Ask any ELA teacher to tell you some of the main challenges of the job, and a likely answer is keeping up with responding to student writing.  It’s a laborious task, yet we know it’s a significant part of helping student writers.  In fact, no writer improves without two things: lots and lots of practice, and helpful feedback.

Yet a secondary teacher who has anywhere from 100 to 180 students cannot provide as much effective feedback as they would like to provide.  So many of us turn to peer feedback to help.

From my experience, peer feedback works best when students are with writing partners/groups for a chunk of time.  Building trust must happen before students can provide good feedback, and more importantly, before they will accept feedback from other students.

Just like any other structure, the success of peer feedback rests on clear expectations and modeling of both the “right” and “wrong” way.  The first time I expect students to provide feedback in a school year, I like to ask volunteers to fishbowl an example. I pull the volunteers into the hall while I ask the remaining students to work with their groups to create descriptions of what they expect a good peer conference to look like.  I work quickly with the volunteer group to create a brief example of a bad conference.  Honestly, it usually goes beyond bad to truly terrible!

As you might guess, this fishbowl results in a lot of laughs, but it also creates an entry point to talk about negative behaviors.  After the laughs subside, we debrief and create a list of all the bad behaviors and a class chart of what should happen instead.

Then it’s time to practice.  Like with any other practice, I walk the room, listening in on groups and making notes of points and behaviors to highlight.  Students love to be highlighted in positive ways, and I reinforce my expectations through these positive highlights – a win-win!

In addition to behavior expectations, I also use protocols to provide structure and language so all students can find success.

Here are a few of my favorite protocols.

Best Line and Three Questions:  Peers find a “best line” in the piece, and they share why they chose this line in discussion.  Then they ask three genuine questions.  Students may need a mini-lesson on generating helpful questions, and all students will need you to model this protocol, maybe several times, before they will be able to do it well.

If students are not quite ready for Best Line, perhaps start with this sentence stem protocol: I noticed (positive) . . . , and as a reader, I would like . . . .

PQP – Praise, Question, Polish: This protocol is widely used, and you can find many versions online.  This works well with older or more experienced students.  Most teachers provide a few sentence stems for each of the three feedback categories, so I listed some below.

Praise:  Identify the strengths of the piece.

  • “My favorite part is … because …”
  • “… was effective because …”
  • “You were really clear about …”
  • “As a reader, I particularly enjoyed …”

Question:  Dig into both the structure and the content of the piece.  Cross reference the writing with the assignment and/or rubric.

  • “Could you help me to see … better?”
  • “Would you consider adding (taking out, changing) … in order to …?”
  •  “What if you moved this word or phrase? (Provide thinking for the move.)
  • “I’m not sure I understand this part clearly; (then provide specific question)”

Polish:  Look at the “big picture” to consider the writing as a whole.  What should the writer focus his/her attention on to add the final touches to the piece?

  • Have you considered …?
  • Could you add more to … in order to …?
  • What do you want your readers to think, do, or believe when they are finished reading your piece?
  • If you made this structural revision [define], your readers would ….

For younger students, use My Turn, Your Turn. You model a specific feedback statement, like a “best line” that includes figurative language, and then instruct all students to find a best line with figurative language.  Be sure to model with academic language.

There are many, many protocols to help you guide students as they provide peer feedback, and in helping each other, they become critical readers and develop strong “read like a writer” skills.  Done well, days spent providing peer feedback are powerful learning days!



A few years ago, I served as Penny Kittle’s driver.

Yes, you read that sentence correctly.

No, I am not an Uber driver, nor am I particularly good driver. But Penny was in town, and she needed someone reliable to drive her from the hotel to the workshop venue for the two days she was presenting.  To this day, I have no idea how this task fell to me, but I said yes.

Saying yes meant I had PENNY KITTLE trapped in a small space with no one but me to talk to!   I utilized every minute of that time while trying to not overwhelm her with questions.   (I considered asking her if I could tape our conversation, but I thought that might be going a bit too far.)  She was kind and gracious, which made me appreciate her even more.

