Specifically, the importance of collaborative writing in the ESL classroom is also given emphasized by various researchers. Although this study is concerned with how collaborative writing activities enhance and affect students' writing quality, several ideas and notions surface in this chapter. Among them include the significant role of collaborative writing as an agent of socialization and as a tool for students to share beneficial ideas and thoughts. Briefly, collaborative writing activities do not only impact students' writing quality but also in terms of other language skills such as speaking skill, as well as the equally important element of critical and creative thinking skills.
This study employed the qualitative method. The method used suited with the aim of this study. This study involved a class of Form Four students from SMK Putatan, Penampang, a suburban school in the West Coast Division of Sabah, the district of Putatan. In order to explore collaborative learning tasks and collaborative writing in students' writing quality, this study was based on the triangulation method which included non-participant observations, documentations of students' individual and group essays and reflections of teacher checklist, student reflections and oral responses.
For the type of sampling, the purposive sampling technique was used. The samples were students of Form 4 Al-Razi, a pure science class, which consists of 24 students of mixed genders. The students are 16 years of age. The samples were selected since I was assigned to teach the class. It was more convenient and authentic to gain data from the class I was teaching. Progress after progress could be observed during the course of conducting several writing lesson with the students. Apart from that, the students' levels of English proficiency ranged from lower-intermediate to lower-advanced. This group of students reflected and exemplified typical learners of English as a Second Language (ESL) in Malaysian secondary schools which comprised of different levels of motivations and attitudes in English learning.
The Research Design
For the research design, the key method employed was the qualitative method. The preliminary plan for the study was selected and chosen distinctively. The selection and short-listing of the subjects were determined. The sites and time frame for data collection were taken into consideration in line with the scope of the study. Subsequently, after the preliminary plan of the research design had been determined, collaborative writing activities were executed during the writing lesson in the ESL class. Three (3) main collaborative writing activities were employed in Form 4 Al-Razi. They were the 5-paragraph method, peer response and editing as well as mock debate.
A) The Preliminary Plan
The research design was based on the qualitative research. The preliminary plan for the qualitative research included the subjects to be studied, sites to be studied, and time frame for data collection. For the subjects or samples, participants are chosen using the purposive sampling technique of which only one class is chosen, which is a science class. It comprises of 24 students of mixed genders and ability in English proficiency. Secondly, the research was conducted in only one class, which was the English class I was assigned to. Form 4 Al-Razi was a pure science class of SMK Putatan, Penampang, Sabah. Thirdly, for the time frame for data collection, data was collected for the period of 13 weeks during my practicum teaching from 13 July 2009 until 09 October 2009.
B) Collaborative Writing Activities Conducted
During the course of my study and data collection, three (3) activities were utilized in the collaborative writing tasks for the students which included the 5-paragraph method, peer response and editing, and mock debate.
In the first collaborative activity which was the 5-paragraph method, students were grouped and organized into 4-5 students in a group. Students wrote and produced a formatted essay in group according to the 5-paragraph method taught. Beforehand, students were exposed to the technique and came up with a completed model essay.
In peer response and editing, this collaborative task was done after teacher's modeling of the 5-Paragraph Method. Every group exchanged the finished essay and had the opportunity to respond and give feedback of the other groups' writing in terms of paragraphing, content, grammar, and mechanics (punctuations, capital letters, etc).
For mock debate, as part of the writing process, students were exposed to argumentative type of writing through the introduction of the mock debate. Brainstorming is an essential part of the writing process. Informal debate was conducted by forming two (2) groups. An argumentative topic was given. One group was selected as the Government, while the other was selected as the Opposition. Each student in every team was provided with one point or issue. This collaborative task was an essential pre-writing activity for the students.
For the instrumentations employed during the course of the study, there were four (4) main instruments used.
