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Collaborative writing: promoting languaging among language learners


Neomy Storch

The University of Melbourne



The literature on task based language learning has tended to treat writing and speaking tasks as distinct and separate. However, as Gilabert et al., 2016) have pointed out, such a dichotomous categorisation of tasks may not be realistic nor pedagogically beneficial. Collaborative writing tasks, in contrast, inextricably link speaking and writing, as learners negotiate with members of their group what ideas to include in their joint text.  Furthermore, collaborative writing tasks also encourages a focus on form as learners deliberate about how best to express their ideas. In this sense, collaborative writing tasks can potentially offer learners the language learning benefits associated with writing tasks (e.g. slow pace, visible output, see Williams, 2012) and with speaking tasks (e.g. immediate audience and feedback). The speaking that occurs in collaborative writing tasks, however, is in the service of producing the text.  Swain (2006) refers to such speaking as languaging: using language to deliberate about and talk through a problem. Her work draws on Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory which views language as a tool that facilitates cognitive development, including language learning.


In this presentation, I too draw on sociocultural theory to explain the importance of talk in collaborative writing. I illustrate,using excerpts of pair talk from a number of studies, that collaborative writing elicits two forms of languaging: other-directed talk (collaborative dialogue) as well as self-directed talk (private speech), particularly if the task is challenging.  In the presence of others, however, private speech is audible and can thus elicit a response from the collaborators. In both forms of languaging learners can offer each other suggestions, reassurance, and explanations (e.g. Fernandez Dobao, 2012, 2014; Storch, 2002, 2008) and pool their linguistic resources. Research has shown that the resolutions learners reach during languaging episodes are predominantly correct (see review in Storch, 2013) and are remembered (Brooks & Swain, 2009).  Collaborative writing tasks thus provide learners with opportunities to engage in higher order thinking, to co-construct new knowledge or consolidate existing language knowledge.


However, for the collaborative tasks to engage learners in such talk they need to be carefully designed and implemented. The tasks need to be sufficiently but not overly challenging.  Furthermore, in order to encourage contribution to the activity, learners need to feel a sense of collective ownership for the jointly produced text. I argue that it is the sense of collective ownership that determines the kind of relationship learners form when completing collaborative tasks (see Storch 2002,2013) and their willingness to amend peers’ contributions in online collaborative writing tasks (e.g. Lund, 2008). A sense of collective ownership also distinguishes collaborative writing from other group writing activities (e.g. peer response).


Thus in order to maximise the language learning opportunities that collaborative writing tasks can provide language learners, we need to design and implement collaborative writing tasks carefully. I conclude by offering some suggestions relating to the tasks chosen, pre- and post collaborative writing activities, and grading rubrics. I also call for more research on how to develop among learners a sense of collective ownership given that in our educational institutions individual ownership seems firmly established.

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