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Students Cooperating in Writing: Teaching, Learning, and Research Based on Theories from Vygotsky and Bakhtin

Torlaug L. Hoel


Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22-25 September 1999

The paper was presented in a paper session within congress theme Learning Processes

Torlaug L.Hoel
Professor, Dr. art.
Programme for Teacher Education (PLU)
Norwegian University of Technology and Science (NTNU)
7491 Trondheim, Norway
Tel: +47 73591986
Fax: +47 73591012


My presentation is based upon my own work as a teacher in Norwegian literature and language in senior high school, where the students go from the age of 16 to 19. In connection with their composition writing the students worked regularly in response groups. A response group is 2-5 peers who comment on and give advice to each others’ drafts as a stage in their writing process. During 3 years I collected data for a research project, which consists of tape recordings from the response conversations, the students’drafts, their finished texts and their feedback logs to me.

In short, the project is a study of discourse, investigating among other issues how meaning is constructed among individuals in a group in interaction with each other, with oral and written texts, with class culture, and with a specific response group culture. I will limit my presentation to discuss how central aspects from Vygotsky and Bakhtin may create a framework for explaining learning processes in such and similar groups.

Theoretical framework

Language as a tool for thinking

The emphasis on signs in Vygotskian tradition makes language an important tool for thinking and problem solving. Firstly, the students’ own active language use is important because it is fundamental to thinking and learning. Secondly, through communication and intercourse the students together can enlarge their knowledge and construct meaning, for example in solving problems they face in writing. Thirdly, interaction through language becomes a way of taking part in the dynamics between the individual and the surrounding world, of finding a place in a greater cultural community, whether it is the classroom community or the world outside the classroom.

The zone of proximal development

Cognitive, but also social and cultural development occur within the individual’s zone of proximal development promoted and assisted by another person or by cultural tools, for example signs or symbols (Cole 1988, Vygotsky 1978). The concept of ZPD is usually understood as one-dimensional and vertical, but may better be understood as planes on different levels where different zones interweave. Writing an essay includes knowledge of theme, genre, organization of the text, syntax, spelling etc. The support a student will need will vary within these zones. The support a student is capable to give, will also vary: one student may know much about the topic, another may be good at structuring texts etc. According to what field they are experts in, the students will comment on different aspects in a text and thus take on complementary roles.

The concept of ZPD has mostly been used in studies of one individual in interaction with another individual. Referring to collective interpretative processes when individuals engage in collaborative work with each other, I would prefer the term interpretative zone. (Wasser & Bresler 1996). In the interpretive zone, individuals bring together their different kinds of knowledge, experience and beliefs to forge new meanings out of the joint inquiry in which they are engaged. This view of the zone is more dynamic and underscores the reciprocity between the interacting parts as they negotiate and interact from different perspectives. Reciprocal development of thought, reciprocal learning and reciprocal meaning making are prominent features of the zone of proximal development as a collective interpretive process.

Imitation, modelling, scaffolding

Learning through imitation and observation, and teaching through modeling are approaches that have had low status in Western, individual-centered theories of development and learning. Shifting the emphasis from learning as an individual process to learning as a social process induces another view of model learning. A full understanding of the zone of proximal development must lead to a new evaluation of the role imitation plays in learning (Vygotsky 1978). Through imitation children will internalize the adults’ or more capable peers' language, actions, values, and thus join their cultural community. On the other hand, they will also contribute to the culture, as the individual is always in dialogue with the world around.

Imitation as a learning principle is closely related to scaffolding as an instructional principle, a concept which is first and foremost associated with Bruner (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976). Well-known forms of scaffolding in an educational context are models for problem-solving, guidelines, instructions, work routines and so on. In teaching the students how to give response to drafts, how to receive response, and how to interact in the groups, we spent a lot of time at the beginning in the class to model and scaffold the different activities. As the students themselves took over the response giving, the responses from the skilled students served as models for the other students.

The students were given strict rules for the communication in the groups. They were supposed to comment on strong points in the texts, to put questions, not to criticize in a negative way. These rules shape the response discourse into a special speech genre and they function as a scaffold both for the task at hand , the communication and the social atmosphere in the group. As the students master the response genre over time, they adjust the rules in the way they find most appropriate, including also criticism.

Vygotsky’s focus is on asymmetric relations, where a more capable person is collaborating with a less capable person. Scaffolding has usually been considered one-dimensional and vertical, those more skilled and competent construct scaffolds for those less competent. In reality scaffolding often is a mutual, dynamic process. When students collaborate they can function as scaffolds for each other by assuming complementary roles and supplementing each other’s knowledge and skills because they may be experts in different areas. Moreover, they represent different perspectives for example in interpreting a writing assignment, in opinion of what ideas are relevant to include in the essay, they represent different levels in language mastering etc. The idea of confrontation of different perspectives as a source for learning, may be related to theories of perspectivism, Piagets theoris of collaboration between peers, where the relations are symmetric, to theories of socio-cognitive conflict, and to Bakhtins teories about heteroglossia (Bakhtin 1981).