A) Non-Participant Observation
The main instrument which was used in the research was through teacher observation. Observations took place in the classroom during the teaching and learning process. Students' verbal and non-verbal behavior will be observed during the collaborative writing tasks. I was the non-participating observer during the collaborative writing tasks prepared for the students. However, at the same time, I prompted the students during the pre-writing activities, specifically during the brainstorming and question-and-answer sessions.
B) Teacher Checklist
As part of the non-participant observation, a written documentation was provided for the details observed during every collaborative writing task. A checklist was used to record and document important things occurring during every writing lesson. It was also used to monitor students' progress.
C) Analysis of Students' Essays
Essays produced by students were one of the core instruments used in the study. There were two (2) types of students' writings which were analyzed. The first one was individual student essays, and also group / collaborative essays. As I wanted the students to be exposed to more systematic way of writing an essay, the individual writing was conducted much later in Week 9 of my practicum. Students were asked to write a descriptive essay. Meanwhile, for collaborative essays, the prominent and real collaborative writing tasks occurred in Week 3 and Week 9. In Week 3, students collaborated to produce a speech essay. In Week 9, students were asked to produce an argumentative and pros-and-cons type of essay in groups.
D) Students' Reflections and Oral Responses
During the course of the collaborative writing tasks, students' spontaneous and non-spontaneous responses were observed and recorded. Apart from that, students orally shared their responses on the collaborative writing tasks they were engaged in. Students' responses and reflections were appropriate sources to look in-depth into students' preferences in collaborative writing tasks in the classroom.
Data Analysis And Interpretation
Data obtained from teacher's observations and checklists as well as students' essays and reflections were analyzed using interpretive method or ‘observer impression'. Data were examined, and then were interpreted based on my own understanding and impression. Lastly the data were summarized and summed up in the findings and discussion of findings.
Research Findings And Discussion
As I had incorporated the three major types of collaborative writing activities for my study, several insights surfaced in relation to collaborative writing and the improvement in students' writing qualities. The findings of my study suggested that the selection of collaborative tasks for ESL students impacted their writing skills and qualities. Apart from that, collaborative writing activities also provide the opportunity for students to enhance their other language skills, especially in speaking. Another equally important theme is how students of different proficiency levels react to collaborative writing tasks and activities in ESL classroom.
Tasks Efficacy And Relevancy In Collaborative Writing
The tasks I implemented during the collaborative writing tasks include the 5-paragraph method, peer response and editing, and mock debate. Some of the questions I had been trying to answer in the selecting and implementing of tasks and strategies in class aid in collaborative and group writing include: What could be gained from the incorporation of such tasks and activities? Did they help the students to be more engrossed in the collaborative writing? Did the selection of the tasks and activities in line with contributing some elements of collaborative writing? Mostly, the findings and discussion of this study were based on Research Question 1: What are some of the effective collaborative activities in producing quality essays and writings?
a) 5-Paragraph Method and Peer Response/Editing
The 5-Paragraph Method (Illustration 1) of essay-writing was incorporated by me as early as the third week. The relevancy of the incorporation of this kind of essay writing was for the students of Form 4 Al-Razi to learn to link thoughts and ideas together, and a way to organize those ideas, as well as a beneficial exposure for a complete writing process. Johari (2004) strongly supported the importance of focusing on the process while writing, instead of focusing solely on the end product.
The 5-paragraph method and model essay were also helpful for less proficiency students in my ESL class. In teaching the method of writing essay, I modeled an example of a text of a speech essay (Illustration 4) to help the less proficient students. What I could observe was that the students could comprehend better when I showed them the model essay. Therefore, when I asked them to produce similar speech essay on the same topic (“How To Maintain Peace and Harmony In Our Society), the students working in groups could easily come up with their essays. Chitravelu et al (1995) supported the use of writing models in the ESL classroom as when students attempt to imitate a text, he or she becomes aware of the many features of writing. The students generally understood what I taught and modeled them in the paragraphing method (Illustration 2 and 3).
