The author describes her approach to peer critique in her fifth-grade classroom at D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle Campus in Washington, D.C., a high-performing charter school serving inner-city youth. Inspired by the work of Ron Berger, the approach combines step-by-step instructions and modeling with open-ended reader response, encouraging original insights and “kind, specific and helpful” suggestions.
After spending days or weeks on a piece of writing—be it fiction or nonfiction, research or narrative—my students often struggle with the penultimate step of the writing process. Revision is commonly met with groans of, “I don’t know what to change,” and subpar attempts at improving the words on the page.
One antidote that many teachers employ is having students give one another feedback on their writing. While this may invigorate a student’s short-term interest in their class work, many ponder the best methods to foster partner feedback that will truly make an impact on student writing. I have struggled with this myself, attempting to teach my students various techniques to read and critique another student’s work. All of my attempts came up short—students were not quite engaged in the process, their feedback was of low quality, and, perhaps most disconcerting, the feedback did not actually impact their writing. The writing did not improve as a result.
Then a colleague introduced me to Ron Berger’s approach to critique and feedback. It not only revolutionized the way in which my students revise their writing, but the depth and quality of their feedback. Berger’s approach is simple: “In order to create beautiful work, we must be willing to refine. To refine, we require critique and feedback. In order to critique, we need models and standards. For feedback to be useful to us, it must be: kind, helpful, and specific” (2012).
With Berger’s philosophy as my driving force, I set out to develop a clear way to teach my students how to conduct peer critique, with the goal of establishing a process that would be repeated in every new cycle of the writing process. I have taken the approach of explicitly modeling what I want to see them do. I divide peer critique over three days of writing class, hoping to establish a solid foundation for the year to come.
Day 1 provides a clear rationale and definition for peer critique. I tell my students,
“Our writing will only become better if we look at it again, through a different lens, and we make improvements. Good writers never write just once, they write, revise, re-write, revise, re-write, and so on and so forth until they have their best possible work. But sometimes, when we look at our writing again to figure out what we need to change, we can’t decide what’s wrong. That’s what makes today’s lesson so exciting. I am going to teach you a new way to revise, called “peer critique.” Our classmates, or peers, will help us by reading and critiquing our writing. Because our writing is new to their eye, they give us a perspective that we do not have on our own. After they read our writing, they will offer us kind, helpful, and specific feedback. Kind feedback gives a compliment. Helpful feedback gives a suggestion, and specific feedback tells where to apply the suggestion.”
The most powerful aspect of this introduction is in the way that this process is now modeled. First, students read an example of student writing. Then, they watch videos of that student receiving strong peer critique on their writing. Students identify how and why this critique is kind, helpful, and specific. Afterwards, students are shown the revised piece of student writing, with improvements made based on peer critique (see below). It is clear to students that the end goal is to re-write, adding improvements to their writing. Therefore, the process must be honest and open.
To solidify their understanding of kind, helpful, and specific feedback, students spend Day 2 providing individual critique as a class to a fellow classmate’s writing—before working with a partner. New video examples of student peer critique are observed; this time, to point out what content based skills should be critiqued. What is the reader looking for when reading? Is the focus on writing clarity or sentence structure? Are they focusing on the elements of a specific genre, such as narrative or informational writing? Providing this framework gives the reader a lens for what to focus on, allowing for helpful and specific feedback.
Day 3 is a culmination of sorts—students have been learning about peer critique over the previous two days, and they are itching to try it themselves. At the start of class, purposeful partnerships are revealed, and special meeting spots assigned. Students are given a protocol with time structures to emphasize process, rather than outcomes. At the start of the first official peer critique, the room is buzzing. Students are reading their work aloud, their partners jotting furiously as they listen. Partners respond with a compliment, then a specific, helpful remark, showing their peer exactly where in their writing to make a revision, and exactly what to improve. (see below)
Following a successful peer critique partnership meeting, students need time and space to do two things. First, they need to reflect on the feedback they received, thinking about what to improve, jotting notes to themselves in the margins of their drafts. Second, they need time to actually re-write the section or sections of their work. The latter is even more compelling if students have an opportunity to revisit with their peer critique partner, sharing the improvements that they’ve made.
One of the major inhibitors to this process is time. It takes time to give children guidance for this process, and time to execute it, highlighting the individual and unique feedback that is provided to each student.
It takes time to revisit this process for new writing genres, time to revise, revisit, and revise again. However, peer critique is one of the most powerful processes that students can do to grow as writers. It teaches them a skill that is imperative for college: to be open to, and looking for, positive critique to make them smarter, more successful, individuals. This critique doesn’t have to come from teacher or an adult—it can come from a peer. In fact, a peer’s opinion may have a greater impact on a student’s willingness to improve. The blend of guidance and openness implicit in this process opens the doors for better writing and stronger peer relationships.
Ron Berger Critique and Feedback (2012). PowerPoint file retrieved from
See also: Berger, R. (2003). An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.