"It's like you have to be nice right?" Students' positively phrased comments in a native and non-native online peer response exchange and their role in creating a working relationship
Peer response is a common way of improving students’ writing, both with native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers of English (NNS). However, very little research has investigated the dynamics of NS and NNS students giving peer response to each other, despite the fact that this is an increasingly common situation. This study explores the dynamics of such a relationship; in particular, the role positively phrased comments play in creating a successful work environment. Two groups of university students, one NS in the USA and one NNS based in Sweden, were connected via a wiki, in order to give peer response on each other’s texts. In this study, the comments made on the texts have been categorised to ascertain the number of positively phrased comments and the NNS students completed a questionnaire on their reflections on the exchange. Positively phrased comments included two categories: positive evaluation comments (comments that contained praise alone) and suggestions (comments made to improve the text phrased in a positive way using, for example, hedging). Four NNS students were interviewed on their reasons for the comments they gave and impressions of the comments they received.
The results of the comment categorisation showed that the vast majority (just over 70%) of the comments made by both NS and NNS students were positively phrased. The largest percentage of NS comments was suggestions (42%). The largest percentage of NNS comments was positive evaluation comments (40%). However, the number of positive evaluation comments made by both groups dropped from the first assignment to the second. There was also variation between the comments made by the four students interviewed. For example, the more confident writer gave mostly alteration comments (one word / phrase replacements to the existing text) and the least confident writer gave mostly positive evaluation comments.
The questionnaire showed that the NNS students were unused to giving peer response and felt more comfortable giving comments to students who were as similar to themselves as possible in terms of country and subject studied. The interviews revealed a number of reasons behind the positive comments made, including wanting to praise the text, following teacher instructions and feeling unsure what to say due to unfamiliarity with content and structure and uncertainty about language. Reactions to the positive comments received were that these comments were appreciated, particularly from native speakers. However, when the comments were predominantly positive evaluation comments, the NNS students expressed disappointment and frustration.
The study concludes that positively phrased comments have a useful role to play in this environment but that it is helpful if the majority of comments in a text include suggestions. The study also shows that the nature of comments can change over time as the relationship develops and that individual students can approach the peer response in very different ways, depending on their own writing background and level of confidence. Consequences of these findings are the way peer response is trained and discussed in the classroom, prior to and during the peer response.