Meanwhile, for the second collaborative writing activity for the students of Form 4 Al-Razi, peer response and edit was done immediately a day after collaborative writing activity 1 which was the 5-paragraph essay. The importance of giving immediate feedback to students in assisting them to produce better works, providing a platform for students to evaluate and reflect on the quality of their writings, and as a motivation for them is supported by Chitravelu et al (1995); Porto (2000); Johari (2004); and Tompkins (1990). One of the significant relevance of the incorporation of peer response and peer editing which I observed amongst the students of Form 4 Al-Razi was for students to assess their own errors and mistakes. A set of checklist to respond and edit one another's writing was prepared by me before the lesson (Illustration 5). The students were responsible to remark on their peers' essays. I pinpointed that:
“My objective was to make students understand and see what mistakes and errors they make; rather than having a teacher correcting them.” (TREFJ: WEEK3: pp 11)
The efficacy of the peer response and editing could be observed as the activity was conducted a day after the students collaborated to produce a speech essay entitled “How To Maintain Peace and Harmony in Our Country”. Such immediate feedback and response towards students' improvement and quality writing was apparent as the students were still familiar with the writing they produced. They even were enthusiastically looking forward for the other writing group's feedback and response in the writing they produced earlier. I observed at the end of the lesson with Form 4 Al-Razi that:
“After having produced an essay, students should receive feedback from their friends or teacher as soon as possible while they are still familiar with the essay. (TREF: LP WEEK 3 A)
Based on the two collaborative activities conducted, I found out that less proficient students especially were engrossed in producing the speech essay. Although they did not contribute much in the actual writing (which was done by their more proficient peers), I could see improvements in terms of producing more organized and systematic essays, though they were still major improvements to be made in regard to their grammar.
b) Mock Debate
As Johari (2008) emphasized on the importance the writing process, other than solely focusing on the end product (i.e. the finished piece of essay), I felt that the mini mock debate I introduced to Form 4 Al-Razi could serve as an excellent pre-writing activity in the ESL classroom. I was proud to have introduced the debate for the students, other than starting off my writing activities with brainstorming sessions. Johari (2008) further stated that;
“too often, however, teachers fail to allow students sufficient time for these processes, particularly during the important pre-writing stage when students interact with their teacher and peers to generate ideas and determine their topic, purpose, audience, and organizational scheme.”
My observation and reflection reflected Johari's (2008) notion. I wrote:
“Before selecting to incorporate this mini mock debate, I took into consideration the opportunity for writing another type of essay, which was a more serious writing. I saw the advantage of the mock debate in helping students to write an argumentative or pros and cons writing”. (TCHECA: MDEB A)
Hence, based on my observations as well as my own reflections and of the students', I could say that the efficacy and relevancy of the mock debate for the collaborative writing session was indisputable. I observed and wrote in my teacher checklist during the mock debate activity that:
“Although not all students managed to talk, I believe for future use, (debate) can be a great pre-writing activity.” (TCHECD: WEEK8 A)
As for the efficacy of the mock debate in provoking students' own ideas and opinions as well as their skill in giving arguments, this I perceived as contributing towards their sharing of relevant ideas and the ability to argue for their points in the collaborative argumentative essay which they produced later. Munneke and Andriessen (2006) opinionated on this by stating that when an essay is written as a group, argumentation between the members of the group also occurs. I observed that:
“I did not do the brainstorming as I always had done in my previous lesson. Instead of ‘provoking' them to initiate answers, the students themselves worked in two groups (the Government and the Opposition) in coming up with their points to rebut. (TCHECA: MDEB B)
Collaborative Writing And Levels Of English Proficiency
True to what a few researches on the advantages of collaborative writing for students of lower English proficiency, the harm and disadvantages for the better-able and good students also were apparent. In trying to answer Research Question 2 and 3, I summed up the findings and discussions in one subheading of “Collaborative Writing and Levels of English Proficiency”. How collaborative writing tasks and activities impacted the students' writing quality is also correlated with how proficient the students are in the English Language.
a) Research Question 3: What is the preference for ESL students of higher and lower levels of English proficiency in writing?
