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The 3 superpowers of collaborative nonfiction writing

Writing with their peers motivates students and gives teachers multiple opportunities to provide feedback and assess authentic learning

Kids love to tell and share stories, but writing nonfiction is different, because they have to take concepts or events and not only understand them, but convey that information in writing. For many kids, it’s hard enough to show what they know verbally, but having to develop and then convey their thoughts and levels of understanding in writing can be very difficult.

When I taught middle-school English language arts and science, I remember taking over a classroom that had an old cabinet filled with science class materials, including bags of mini-marshmallows and boxes of toothpicks. (Apparently, students had used these items to create models of water molecules.) I’m a fan of a creating multiple paths, including a tactile approach, to teaching and assessing students’ levels of understanding. However, with all the standardized tests they take nowadays, kids can’t just make molecules out of marshmallows. They need to convey their understanding of concepts in writing, and teachers must help students build writing skills.

Here are three ways that collaborative nonfiction writing can be a powerful literacy tool, as well as some tips for teachers who are just getting started.

1. Instant and ongoing feedback
With a shared online platform like Google Docs, kids work independently and teachers have multiple opportunities to offer personalized feedback and additional instruction. Students get feedback when they submit their work, and teachers can revisit the final version of an assignment after the feedback. As a former special education teacher, I love the scaffolding and support that comes with this process of multiple revisions.

(Next page: How and why to bring collaborative nonfiction writing into your classroom)

2. Breaking big concepts into key understandings
When tackling a large unit of study, teachers typically break the unit up into key components and concepts. With an online collaborative nonfiction writing tool like ProjectWriter from BoomWriter, teachers can have students provide descriptions of smaller concepts to demonstrate their levels of understanding.

Addressing big ideas in small chunks and giving students the power to choose which version of each section is the best provides them a foundation to work from and the opportunity to learn from their classmates. Collaboration levels the playing field because kids are assessing the content and making the choices themselves.

3. The power of peer review
With collaborative writing platforms, teachers can distribute students’ submissions to their peers in a safe, anonymous, respectful way. Collaborative writing also taps into students’ excitement about reaching an audience of their peers, rather than just the teacher. Online platforms extend that audience beyond the classroom, too, through fun extracurricular programs and large-scale international competitions like The Writing Bee.

The idea of facilitating group writing events across schools, districts, states, and even countries came to life last year when I was working with students in the UK. A student asked if they could write a story with kids in America and the entire class—even the teacher—lit up when I said yes. Students love sharing stories and will jump at the chance to widen their audience and get perspective from kids around the world. And collaboration really works: 87 percent of teachers who participated in the first Writing Bee said that their students’ writing output levels increased while participating in the activity.

Have you considered doing collaborative nonfiction? Here are a few basic concepts to get the ball rolling.

Tips for getting started with collaborative nonfiction

• Start small, start young. In my experience, collaborative writing works best in second through ninth grade, with a real sweet spot in grades three through six. For younger students, start by collaborating on small, short activities; the output levels can be increased as students get older.
• Filter everything. You want to give students the opportunity to share, but in a controlled, safe environment in which the teacher filters what gets shared. Kids can be sensitive. Even constructive criticism can be interpreted incorrectly, so comments and voting should be anonymous.
• Discuss the audience. Kids can get their writing in front of more people than ever before, so it’s important that they learn how to do accurately and safely. They need to know that they’re writing not just for a teacher, but for a broader audience. This will inspire and guide them, and ultimately improve their writing.

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