March 2019
Hoa Nguyen, Anna Ciriani-Dean, Ying Jia, & Hector Gonzalez

Hoa Nguyen
Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA

Anna Ciriani-Dean
Fordham University, New York, New York, USA

Ying Jia
Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA

Hector Gonzalez
Pearson Education, New York, New York, USA

This article reports data from a study on oral peer review in a college-level second language (L2) writing classroom. Peer review has been widely used in the process-oriented L2 writing classroom (e.g., Ferris & Hedgcock, 2013; Hyland, 2013; Tsui & NG, 2000), in which students produce written output in multiple drafts and engage in a recursive writing-revising process. Between drafts, students are often required to provide feedback on their peers’ drafts, making L2 writing development more interactive with input from not only the instructor but also peers. From a language learning perspective, such interactions induce noticing of features that learners might not normally attend to, which in turn facilitates interlanguage development.

With empirical evidence both supporting and advising against the use of peer review, it is essential to examine what happens in students’ interactions during in-class peer-review sessions. Few empirical studies have attempted to unravel the inner workings of peer review in the L2 writing classroom, probably because of the complex nature of learners’ interactions while providing and receiving feedback. Vorobel and Kim (2014) examined, among other data types, audio recordings of peer-review sessions by three advanced learners and found that students attended to organization and clarity of ideas, vocabulary, use of native language sources, and mechanics. In our study, analysis was data driven and findings were derived from emerging patterns relating to what aspects of writing learners attend to, the way learners use a peer-review form provided for them, and the quality of grammar-focused feedback.

Setting and Participants

The study was conducted in a first-year composition course at a large university in the northeastern United States. Participants were first-year college students who, upon completion of an institutional English writing placement test, were required to take an additional English as a second language (ESL)–focused writing course instead of mainstream English courses. The present report presents data from a larger project on the impact of reading, peer review, and explicit grammar instruction on L2 writing development.

Data Collection and Data Analysis

In this study, the researchers transcribed and analyzed the audio recordings of 14 advanced L2 learners as they provided feedback on the first draft of their partners’ essays. A total of 290 minutes of audio recordings were collected from three peer-review sessions throughout one semester, one for each of three essay assignments: a narrative essay, a summary-response essay, and an argumentative essay. Upon completing the first draft of each essay, students were paired with one or two partners and instructed to provide feedback to each other using a form with questions regarding (1) language and (2) content and organization, based on previous research suggesting that students need peer-review training in order to give feedback effectively (e.g., Kamimura, 2006).

Transcriptions of students’ conversations were analyzed inductively, and a 35-category coding system was developed to investigate what students noticed about language, content, and organization. Codes included grammar (sentence variety, conditional sentences, verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, passive/active voice, parallel structure, subordinate clauses, conjunctions, punctuation, run-ons, fragments, prepositions, parts of speech, merge/split sentences, spelling, wordiness and other uncategorized grammar issues); vocabulary (lexical variety, word choice, semantic transparency); coherence, cohesion, and organization (transitions, clear reference, supraparagraph organization, intraparagraph structure); and content (hook, background information, general thesis, general introduction, general topic sentence, quantity of evidence, quality of evidence, connection to source text, content of the conclusion, register).

Afterward, instances of grammar-focused feedback were further analyzed to evaluate the accuracy of the suggested corrections and the extent of students’ use of metalanguage. Because the dataset presented here comes from a larger study examining the impact of explicit grammar instruction, the quality of grammar-focused feedback was of particular interest.


Finding 1

There was an overall balance between focus on content and organization and focus on grammar and vocabulary. Of a total of 447 codes, 210 (≈47%) are instances of grammar- or vocabulary-focused feedback, while 237 (≈53%) are about content and organization. This shows that advanced students can attend to a wide range of issues in their peers’ writing, including language-related ones.

Finding 2

The findings suggest that while some learners seemed to depend more heavily on the structured peer-review form without further elaborating on their comments (≈18%), others used it only as a basis. We decided not to code cases when students merely reiterated and confirmed the questions with a simple short answer, as seen in the following example, because students appeared not to actively notice the issue.

So for the first one what areas did your partner do well on. Like sentence variety? Simple compound and complex all have [pause] a this essay.