Serving as her driver meant I could attend the workshop, too.  One of the many ideas Penny shared was an activity in which she sketched and annotated her thoughts in response to this question:

Have you ever had a moment when you felt two parts of who you are or who you want to be or who others expect you to be at war inside of you? Where you feel split in two but also whole all at once?

See the activity here.

A couple of weeks later, my students finished book clubs, and I decided to try an adaptation of Penny’s idea.  I asked students to think about how characters in their books changed from the beginning to the end of their stories.  I asked them to think about what kind of changes were significant and notable versus changes that were insignificant, and I asked them to provide a sketch that revealed “before and after” attributes and details.

I wanted to see where students were in their understanding of character development, and I liked the idea of providing a low stakes, creative method for them to show me.  I also decided to give students individual time to create their sketches, which gave them some space from their book club partners.  I learned over the years that sometimes even the best groups need a little time to think away from each other.


When they finished, I asked them to meet in their book club groups to share their drawings and to discuss how they determined what they put on their sketches.  As they talked, I captured some of their thoughts and ideas on my clipboard.  These would be the ideas we would discuss.

I did not have my students dig in as deeply as Penny’s example shows, but I liked the results, and I attached a few for The Secret Life of Bees throughout this post.  I quickly determined which students needed some conversation with me the following day, and then we had a strong whole-group discussion about the various ways students noticed important changes in their characters.  The discussion was strong because all of the ideas came from the students — not from me, not from a list of pre-determined notes, not from a teacher’s guide.

What you cannot see, though, are the animated conversations that took place as students shared their thinking processes and their sketches.  All of that joy and excitement prompted me to put everyone’s sketches on my bulletin board after school that day.  The next day, students vied for space near the bulletin board.  They were reading, commenting, asking questions to each other, etc. — exactly what every literacy teacher hopes to see students doing in response to books.

Thank you, Penny Kittle.



I was introduced to the concept of invitational groups when Ellin Keene first worked with our middle school ELA team.  Our school had completed a book study of Mosaic of Thought, but it wasn’t until Ellin led a demonstration lesson in a colleague’s classroom that I started to understand the power of the invitational group.  While Mosaic of Thought focuses on reading, the invitational group works just as well with writing, too.  See below for a summary.

I started invitational groups as voluntary groups in my classroom:  I would ask anyone who wanted to see me demonstrate a concept such as writing with imagery or thinking aloud about suspense in a text to join me in a certain location in the classroom.  All the other students were writing or reading independently, or sometimes students were working with writing partners on giving feedback.   After students became comfortable with the structure, I added the specific invitations to our routine.

While nothing can take the place of one-on-one conferencing, utilizing invitational groups helps solve a bit of the time issue, since the teacher can work with several students at once. Other students move at their pace, too, without being forced to spend time reviewing concepts they already understand, as often happens in whole-group mini-lessons.

Surprisingly, after invitational groups became a routine in my classroom, students who seemed secure with a concept sometimes self-selected into an invitational group.  We all know students who are skilled at pretending they “get it” when in fact, they may be confused.  Because this structure removes the stigma of “extra help,” students felt comfortable dipping into a group as needed.



Invitational groups are small groups of students who have shared needs for intensive instruction or discussion.  Students are invited to participate in an invitational group so the teacher can reinforce or extend a concept discussed in whole-group instruction. (Students can also join voluntarily.)  This is an opportunity to practice a skill with teacher support. Students have an opportunity to observe the teacher model in a more controlled, focused setting.

Setting up the Mini-lesson

Call students to a table or a close setting. Plan instruction to address a clearly identified need for each child in the group, such as reviewing a strategy, explaining a challenging writing convention, working on literary technique such as foreshadowing, etc.  Establish routines and protocols to prohibit interruptions from other students.  During reflection time, students who have participated in an invitational group can be invited to demonstrate what they have learned.

Frequency/Time Limits

Invitational groups are short, focused, and active. Invitational groups should be used as necessary and should rarely exceed fifteen minutes. Invitational groups are not static – the same group of children may meet one to three times to focus on an area of need; then they disband.

Adapted from Keene, Ellin Oliver, and Susan Zimmermann. Mosaic of Thought. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007.