The crux of the genre: Joint Construction

In part 3 of my series of posts on genre-based (ESL) writing pedagogy, we arrive at the heart of the Teaching/Learning Cycle. In the first stage, the teacher guided students to analyze, or deconstruct, the target genre for its organization, purpose, and language. Now, students collaboratively write a new text in that genre. Although there are different ways to do this collaborative writing, the Australian literature in particular focuses on one activity: teacher-led, whole-class Joint Construction.

For this, you need to prepare students by helping them brainstorm ideas for the writing (this is called “building field”). For example, today, my advanced students were learning to writing summaries, so we all read a short article and students worked individually and in pairs to locate the main ideas and the logical relationship between them (it’s just think-pair-share!). In another example, ripped from the pages of Inside Writing 2, my colleague had her students read a bad product review and discuss what elements of the genre needed improvement. Now, we’re ready to write!

Picture1In Joint Construction, the teacher acts as the scribe while students propose words, phrases, and sentences. As you can see on the left, we’re lucky to have SmartBoards in our classrooms, so I can type what the students say and edit as we go, but the activity works just as well on a chalkboard or flip chart. You can even designate a student as scribe. Usually, you have to start with a lot of prompting, reminding students where you are in the genre and what they need to provide next. The key to the success of the writing activity comes from your ability to scaffold the students’ learning. This means giving them just the right amount of support when they need it in order to complete the task — and then gradually taking away the support as they approach mastery. After all, when the building is finished, the scaffold is removed. So, you might start by asking for the next sentence, and then prompt for a connector, and if it’s quiet, supply a however, and if they still need help, keep building the support until together you can co-construct a sentence (Dreyfus et al., 2011). Another important way teachers direct the task is by recasting a student’s sentence, with the help of other students, so that it is accurate and appropriate for the text.

In research I presented earlier this year with colleagues from Delaware, I found that Joint Construction is an engaging task that raises lots of opportunities for language learning at many different levels while demonstrating to students how to construct a good example of the target genre. Other types of collaborative writing have focused on teaching  writing strategies, self-regulation strategies (“I can’t think of an idea so I’m going to re-read the paragraph I’ve already written”), and audience awareness. Collaborative writing can also be done in pairs or small groups, on paper, on a laptop, and even using wikis and online chat (although the jury is still out on whether that works as well as face-to-face writing). Research has found that collaboratively written texts are more complete, more accurate, and generally of higher quality than individually-written texts, and there is some evidence of transfer to students’ subsequent independent writing, both in terms of writing quality (for all students) and language acquisition (for second-language writers, cf Storch, 2013).


Did I mention that it’s really fun, too? You never get the same text twice, and students often come up with ideas and sentences you’d never have imagined by yourself. And that’s exactly the point: collaborative writing means  “two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to craft a text that neither could have created on his/her own” (Schrage, 1994, p. 18). When you’re leading the class, you can encourage equal participation, which prevents a common problem in group and pair writing of one student adopting a passive role. Even students who are quiet are often very engaged in the task, and everyone takes away a good piece of writing. In fact, Rose and Martin (2012) go so far as to call Joint Construction “the most powerful classroom practice currently available as far as learning written genres is concerned” (p. 73).  David Rose, incidentally, is the man standing at the whiteboard on the right, so he should know.

Give it a go! You’ll be surprised at what you can write …. together.

In the next post in this series, I’ll move on to independent writing.

Further reading:

Dreyfus, S. J., Macnaught, L., & Humphrey, S. (2011). Understanding joint construction in the tertiary context. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 4, 135–160. doi:10.1558/lhs.v4i2.135 [nice examples of Joint Construction in action in real classrooms]

Schrage, M. (1994). Writing to collaborate: Collaborating to write. In J. S. Leonard, C. E. Wharton, R. M. Davis, & J. Harris (Eds.), Author-ity and textuality: Current views of collaborative writing (pp. 17–22). West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press.

Storch, N. (2013). Collaborative writing in L2 classrooms. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters. [excellent review of the literature]

Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. London: Equinox. [a very clear description of the Systemic Functional Linguistic approach to genre instruction in both reading and writing]

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

4 thoughts on “The crux of the genre: Joint Construction”

  1. Reblogged this on Talking About Writing and commented:
    This post presents a useful description of the ‘joint construction’ phase of collaborative writing, and the importance of scaffolding. I do sometimes worry however, that when I’m doing this with a class I give them a little bit too much support and appropriate their essay …

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