Day 2 Conversation with Dr. Mary Ann Corley: Collaborative Writing

Hi Everyone!

Welcome to Day 2 of our discussion with Dr. Mary Ann Corley about the beginning stages of writing!  Yesterday, we had a great discussion about pre-writing.  Mary Ann answered several questions including explaining why students are intimidated by the writing process.  She provided a number of useful strategies for helping our students overcome their writing fears, generate writing ideas, and organize their thoughts.  

Today's focus is on collaborative writing.  Tomorrow we will conclude our three-day journey with a conversation about teaching contextualized grammar.  Please feel free to ask questions and contribute to the discussion.  Thanks in advance for your help!  

I have created a Google Sites page where I will store resources related to our discussion.   Google Sites is a free web page creation tool that enables users to meet WIOA's definition of digital literacy by using technology "to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information."  I will put all readings related to this discussion as well as resources such as the Bio Poem template that was mentioned yesterday.  

Mary Ann, I will lead off today's discussion about collaborative writing with these two questions:

  • What is collaborative writing?
  • What are the benefits of collaborative writing?

I am looking forward to a great day and thanks again for all your help Mary Ann! 


Steve Schmidt

Moderator, LINCS Reading and Writing Community of Practice


The research from Writing Next (Graham and Perin, 2007) identifies collaborative writing as one of the most effective methods for helping students learn to write well. (It yielded an effect size of .75, indicating that collaborative writing has a highly significant effect on student learning.)

Collaborative writing involves having students, in pairs or small groups, work together to produce a common written text. Collaboration can occur in every stage of the writing process, from planning and organizing thoughts (pre-writing) to drafting and even to reviewing/revising, editing, and publishing. Moreover, in the workplace, many forms of business writing depend on the efforts of collaborative writing teams, so experience with collaborative writing is good preparation for workplace performance. 

According to the authors Axelrod and Cooper of the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, "Collaboration not only draws on the expertise and energy of different people but can also create an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts."

The following is a fun activity to introduce students to collaborative writing: The teacher asks students to form groups of five or six. Depending on the total number of students in the class, there may be anywhere from two to five or six small groups. The teacher provides each group with the same beginning sentence, such as “It was a dark and stormy night.” Now each student in a group is to contribute one sentence to this essay. All groups work on this simultaneously, so that the result will be five or six different essays. When all groups have completed the writing, the teacher asks a spokesperson from each group to read aloud its group essay. Students usually enjoy hearing the differences among the versions generated by each group. 

Now that students have some experience with collaborative writing, the teacher can ask these same groups to engage in planning and pre-writing by sharing ideas and brainstorming, formulating a claim (or thesis statement) along with reasons that support the claim, and thinking about the final product—its purpose and intended audience.

Hello, Dr. Corley! What a pleasure it is to read your posts! Thank you for reminding me of the "dark and stormy night" activity for collaborative writing. I used to do this activity using the same introductory sentence or different introductory sentences. We would pass the papers around, or I would put introductory sentences up on flipchart paper so that students could move around when adding to their classmates ideas. This activity works well for collaborative poetry writing as well. I have to do this again! Another type of collaborative writing my students enjoy (though they don't end up with one cohesive text) is Chalk Talk (a strategy from Making Thinking Visible : How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners). This spring, my students were working on argumentative writing. The topic was "Should parents monitor their kids online?" I took 5 sheets of flipchart paper and put each on a table. Each paper had a statement

  • Kids can freely express themselves through social media.
  • Kids are not mature enough to be on social media alone.
  • Kids should have a place online that is private from parents.
  • Kids can learn about what’s going on in the world through social media.
  • Kids' independence online depends on their age.

Students could respond to each statement, respond to a classmate's comments, write questions or visually connect their thinking to someone else's on the paper. All of this is done silently. I ended up with 6 pages covered with a writing dialogue and one student remarking, "I had no idea there were so many opinions in our class!" They were excited to look back and see what other students had asked or commented about their thinking. I've also done this activity using pictures or graphics on the flipchart paper. It's a great starter for a unit or theme. I've also had students write short summaries in small groups. The discussion students have wrestling over what details to include and how to write the paragraph is so useful, particularly for the students in a group that need more support for summarizing. I'm always looking for ideas for collaborative writing activities, I appreciate your listing the many benefits!

