Creating responsive social contexts for writing

Sociocultural understandings of human development and learning promote a view of learners as active agents who come to know their world in terms of their own operations within it, especially through their use of language in contextualised social interactions with others (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bruner, 1996; Glynn, Wearmouth, & Berryman, 2005; McNaughton, 2002; Vygotsky, 1978).

Lave and Wenger (1991) construe learning as a process of change in the degree to which individuals can actively participate in and be included in communities of practice where there is regular and sustained interaction with more-skilled individuals around genuinely shared activities (Wearmouth & Berryman, 2009). Genuinely shared activities are those that are meaningful and authentic for students.

Regular interactions around these shared activities can lead students to develop and refine their knowledge and skills within specific literacy domains such as speaking, reading and writing for example. Sustained participation in these activities also affirms and extends positive social relationships. Glynn, Wearmouth and Berryman (2005) describe these important interactive and social learning contexts as responsive social contexts. Glynn et al. (2005) further explain that:

Responsive contexts are characterised by a balance of control over initiating and continuing learning interactions, such that the more-skilled participant takes on a range of responsive, interactive roles rather than instructional, custodial or managerial roles.

They are characterised also by reciprocal intellectual and social benefits for each participant that result from their language interaction around shared tasks. These contexts may be characterised, too, by frequent reversal of the traditional learning and teacher roles, and by feedback that is responsive rather than evaluative (p.93).


In establishing responsive social contexts for writing, teachers avoid traditional pedagogical approaches that emphasise evaluation of the text and in particular focus on formal instruction in surface features (such as grammar, spelling and punctuation).

By contrast, responsive teachers understand that students need to be able to share their prior knowledge and experiences through the medium of writing, without fear of criticism or failure, therefore they work to create contexts in which students have many opportunities to communicate with others through writing.

This involves ensuring that students receive feedback about their writing from people who are more skilled at writing and it also involves providing strategies and writing structures that support students to generate words and organise their ideas in the planning and revision processes of writing.

Research reported in Alton-Lee’s (2003) Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis supports the proposition that effective pedagogical approaches to writing build upon the language experiences of diverse students and view writing as both a social as well as a literacy skill. Alton-Lee draws specifically from the work of Freedman and Daiute (2001) who highlight the importance of acknowledging that many students enter schools and classrooms with language practices that are different from those valued in formal writing genres of mainstream schools.

Alton-Lee surmises their findings and proposes that “addressing diversity is the key pedagogical strategy for effective instructional approaches in writing” (p.24).

This research further highlights the importance of teacher consideration of their pedagogical approaches to writing and the way in which the socio cultural contexts they create are inclusive and enable all learners to actively participate in the classroom writing community.


The development continuum reflects some indicators of successful writers — what does writing for success look like?


Responsive Written Feedback

Theoretical Basis — the Responsive Written Feedback procedure

Responsive Written Feedback is an example of a writing procedure that draws from sociocultural understandings of learning to accelerate the writing achievement of students.

The procedure provides a framework that facilities social interaction, through a writing exchange or writing relationship, between a (less competent) writer and a responder (who is more skilled at writing than the writer).

The writer initiates the writing exchange and can determine what they would like to communicate and share with their responder. The responder reads the piece of writing and then provides written feedback to the writer.

The intention of the feedback is to respond to the messages conveyed within the piece of writing in order to develop a non-dominating writing relationship between the writer and the responder.

If we consider what this social interaction might look like in terms of a respectful face-to-face conversation between two people, the person who is more competent in their oral language delivery is unlikely to focus on correcting or evaluating the oral language delivery of the person who is less competent.

The same principle or socially appropriate conventions apply to this writing exchange so that the responder shows support for the writer by responding to what they understand the writer is attempting to communicate, rather than commenting on or trying to correct the writer’s errors. This does not mean however that Responsive Written Feedback does not support the development of accurate spelling, grammar and correct structure.

If we again consider the face-to-face conversation scenario, the person who is more competent in their oral language delivery has the opportunity to provide a correct example or model of oral language conventions and structures when they verbally respond to the person who is less competent.


In this sense the person responding is ‘showing’ what speaking correctly sounds like rather than specifically ‘telling’ the less competent person where they need to be corrected.

Similarly in the writing context the responder has the opportunity through their written response to show the writer what correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and/or structure looks like, while at the same time they show the writer (again through their response) that they understand and value the message the writing is conveying.

