Heterogeneous grouping, that is gathering children of varying abilities in same groups has been proposed by many researchers as an effective strategy to promote academic development of students having diverse background knowledge and abilities. Brimfield, Masci and Defiore (2002) believe that ‘all students deserve an academically challenging curriculum’ (p.15). So, our goal is to find a way to engage all pupils of the mixed ability classroom in the lesson irrespective of their abilities. The authors point out that by creating mixed-ability groups, we send the compelling message that everybody is expected to work at the highest possible level as high and low ability students deal with the same challenges. Disadvantaged pupils are at reduced risk of being stigmatized and exposed to a ‘dumped-down’ curriculum in a mixed-ability setting. Teachers’ expectations for all pupils are maintained at higher levels and less able students have opportunities to be assisted by more able peers.
It is assumed that heterogeneous grouping provides pupils access to more learning opportunities. Johnson and Johnson (1987) recommend assigning children of high, medium, and low abilities in the same group maximizing the heterogeneous make up of each group. Such ability diversity within the same group creates an effective learning environment (Manlove and Baker, 1995) providing learning opportunities for low-level students as well as opportunities to more advanced children to provide explanations to others revising, consolidating and using some things they have encountered before. The teachers can use cooperative tasks among high and low achievers of mixed ability groups or pairs in order to promote task engagement of all students in the mixed ability class as advanced children can provide explanations and guidance in carrying out a task.
Cooperative tasks among high and low achievers are valued by the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky (1978). Pupils of mixed ability classes differ at their competence level and prior linguistic experiences. Vygotsky supports that children who are exposed to books and other out-of-school factors which contribute to linguistic development i.e .prior knowledge of English from private institutional instruction, are expected to have already run through a large part of their ZPD. On the other hand, pupils with poor literacy opportunities i.e. without prior knowledge of English may possess a larger Zone of Proximal Development (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991). So, they may benefit greatly from peer interactions which are likely to help low level students reach higher levels of performance.
In this framework, Lyle (1999) showed that both low and high achieving students value the opportunity to work together as all pupils believed that they benefited. It was concluded that peer interactions can facilitate literacy development especially of low ability students. In this vein, Guralnick (1992) points out that social competence acquired in group work affects the elaboration of all students’ cognitive competencies, implying that both low and advanced learners of mixed ability classes may gain from such settings.
The role of peer learning as contributing to language development has also been emphasized by Mize, Ladd and Price (1985) Webb (1989), Jacob et al (1996) and Slavin (1996). Rogoff (1993) refers to children’s social sharing of their cognition through interaction. When pupils participate in collective activities, they guide each other’s efforts. According to Tudge and Winterhoff (1993) advanced children give constant feedback through conversation forcing peers to strive for reaching higher levels of performance.
Various studies have indicated a positive correlation between cooperative learning and achievement in mixed ability classes. For example, Walters (2000) asserts that cooperative learning is suitable for teachers dealing with increasingly diverse classrooms as it easily accommodates individual differences in achievement. Accordingly, Fulk and King (2001) support that ‘class-wide peer tutoring’ improves all students’ learning. They add that serving in the role of tutor seems to be particularly beneficial for improving the self-esteem of students with low achievement while they may, for example, grade their partner’s reading. Therefore, it appears that CL may satisfy the needs of a mixed ability class.
Studies conducted by Pica and Doughty (1985), Porter (1986), and Cotterall (1990) indicate that learners of different abilities produce more in mixed ability pair and group work by helping one another to overcome cognitive obstacles. This conclusion is consistent with Urzua’s (1987) finding that the mixed ability children in the observational study conducted, appeared to have developed a sense of power in language through the process of working with trusted peers i.e. writing and revising.
The benefits of cooperative learning are more touchable when it comes to written work. O’Donnell et al (1985) found that involvement in cooperative dyads can improve the quality of students’ performance on a written task. Weak students of mixed ability classes can use advanced learners as sources of information, commenting on and critiquing each other’s drafts in both oral and written formats (Liu and Hansen, 2002). Rollinson (2005:25) attributes this phenomenon to the possibility that ‘peer audiences are more sympathetic than the more distant teacher audience’. Peer review groups are also favoured by Huot (2002) and Inoue (2005) and Cotterall and Cohen (2003) who showed the positive effects of scaffolding in mixed ability settings
Cooperative activities such as group investigation are likely to encourage shy and low performance students since they have the advantage of requiring the participation of all group or pair members to carry out a task, allowing each member to do something according to one’s abilities.
Taylor (1986) describes the process method in the following way:”Process Writing is an approach which encourages ESL youngsters to communicate their own written messages while simultaneously developing their literacy skills in speaking and reading rather than delaying involvement in the writing process, as advocated in the past, until students have perfected their abilities in handwriting, reading, phonetics, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. In Process Writing the communication of the message is paramount and therefore the developing, but inaccurate, attempts at handwriting, spelling, and grammar are accepted, know that within the process of regular writing opportunities students will gain control of these sub-skills. These skills are further developed in individual and small group conference interviews.” (as cited in Jarvis, 2002)
The process approach treats all writing as a creative act which requires time and positive feedback to be done well. In process writing, the teacher moves away from being someone who sets students a writing topic and receives the finished product for correction without any intervention in the writing process itself (Stanley 2003). White and Arntd 1993 say that focusing on language errors ‘improves neither grammatical accuracy nor writing fluency’ and they suggest instead that paying attention to what the students say will show an improvement in writing.