And the relative clauses noun clauses and adverbial clauses. conditional clauses and pronoun agreement and clear reference passive voice, parallel construction as…as comparative and superlatives, structures for comparing contrasting concession and counterargument. Also structure used to express [pause] purpose and cause and reason and general vocabulary are all good in his essay.

(0.8) (Peer Review 3, 08-12, part 1)

On the contrary, others seemed able to engage in a meaningful conversation, using the form as a springboard for providing substantive, elaborated feedback, as seen here:

…in this sentence according to several statistical data in the first paragraph um [pause] I am not sure if you are referring to this essay or the the author's argument so um yeah yeah you just specify again [pause] um

…in this sentence here this gives uh direct strike to me um I am not sure how to how to properly rephrase it but as of now it sounds awkward so yeah

um(::) and then here again you used the word nonjudgmental so [pause] um [pause] if you are going to use it again I think this as I said a while ago you need to define it the first time you mentioned it because you placed it in quotation mark [pause]

and then [pause] yeah and then here again you use “the” so I am not sure if you are referring to the students

and then uh here this sentence is a bit awkward to me so you are missing a word between the material and will because it sounds awkward again [pause]

and then here I have witnessed the big controversy over American education and Chinese education um I think you can rephrase this into I have witnessed this big cultural controversies with the American and Chinese education so you only need to say education once (Peer Review 3, 06-13, part 1)

These examples indicate a wide spectrum of abilities in providing meaningful feedback based on a structured peer-review form.

Finding 3

Approximately 76% of students’ language-focused feedback addressed grammar issues in their peers’ first drafts (160 out of 210 instances), which suggests that most advanced students are able to give grammar feedback to each other. In these cases, the accuracy rate was relatively high (≈92%), suggesting that language learners at an advanced proficiency level are capable of providing high-quality grammar feedback. Additionally, they exhibited an emerging ability to use metalanguage from prior explicit instruction as the basis for their comments and suggested grammar revisions. In 38% of the instances of grammar-focused feedback, learners used their metalinguistic knowledge, employing terminologies such as verb tense, subject-verb agreement, and passive voice. Following is an excerpt illustrating the student’s ability to use sophisticated metalanguage:

The main tense of the narration was uh past simple? As my essay? And uh it is used co.. like consistently like throughout the essay? The shifts in the tenses were always correct so there were no problems like understanding like the [pause] the timing of the narration. (Peer review 1, 03-12)

The student’s use of metalanguage in conjunction with an accurate description of the effect of tense on the reader suggests a thorough understanding of the form, possibly facilitated by the use of metalanguage.


These findings suggest the usefulness of peer review in L2 writing development for advanced learners, as they are capable of noticing a variety of aspects in their peers’ writing, related both to language and to content and organization. The study highlights that in order for peer-review forms to be maximally beneficial for students, instructors might need to require students to provide elaborations rather than simply provide short answers to the available questions. Finally, the results indicate that students are able to provide accurate grammar feedback, and that the use of metalanguage taught in the classroom may boost the quality of students’ feedback.


Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2013). Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice. London, England: Routledge.

Hyland, K. (2013). Faculty feedback: Perceptions and practices in L2 disciplinary writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 22(3), 240–253.

Kamimura, T. (2006). Effects of peer feedback on EFL student writers at different levels of English proficiency: A Japanese context. TESL Canada Journal/Revue TESL Du Canada, 23(2), 12–39.

Tsui, A. B. M., & NG, M. (2000). Do secondary L2 writers benefit from peer comments? Journal of Second Language Writing, 2, 147–170.

Vorobel, O., & Kim, D. (2014). Focusing on content: Discourse in L2 peer review groups. TESOL Journal, 5, 698–720.

Hoa Nguyen is a lecturer in applied linguistics and TESOL at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests are instructed second language acquisition and teacher training.

Anna Ciriani-Dean is an ESL instructor and assessment specialist at Fordham University and a consultant at Baruch College’s Writing Center. Her research interests include second language writing, writing-center pedagogy, and assessment.

Ying Jia comes from Chengdu, Sichuan, China. She graduated with a BBA in accounting in 2017 and is currently an MA student in applied linguistics at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Hector Gonzalez is from Spain and is a content developer at Pearson Education. He has an MA in applied linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University.