Responsive Written Feedback was used in research undertaken by Glynn, Jerram and Tuck in an English language context in 1986 and 1988.

This procedure was then further trialled in a Māori language setting (Glynn, Berryman, O’Brien and Bishop, 2000), in the context of immersion students transitioning into the English language and in the context of emergent writers in both English and Māori (Glynn, Berryman & Glynn, 2000).

More recently the Responsive Written Feedback has been used in Te Kotahitanga in a mainstream secondary school to accelerate the writing achievement of Year 9 students.

In these studies both adults and tuākana (older students) have been used as responders. The results showed that all students (including tuākana), who participated, learned the procedures easily, wrote longer and more interesting pieces of writing and improved their writing fluency across a range of different measures.

An additional pastoral benefit that one teacher observed in the Te Kotahitanga study reinforces how powerful this procedure can be with regard to providing a context for learning whereby students through their engagement in this sustained social interaction could come to better understand and participate in their world.

She specifically referred to a Year 9 male student who did not initiate interactions and rarely engaged with herself and other students in class.

However, the teacher noted that as this student’s writing relationship developed with his responder (who was a senior male student) his writing progressively became more expressive and detailed as he shared his thoughts and feelings and sought out his responder’s experiences and advice.

In one exchange the teacher noted that the writer had written to his responder about his father leaving the family home and he shared that he found this very difficult. He explained that he deeply missed his father and he found the extra responsibilities that he had as a result of his father’s absence sometimes overwhelming.


When the teacher spoke with the responder about how he might respond to this message, the older boy assured her that he knew exactly what he could write back because he had experience of what the writer was going through and he felt confident that he could offer him some advice and support.

The teacher reflected on this, and the written exchanges that ensued between this pair, and conceded that the writer had not felt that he could share this private and sensitive information about himself with her, but he had felt safe and secure to do so with his responder, through his writing.

This writing intervention had provided her with an opportunity to get a different insight into her student and develop a deeper understanding of who he was and what he was going through.

Importantly, the intervention also provided a safe forum for the writer to share his thoughts and feelings with another person, be heard (through his writing), receive some support and advice, and subsequently come to better understand his world and his agency within that world.

Video 1: Responsive Written Feedback

Key thoughts

“Responsive Written Feedback is … not error correction but thinking about what is the student actually telling me in terms of the message and what can I write back in response to that message from my own experiences.”

“It’s being a model for correct writing but it is really reading the writing and being an audience as well.”

“Students are picking up the cues you are giving them but they are being self determining about it.”


Key questions

  1. What do you understand the purpose of Responsive Written Feedback to be?
  2. What potential benefits for students do you see or have experienced?

Implementing Responsive Written Feedback

Responsive Written Feedback can be used within an established writing/learning programme to support students to improve the quality and quantity of their writing. The intervention is not a writing programme in itself.

The writers

A Responsive Written Feedback session takes 20 minutes of class-time, once a week. The first 5 minutes should be used for planning, followed by 10 minutes of writing and the final 5 minutes should be used for independent proof-reading and editing. Writers need to have access to writing resources such as dictionaries for the proof-checking and editing phase.

Student writers can choose what they would like to write to their responder about. In the first piece of writing for example, writers might like to introduce themselves and describe their interests and aspirations etc. Responders may respond to the first piece of writing by perhaps reciprocating the introduction (whanaungatanga). The focus and content of the written exchanges that follow are determined by the writer and are generally relevant to the writing relationship that evolves between themselves and their responder. In some cases some student writers might seek ideas/support from teachers and peers during the planning phase of the writing session and this might take the form of a collaborative brainstorm that students can draw from if they choose.


The responders

It is important to keep the intervention manageable for responders so they should have no more than three student writers to respond to.

The research conducted by Glynn, Jerram and Tuck (1986) identified a series of nine themes that characterised the responder’s Responsive Written Feedback. The themes provide responders with a framework to respond to writing and direct the emphasis away from corrective and evaluative feedback. The Responsive Written Feedback themes are:

  1. speaking with the writer;
  2. personalising the responses;
  3. having shared similar experiences;
  4. identifying a theme;
  5. enjoying the content;
  6. identifying with the characters;
  7. supporting the writer’s efforts;
  8. having empathy with the writer;
  9. anticipating a theme developing.