Process writing is an approach to incorporating writing skills from the very beginning of the English learning process. Process writing focuses on allowing students – especially young learners – to write with plenty of room left for error. Standard correction begins slowly, and learners are encouraged to communicate through writing regardless of their knowledge of English grammar and structure.
Research also shows that feedback is more useful between drafts, not when it is done at the end of the task after the students hand in their composition to be marked. Corrections written on compositions returned to the student after the process has finished seem to do little to improve student writing.
Process writing and whole language theorists developed a new approach to the teaching of writing, drawing on language acquisition research and several forms of constructivist research since Chomsky. The terms whole and process highlight the importance of learning language in a relevant context. The research maintains that planning clearly supports the flowing production of meaningful text. Feedback and associated revisions are other key aspects of the writing process. Researchers have looked at how and when second language writers should receive feedback, which types are best (content vs. form), where this feedback may come from (teacher, peer, self), and what influence this feedback has on the quality of written products (Panofsky,et al 2005).
Like teacher’s feedback, peer response has forceful, vocal proponents as well as a rapidly increasing number of detailed studies on its nature and influence (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2005). Advocates point to the way in which peer response activities can be used throughout the writing process and are in accord with the Vygotskian theory that cognitive development results from social interaction, and that interaction is important for second language development. Peer response can help student writers understand reader expectations and the clarity of their own writing as well as build error analysis and editing skills. (Panofsky,et al 2005).
Peer Response or peer editing can be defined as the use of learners as sources of information, and interaction for each others in such a way that learners assume roles and responsibilities normally taken by a formally trained teacher, tutor editor in commenting on and critiquing each other’s drafts in both written and oral formats in the process of writing (Hansen2002)
The benefits of peer response have been extensively discussed in theory and practice (Rollinson,2005). Teachers and researchers in favor of peer response emphasize its applicability at all stages of process writing, support for collaborative learning, and focus on the importance of interaction for L2 development. They claim that peer feedback activities in the classroom offer numerous advantages: students’ active roles in their own learning; re-conceptualization of their ideas; a less threatening environment; feedback from authentic readers; and building of critical thinking skills. It is possible that collaborative and communicative settings can be realized through working in pairs or groups in peer editing, allowing students more interaction and motivation (Kondo, Y., & Gardner, S. (2007).
Rollinson (2005) also stated more advantages of peer response for example the peers are less threatening, less authoritarian, friendlier and more supportive than the instructor (p. 24). Villamil & De Guerrero (1996) also believed the observed peer activities constituted the social basis for the development of cognitive processes that are essential for revision (p. 67) and that “It is the exchange of ideas during interaction, where both peers extend and receive help, that they are able to advance their knowledge”
A short survey of theories thus affirms that peer editing has the potential to improve students’ quality of writing. Peer editing involves student interaction that promotes the development of interpersonal intelligence (one of 8 intelligences as identified by Gardner) and interpsychological processing (as described by Vygotsky). In addition, it de-emphasizes competition and encourages cooperation among students. Furthermore, the one-to-one context may encourage students to ask questions that they might be reluctant to ask in a large class. Jacob, et al. (2002), in their book on cooperative learning, described the opportunity for simultaneous interaction – lacking in a teacher-centered lesson – that the one-to-one context provides.
Cote (2006) argues that if a class is comprised of intermediate or advanced students, it can usually be assumed that the students have had at least some experience with peer correction. However, with low level or new students to a program, it is possible that they have little or no experience with formal peer interaction. If this is the case, they will have to be trained. The best method for this is modeling. Hansen and Liu (2005) state that teachers can show students their own work and how peer commentary has helped them make revisions and provide the guidance , students also can work together to revise a paper and can work together in groups to make revisions on a paper.
Students should be encouraged to participate in peer editing under their own volition. Students must be empowered by allowing them to establish their own rules, e.g. time limits for reading each other’s papers, reading papers pre- or during class, what to do if a student is late, absent or does not have his/her paper for review (Hansen & Liu, 2005). They could be given the opportunity to choose their own partners or groups; on the other hand, the instructor may have a better idea of who is performing at a higher/lower level in order for the partners to be more compatible. Instructor matching may also prevent homogenous language groups. Once pairs or groups are established, however, they should be given the privilege of choosing or assigning various responsibilities without interference from the teacher. Such group tasks may include group timekeeper, discussion leader, writer and moderator, to maintain turn-taking (Hansen & Liu, 2005).
Statement of Hypothesis
The null hypothesis in this study is that there is no significant difference between homogenous grouping and heterogeneous grouping on EFL students’ writing .
The subjects of this study will be 44 eleventh graders constituting two classes in Al Dahmaa Model School. Based on the results of a test prepared by the researcher and correlated to the students’ last semester results of the final writing exam they will be grouped according to their abilities in writing. Another tool to determine the grouping of the students the researcher will analyze the data provided to the school of the EMSA exam which is a national external assessment of the students in the UAE which measure students’ achievement in math, science, Arabic and English reading and writing. The researcher will be concerned with the results of the writing exam only as all the results are provided separately.