How did the Form 4 Al-Razi students of mixed levels of English proficiency prefer to write? In trying to answer the Research Question 3, I requested for the students of Form 4 Al-Razi to write their reflection on what they felt about the individual and group writing as well as my teaching as a whole. I found out that a few good students in the class felt unenthusiastic and discouraged to write in group. However, there were also those who enjoyed the collaborative activities. The more proficient students wrote:
“You give unclear instruction. Need to work on your voice projection. I feel this class is boring”. (SREF: GA: FIJ)
“Miss Elvera is interesting. I love it when you give us interesting quotes during the class. However, you need to increase your voice. Sometimes, you give unclear instructions. P/S I'm really sorry I slept in your class during the group activity. I don't prefer group activities as I feel that it is quite boring. I prefer to write individually.” (SREF: GB: ACP)
“Teacher Elvera is nice. I like her lessons, esp. the interesting games and activities and the mock debate!” (SREF: GC: CS)
Based on what the students' written reflections, I could see that one of the factors which led the more proficient students to feel bored and unenthusiastic during the group tasks and activities was my voice projection and instruction-giving. I should admit that sometimes I felt it a bit difficult to give instructions to the students of Form 4 Al-Razi since I ‘perceived' them to understand my instructions and comprehend them better. However so, I gained some input from their reflections on my teaching and would try to make improvement for my lacking. I wrote this in my daily reflective journal:
“Towards the end of my practicum session, I did a reflection with my students (Form 4 Al-Razi)…students can be such a surprise. You'll get all sorts of answers and responses. Yet, those reflections help me in understanding my students and improving my teaching skills.” (TREFJ: WEEK13: pp 45-46)
Meanwhile, the less proficient students in Form 4 Al-Razi reflected for and against collaborative writing tasks during the ESL lessons. I found out that they possessed mixed feelings for the three (3) major collaborative writing activities conducted (i.e. 5-paragraph method, peer response and editing, and mock debate). Some less proficient students wrote:
“The activities fun and interesting. I like the strip-story alot! I also like the essay writing in group. But teacher don't give enough time to write”. (SREF: WA: SM)
“You give us too many essays. I don't like English and writing essay. Its hard for me”. (SREF: WB: NAI)
“I don't like English. Its boring esp when I have to write essays.” (SREF: WC: AAM)
An important point to note based on what the students reflected was that ample of time given for writing activity ensure maximum learning input for the students. Otherwise, the less proficient students would not experience maximized learning. The time constraint during the collaborative tasks did not occur that often; it was only for several in-class writings. I believe that there was not much advantages if writing is done hastily and focusing only on the end product. At the end, students would not benefit during the collaborative writing tasks. What Silva et al (1994) as cited in Porto (2001) claimed is true; “writing under time pressure is not congruent with the conception of writing as a recursive, interactive, communicative and social activity.”
On similar scale, I perceived that for students of lower English levels proficiency, the main factor for them in their preferences for collaborative writing tasks during my lessons actually depended on their openness and socializing skill among their peers. Briefly stated, some less proficient students might like collaborative activities, and some might not. Arthur-Kelly (2003) noted that learners vary in their ability to participate in cooperative and collaborative based activities. Therefore, it is necessarily important for teachers to impart the skills of cooperation amongst their students.
b) Research Question 2: Does writing collaboratively improve students' skills in writing?