Hi, Kristine:

Thanks so much for adding some great suggestions. I can't wait to try Chalk Talk--that's a new one to me!! It's a good way for students to see the many different perspectives on a given topic. I especially like the way you have expanded this activity by using photos and by asking students to write summaries--nice! 

Following are some of the many benefits of collaborative writing:

  • It builds student confidence, especially among those students who are lower-level writers.
  • It allows students to learn from each other.
  • It allows students to see how their work compares to that of their peers, and it gives them a better sense of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers and thinkers.
  • It provides an opportunity to address weaknesses (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, etc.) as students play on each other’s strengths.
  • It fosters discussion and debate and exposes students to points of view besides their own.
  • It encourages students to consider their audience, an important aspect of learning to write effectively.
  • It prepares students for real world employment where writing in teams may be a routine part of one’s job.

Collaboration encourages students to talk about their writing. They have to explain and sometimes defend their writing strategies. Collaboration helps students to understand writing as a process, and it can increase their sense of mastery of the process.

I invite group members to share their own experiences using collaborative writing in their classes. What did you do? How did it work? How did students respond to the experience?

Collaborative writing is bound to engage so many of our students who come from collaborative cultures. Those are students who so often drop our of the competitive environments that our public systems support. The benefits you listed are so important in developing good writers.

I have found that collaborative activities are often ignored in our instruction because teachers are uncomfortable implementing them, often believing that they (teachers) must be active all of the time. I once believed that way but started assigning and observing group work anyway and learned to really appreciate it! I have found that in implementing collaborative activities of any kind, it is important to communicate with students regarding the following:

  • How long they have to complete specific objectives for the activity. When is "Time up" announced and occasionally predicted along the way?
  • How they will be assessed for their performance. Different activities can assess different types of student performance in collaborative work. 

Mary Ann and others here, I wonder what other tips you might add to implementing successful paired or group work. Leecy

There are certainly many benefits to teaching our students to write collaboratively, Mary Ann.  I was especially drawn to the last one you mentioned, preparing students for real world employment where writing in teams may be a routine part of one's job.  

As WIOA asks us to prepare students for the workplace, we could certainly use collaborative writing to assist in that process.  A recent article from the Harvard Business Review noted, "collaboration is taking over the workplace. As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more" (Source:

Many work teams collaborate using Google Docs.  In May, the Reading and Writing Community heard from Michael Matos, who described several ideas for collaborating with Google Docs.  Please see that discussion for some ideas on using Docs to foster collaboration with your students.

I will also place in the Google Sites folder some activities we can use with students to encourage collaborative writing.    


Steve Schmidt

Moderator LINCS Reading and Writing Community of Practice


Hello Mary Ann,

I am enjoying this discussion, and benefiting from your vast experience teaching adult basic skills learners to write, and teaching instructors who teach adults to write. Since I had the pleasure of working with you several years ago in California on a project to convert in-person teacher training to on-line teacher training, you will not be surprised that I am especially interested in online collaborative writing, especially now, and -- as soon as this is again possible -- in hybrid or blended learning situations in which online and in-person teaching are integrated.

As a researcher, I am interested to know if there are studies you can recommend on the effectiveness of online collaborative writing, especially ones that compare it with in-person collaborative writing.

Thanks for any insights you might have from research, from your own experience, or from the professional wisdom of writing teachers with whom you have worked.


David J. Rosen

Thanks for the post, David! Absolutely, technology can be extremely useful for collaborative writing. Meeting in person can be inconvenient or impossible, as it is currently because of the Coronavirus threat. Even minus the current situation, meeting in person may cause problems for the group effort: If one group member is unable to meet, he/she may be left behind without being able to contribute to the group effort. Some technologies, among others, that can be used include chats and instant messaging, student e-mail drafts to each other, discussion boards, Google docs, etc.

In terms of comparing the effectiveness of collaborative writing in online versus in-person formats, I confess that I needed to do a quick (VERY quick) search because this is not my area of expertise (It’s more yours, David, so feel free to add to this). I found an interesting study: “Effects of Web-Based Collaborative Writing on Individual L2 Writing Development” (Bikowski & Vithanage, Language Learning & Technology, Vol. 20, No. 1, February 2016). In this study, an independent sample t-test of pre- to post-test gains revealed that the participants in a collaborative web-based writing group experienced statistically significant writing gains in their individual writing over the participants in an individual web-based writing group.