In responding to the student writer’s messages, the responder can pick up on spelling inaccuracies by modelling correct spelling and the correct use of written conventions (punctuation, sentences, paragraphs) in their own writing.

The teacher/co-ordinator


Ideally the intervention should run for a period of 10 weeks (one term) and it is best to record the responsive written feedback exchanges in an exercise book. For quantitative purposes it is important to stick to the 10 minute timeframe for writing.

Carefully plan the weekly exchange of books between student writers and responders. While this may be relatively straight forward within the school between tēina and tuākana student pairings, in the case of whānau and community responders, discuss and negotiate with them the best way of getting the books to them and then back into the school.


Quantitative Assessment

Complete a quantitative data analysis on the first sample of writing to ascertain the baseline.

This includes recording the total number of words, total number of errors, total number of correct words, correct word rate per minute, incorrect word rate per minute and the total number of challenging words.

The same quantitative data analysis process will be used on the final piece of student writing at the end of the term or 10 week block.

The template that follows can be used to record this quantitative data so that the first and final samples can be easily compared.

Responsive Written Feedback: Quantitative Data Recording Sheet [Download 1]


Analysing the quality of writing

Qualitative data analysis involves ascertaining whether or not the quality of the writing has improved between the first writing sample (pre-intervention) and the final writing sample (post-intervention).

This can be achieved through the development of moderation packs that are distributed to a group of moderators to score.

  1. Copying: It is important not to influence the moderators by providing any indications of which sample is the pre-intervention sample and the which sample is the post-intervention sample so make a copy of each piece for each student and remove the date or any other identifying information.
    (The co-ordinator needs to retain a copy of the books so that they have record of which sample is pre-intervention and which is post-intervention).
  2. Labelling: Label each writing sample with letters (A, B, C etc).
    Again, so as not to influence the moderators ensure the labelling is random so that one student does not have A on the pre-intervention sample and then B on the post-intervention sample.
  3. Collating: Collate the appropriate number of packs for the number of moderators i.e. for an average class (28) you may have four moderators so develop four packs.
    If you work on an average class ratio, within each pack include both writing samples for seven students which means that each pack should contain 14 pieces of writing.
  4. Scoring: Ask moderators to read and score each sample on the score card (a template is provided on the following page).
    These moderators are required to provide a score out 7 for audience appeal and a school out of 7 for writing fluency.
    Emphasise the need for the moderators to score based on their overall judgement/initial response to the writing rather than getting overly analytical and specific about the content and accuracy of the writing.

Another useful qualitative measure could include feedback from student writers and the responders which may take the forum of informal discussions to collect participant voice or a written evaluation.


Responsive Written Feedback: Writing Quality Moderation Card [Download 2]

Included in the next section are examples of student’s writing and responder’s feedback.

The student samples reflect Year 7 and Year 8 students who were transitioning from full Māori immersion education to an English medium secondary school.

The writing responder was a young person from outside of the community.


Examples of responsive written feedback

Student’s writing [Download 3]

What are the key messages in this piece of writing? How would you respond?

Responder’s writing [Download 4]


Student’s writing [Download 5]

Consider how you would respond to this piece of writing?

Responder’s writing [Download 6]


Conclusions from research

  • Tuākana were able to learn to use the procedure appropriately with their tēina.
  • Responsive writing components, as opposed to corrective feedback, were evident in the tuākana responses.
  • All students including those with the least skills in writing looked forward to the writing task.
  • Tuākana and tēina enjoyed the process of sharing their writing and receiving a written response.
  • None of the students missed the traditional corrective feedback yet all believed that they had improved their writing skills.
  • Tuākana and tēina showed improvement through all writing measures, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Important cultural learning about ako and the dual responsibilities within the tuākana-tēina relationship were evident.
  • Students choose to write about their everyday experiences and about Māori rather than non Māori events.
  • Teachers found the process to be a practical intervention that could be easily implemented in their classroom programme. When adult responders were used, students benefited through exposure to a wider range of writing models and language than was available in the class.
  • Teachers and students found that this process offered an authentic opportunity for writing. Writing had a real purpose.
  • When adult responders were used, students benefited through exposure to a wider range of writing models
and language than was available in the class.


Responsive Written Feedback Guidelines [Download 7]