In conducting this study, I was particularly intrigued to find out how the students fare in their writing. I wanted to find out whether or not collaborative writing assisted the students in producing better essays individually. In trying to answer Research Question 2, beforehand, I engaged the students in a few collaborative tasks, including group writing. After ample familiarity and exposure of the 5-paragraph method and collaborative writing, I requested the students to individually write a descriptive essay of 350 words during a 70-minute lesson.
a) Individual Essays
Briefly stated, during the descriptive writing tasks which I did with my student only in the 9th week, generally most of the intermediate and high-intermediate levels of proficiency students managed to produce quality essays which I had expected (Illustration 6a and 6b). For the less proficient students' essays (Illustration 7a and 7b), one student came to me seeking for my assistance in writing her essay. I offered some help and turned out that she managed to produce better essay. I observed that:
“I could also see that one of the weak students seeks for my assistance. I offered help…she managed to produce an average essay which I am proud of.” (TCHECD: WEEK 9 A)
b) Collaborative/Group Writing
As stated by Thompkins (1990) that when students write a composition in groups, they are provided with the opportunity to rehearse before writing a similar essays individually. The collaborative essays done by the students of Form 4 Al-Razi henceforth provided the opportunity for the less proficient students to improve their writing skill. However, I found out that, for the group essays that they produced, the ones who put the group ideas into written words were the more proficient students. This could be seen in Illustration 8(a) and Illustration 8(b).
c) Comparison of Individual And Collaborative Writing
After the completion of the collaborative writing and individual students' writing, I compared their individual and group writing. What I found out was that the more proficient students actually did write and produce the group writing. The less proficient students maintained their role as passive contributors. If they did, I observed that the quality of the less proficient students' individual writing was rather similar with the group writing essay they produced.
However so, the less proficient students were at an advantage as they could model and imitate their peers' essay - an advantage of peer support. By introducing the 5-paragraph method and peer response and edit, I could observe some improvements in students' writing in terms of organization and ideas cohesiveness. In the long run, group writing could help the weaker students to broaden their ideas and extended them in producing their own essays. This is true as what Tran (2006) stated that “a supportive learning environment …with the help of a peer…could stimulate learners' motivation and develop their confidence in writing”. This is to say that instead of focusing too much in producing correct sentences, in a way, group writing encourages students' creativity in second language writing.
Speaking Skill As An Advantageous Element In Collaborative Writing
Highlighting the fact that writing is not solely a skill on its own - nor does the other language skills of listening, speaking and reading - I could pinpoint and share the relevance of starting each one of my writing lesson with Form 4 Al-Razi with brainstorming and idea-generation session. It is imperative to provoke students to talk and share their ideas and opinions during the ESL writing lessons. Before and during the collaborative writing tasks, I introduced every lesson in writing with brainstorming and idea-generation (Illustration 9). This is exactly what Thompkins (1990) opinionated on the need for students to talk when they write, whether individually or collaboratively:
“Students talk with their classmates to share ideas about possible writing topics, try out ways to express ideas, and ask questions…read and react to each other's writing...participates in class discussions…discuss their compositions in conferences and proofread each other's writing”.
My findings of the incorporation of speaking skill as an integral part of collaborative writing through my observations in Form 4 Al-Razi were based in reference to Thompkins' (1990) notion of “talking” as a necessary part in student writing.