Another study, Second Language Collaborative Writing in Face-to-face and Online Environments, Ghosh, M. (2013), looked at face-to-face versus online varieties of collaborative writing and found that each format has unique benefits for the classroom. The author comments that when learners work together in person, they can request and give immediate feedback, and that being able to see each other may have a positive effect on learners’ interaction. When learners do not work in person, they may find it challenging to express themselves fully (Lee & Wang, 2013). On the other hand, the lack of immediacy in asynchronous online environments may be advantageous for reflective learners who prefer to have time to think before making contributions to the text. The author then suggests that “both synchronous and asynchronous online collaborative writing activities may appeal to active learners while reflective learners may prefer asynchronous tasks. Incorporating both types of tasks could potentially appeal to a wide variety of learner styles.”

Please add your considerable knowledge on this subject, David!

Lee, H. C., & Wang, P. L. (2013). Discussing the factors contributing to students’ involvement in an EFL collaborative wiki project. ReCALL, 25(2), 233-249.

Hi Mary Ann! I have so enjoyed this discussion and the chance to hear your expertise and others' ideas. Having taught college-level writing courses in addition to adult ed, I have found that anxiety and lack of confidence about writing is not confined just to adult learners! Many, many students I've had over the years have expressed great fear about putting their thoughts on paper. I even had one gentleman who could not write from a blank page at all; he needed sentence starters for every sentence when we first started working together. 

Online collaborative writing might really work well for these hesitant, fearful writers. It takes the pressure off (no one is seeing the blank paper sitting in front of them), it gives them time to reflect before they hit Submit, and it gives them partners in the work so the outcome isn't entirely their work...all of these are advantages.

I can imagine creative ways to use Google Docs and Slides to have students work collaboratively. For those students who don't like to write, maybe their first contribution is just to produce photos in Slides that accompany the group's text, where they simply write the captions for the photos. Then for the next activity their assignment could change, requiring more hands-on involvement with the writing. The nice thing about collaborative writing are there are multiple 'jobs' to do, and we can fit the job to fit student needs.


Yes--I agree that online collaborative writing can be a boon for some learners, especially the reflective ones who want/need lots of time to consider what they will say and how they will phrase it. Using photos and other visuals is always helpful! And I like your suggestion of moving student groups from writing captions to producing longer and more involved pieces. Thanks for the good ideas! 

Hello colleagues, A big part of my professional work is writing collaboratively using Google tools such as docs and slides. I know this is true for many in our LINCS community, too.

We can also draw upon Google tools for collaborative writing with adult learners in face-to-face classrooms as well as in virtual classrooms. 

I'd love to hear how teachers are leveraging Google or other online tools for collaborative writing projects. This is a great discussion! I'm eager to hear more ideas and best practices for collaborative writing practices!

Cheers, Susan

The literature seems to imply that there is no “best practice” for engaging students in collaborative writing activities. However, almost all of the advice for teachers in setting up collaborative writing focuses on how to manage group workflow and dynamics. So what is the teacher’s role in setting up effective student collaborative writing groups?

[The following is adapted from Effective Teaching and Learning: Development Project Report: Collborative Writing. Grief, S. (2007). National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, London, UK.]

The teacher can…

  1. Consider student groupings. Will the teacher assign students to groups or allow them to self-select? There is no best practice here, but if groups are assigned and students do not know one another well, the teacher may want to conduct an initial icebreaker to allow students to get to know each other. This will help the group to come together.
  2. Carefully determine group size: Small groups (three or fewer) seem to work best.
  3. Plan collaborative writing activities carefully, including pre-writing activities, considering the task and student roles: Will the teacher list roles and allow students to determine who does what, or does the teacher leave this up to the group members to work out for themselves?.
  4. Talk explicitly with students about ways to provide comments on one another’s ideas; set some simple ground rules and perhaps even provide a list of sentence starters they can use for giving feedback to group members.
  5. Be prepared to step back and allow learners to work on their own. This is sometimes hard to do, especially when learners have trouble getting started. The teacher needs to keep an eye on the groups and be sensitive to what is happening so that he/she can recognize when it is necessary to intervene and offer support.
  6. Use questions carefully to support groups without taking over.
  7. Respect what the learners choose to write, whether or not the teacher thinks it appropriate.

The above publication also describes some collaborative writing activities used by teachers participating in this study. Activities include ideas such as drama bag, starting from a picture, and retell a story. The document can be accessed online at