a) Sharing of ideas in collaborative writing
Even in group writing, it is inevitable that students need to interact with each other. I went around the classroom making sure that the groups of four to five converse in English, though of course most of them code-switched most of the times (i.e. English to Malay Language; Malay to English Language). However so, I believe that code-switching and code-mixing are also an important part of students' interaction which leads to more serious conversation in class. It is true to what Skiba (1997) stated that though code-switching during a conversation may be seen as an inability for an individual to express himself or herself, at certain point “it does provide an opportunity for language development”. As for the case in for Form 4 Al-Razi, they are able to share and contribute ideas though they code-switch in Malay Language. On a contrary, there is little opportunity to impose the “you must talk in English all the time” rule if the ESL students could not speak out their ideas and opinions. Even students of higher English proficiency code-switched when presenting their ideas to give emphasis and stated their points;
“Books will remain as major source of information…because, you know, thousands of years ago, buku-buku ada sudah. Internet belum lagi.” (STUD: CS: MDEB 3)
“Our Government team wish to state our stand that the Internet is the major source of information nowadays. Just by the click of a mouse, you can get everything online. Kan?” (STUD: JS: MDEB 3)
Whatever it was, the students were used to sharing their own opinions in the beginning of the lesson, whether or not it was a writing lesson. Henceforth, spontaneously most of the students of Form 4 Al-Razi “controlled” their own sharing of ideas and opinions during the collaborative writing tasks I assigned them to. I needed not to prompt them to talk every now and then. Arthur-Kelly et al (2003) mentioned that one of the significant advantages of cooperative or group learning is the amount of student control over the learning process. True enough during the collaborative writing tasks I executed for Form 4 Al-Razi, I observed the groups were participating and contributing their ideas without much assistance from me. I maintained the role as a facilitator in order for the students to gain the autonomy to speak up in their respective groups. I wrote these in the self-reflection part in my lesson plan and the teacher checklist regarding my role as a facilitator during the discussion in group:
“Voila! See what they gave me? Confidence, confidence and more confidence. I only prompted them once in a while. The rest was their own discussion and debating.” (TREF: LP WEEK8 1a)
“My role was only as a facilitator during the discussion since the students themselves gave feedback.” (TCHECA: PRESP A)
Similarly, in my teacher checklist, I wrote this in regard to the opportunity of collaborative writing lesson for students to share ideas and enhance their speaking skill:
“Even, spoken words are also considered as one's own ideas and written words spoken orally”. (TCHECKD: WEEK8 B)
b) Question-and-answer sessions in collaborative writing
Another apparent example of the incorporation of speaking skill among Form 4 Al-Razi was the question-and-answer session (Q and A). The Q and A occurred not only before the lesson started and when prompted by me, but then as weeks went by, I observed that the students were able to initiate good questions and provided quality answers during group activities. As Porto (2000) put it that “by asking questions…group members played the role of readers, and found value in the piece of writing.” In other words, members of a writing group respond to each other's questions, giving answers, and commenting on them. Hansen (1996: 189) as cited in Porto (2000) agreed that each members in a writing group responded to each other genuinely without giving too much emphasis on the grammatical aspects.
As far as the statement is true, I observed that although the students of Form 4 Al-Razi tend to converse in Malay Language during the collaborative writing activities, they improved somehow in trying to elicit questions. Those points during the Q and A eventually helped them in writing better essays.
“The students are also able to initiate some Q and A (during the collaborative writing of a speech essay).” (TCHECD: WEEK2 A)
c) Peer response and feedback in collaborative writing
Students who comprehend better in a specific learning task could provide some explanations for their peers who are having difficulties (Arthur-Kelly, 2003). This type of interaction in a collaborative learning could be observed during the peer response/editing and mock debate activities conducted in Form 4 Al-Razi.
“Their skill in giving peer feedback is tremendous…some good students spontaneously correct their friends. I see this as an opportunity for students to develop their speaking skill. Once they've developed it, writing should be no problem for them.” (TREF: LP WEEK8 B)
“I observed that the groups could give response, edit and pinpoint the mistakes and errors in their peers' writing.” (TCHECA: PRESP B)
The incorporation of the three (3) collaborative activities among Form 4 Al-Razi obviously assisted not only the more proficient students in sharing their feedbacks among the group member. The less proficient students were also at an advantage since constructive feedbacks and response were given from their peers. What I could observe from their writings was that although the less proficient students did not contribute much in writing the group essay themselves, they could share some ideas and feedbacks in helping their peers to construct and write the given essays. This is also highlighted by Tran (2006) that “peer-feedback activities…help students refined their drafts by diagnosing their own mistakes with the help of a peer.”
In conclusion, although collaborative learning, and particularly in my case, collaborative writing has been widely known for decades in providing advantages for ESL students, I have been aware of what collaborative writing could do and could not do for my students. Writing for the students is the most difficult skill in English. They shy away from writing; they illuminate their boredom at the very mention of ‘today we're going to do another writing task'. Initially, I too, brushed off the idea of implementing various collaborative writing in my class. I sensed that there was not much to be improved in their writing since I was teaching the class for only 12 mere weeks.
However, I was motivated to try out what I had in mind- which was the idea of ‘collaborative writing' in enhancing the students' writing quality. I wanted to see how they would fare in their writing; could they or could they not write well. During the course of conducting the collaborative tasks, I personally felt that some of the students improved. Yes, their grammar could not be improved tremendously in 12-weeks. What I gained from the collaborative learning was more than I had ever imagined. The spontaneous brainstorming session I did with the students somehow managed to increase their levels of confidence in giving their own opinions and arguing academically. I did not see that coming, either. After all, spoken words eventually will develop a learner's skill in writings. I belief in that, and I belief in the students' capability of producing better writings.
In my own experience as a teacher and a researcher, I realized that in the course of trying to see how much my students improved, I reflected on my own teaching. The collaborative writing did not only revolve around the students' learning, but also my inclusion as a collaborative ‘peer' offering assistance and feedbacks. In conclusion, collaborative writing activities not only enhance students' writing, but also in other aspects of language skills and promotes unique and non-threatening learning environment.
In this study, several significant findings and concerns are highlighted and presented in this chapter as implications and recommendations for future studies. This final chapter provides an overall summary of the study.
Summary Of The Findings
From the findings of the study, it can be summarized that collaborative writing activities in an ESL classroom not only impacted students' writing quality. Several findings emerged in the incorporation of the collaborative writing activities. One of them is that the effectiveness of collaborative writing methods in assisting students in idea-generating and presenting more critical and reflective responses. This in turn influenced their writing skills. Another finding of similar importance in enhancing students writing quality is the apparent incorporation of speaking skills in collaborative writing. This improvement of speaking skills in generating ideas, sharing of information and the question and answer sessions are vital in ensuring students are better prepared in their writing tasks. Overall, collaborative writing tasks provide an opportunity for students to provide better arguments, peer-help and self-evaluate their writing qualities.
Implications Of The Study
In reflection of my findings in the study, I perceive that collaborative effort in teaching and learning in the ESL classroom has not much being incorporated in the school. I perceive this as a hindrance to the students' critical and creative thinking skills which are being emphasized in the Malaysian school curriculums.
Thus, the implication of the findings of my study is beneficial for teachers and curriculum makers. These parties are responsible in ensuring that students receive maximum input from meaningful and non-threatening collaborative learning, instead of exam-based learning. Teachers and educators need to be opened to new ideas and ways of teaching and learning of ESL lessons.
Another implication is towards the promotion of school-based assessment, rather than standard-based assessment such as the UPSR, PMR and SPM. The need to promote collaborative teaching and learning is vital for students' motivation and self-confidence. Students differ in their learning styles. This collaborative writing activities are one of those important elements of providing an alternative for learners who do not excel in exam-based education.
Recommendations For Future Studies
Towards the end of this study, I possessed ample of information in helping me in my future researchers. As far as collaborative writing could enhance individual students' writings, there are various of other opportunities for collaborative-based activities for Malaysian schools. Further researches in this collaborative-based learning could include further studies in discovering and getting to know more on different learning styles of students and the providence of different multiple intelligences. Future researches in writing quality could include exploration in how different student learning styles affect their writing quality. Other than that, ESL writing activities could be enhanced and developed hand-in-hand with a wide range of collaborative-type activities.
From my own experiences as a language learner and a teacher, writing has always managed to capture my interest. Through the findings, I found out that collaborative writing does not necessarily have to improve students' individual writing quality for them to be considered as proficient in the language. My 12-week stint in the school did not provide me much opportunity to see significant progress in the students' writing quality. After all, spoken words are also the basis for improvements in writing skills; spoken or written, ideas and opinions are exclusive to an individual. The findings of the study in a due course enlightened me to be more creative and open to various array of interesting and interactive activities for my future ESL lessons.
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