Dialogue and dialogism

Vygotsky’s focus is on the individual in interaction with her home environment. Neo-Vygotskians, especially James V. Wertsch, have linked Vygotsky's ideas to broader historical, institutional and cultural processes by complementing Vygotsky's perspective with that of Bakhtin (Wertsch 1991). Bakhtin's focus is on human beings in interaction with culture in its broad sense of the word, and in this connection the concept of dialogue is central (Bakhtin 1981, 1986)(1). Bakhtin's concept of dialogue may be found on many levels. In its broadest sense he sees existence itself as basically dialogic. The self always exists in relation to others, and in interaction with different social and cultural contexts.

Bakhtin’s theories on how meaning and understanding are created are of importance in the teaching of writing and reading as well as teaching in general. Meaning is not located in a text itself, it is constructed between the reader and the text, or the conversation partners, in an intepreted context.

A more precise understanding of the dialogue concept is rendered through the terms polyphony and heteroglossia. Polyphony does not only mean the coexistence of many voices, but a dialogic interaction between them. When students talk in the classroom, there is a polyphony of voices. Each student brings her sociocultural background, her particular points of view, values and meanings, with her. The diversity of these voices constitutes an enrichment of our learning environment. Conceptual change is dependent on what Bakhtin calls juxtaposition of voices, the struggle between contradicting positions and the interrelations that are created through the dialogue between them.

In the classroom, there are dialogues between spoken and written utterances and texts at different times. This is the core of intertextuality. Writing and reading are no less dialogic than oral, face-to-face conversation, even though they may look like individual behavior. We never write or speak in a vacuum, our utterances are always to a certain degree related to texts and utterances that have come before us and to texts and utterances that will come after us (Bakhtin 1986).

In their school writing in general, students’ voices will encounter the community’s or culture’s text norms in their writing. In response groups, the students’ texts will develop in dialogues with other persons and the various personal experienced worlds which each individual student brings with her into the group. Moreover, when students work in response groups, each individual text also develops in dialogues with other students’ comments and written drafts.

Culture as a tool

Response groups may be seen as a special cultural phenomenon integrated in a complex classroom culture. The classroom culture is based upon the idea of reciprocity between the individual student and the class collectivity, the two shape each other and are shaped by each other. To make response groups work, it is important to supply standards, structures and rules which will gradually be internalized, for instance communication rules. Through this process a specific response group culture is created which even has its own terminology: ‘response’, ‘drafts’, ‘revision’. The students become carriers of a particular culture which is constructed through the interaction between the different actors in a particular classroom. This specific culture is also the students’ tool when they are working in response groups.

A visit to a response group

We will take a brief look at one response group. The students’task in this case is to write an analysis of a poem. The group consists of three girls, who in terms of the writing task represent different levels of skill: Anna is the class expert in literary analysis, Sonja has some experience in the genre, while Olga is trying for the second time to write a literary analysis. Our focus here is on Olga.

Her draft has some fragmented thoughts on the theme addressed in the poem, that’s all.

Her final text, however, is of surprisingly high quality, and I’ll point to some reasons for the improvement. The tape recording from the group indicates that Olga is verbally active in the response discourse. She uses the language in her understanding process both in exploratory monologues and in dialogues with the two response givers. The analysis shows that Olga’s development from an existing to a potential developmental level to a high degree can be connected to ‘the interpretive zone’. A characteristic feature of the group is that the development of ideas and meaning making occur as collective interpretive processes in which the three girls bring together their experiences, their different knowledge and different ways of interpreting the poem, etc., a process which may be characterized as a continuous ‘co-construction of meaning’.

By reading her two classmates’ drafts Olga acquired models and ideas for her own text. She expanded her interpretation of the poem and she saw how the genre of literary analysis in school is written. The analysis of the discourse shows that Sonja and Anna enter complementary roles in relation to Olga: In the discourse with Sonja, Olga obtains help in processing and improving passive knowledge, especially in relation to how to interpret a literary text. In the response from Anna she receives systematic help in mastering new knowledge about how to write a literary essay

Olga also learns from giving responses to the other two because she has to assume the role of critical reader and adviser. In her feedback - log to me she writes that she read the drafts from the other two girls with a critical eye and that she maintained this critical eye when she read her own draft and hence saw her work from a new and more critical perspective. I also want to add that both Sonja and Anna profit on Olga’s comments and questions to their drafts.

Olga’s final essay is an example of multi-level intertextuality. It has references and quotes from the poem she is analyzing - as the genre requires. She borrows a few expressions from Anna’s and Sonja’s drafts, and statements and ideas from the response group discourses can also be found in the text. The genre of literary analysis represents a special form of intertexuality, and she writes her own text in a dialogue with the genre requirements: How does what I am writing here correspond to the way in which a literary analysis should be written? The teacher will be reading and commenting on her essay, thus she writes her text in an internal dialogue with the teacher: How will the teacher react to this? Very soon Olga will be taking her exam and the task she is working on is very relevant to the exam. Therefore she also writes her essay in a dialogue with the exam requirements. Olga not only writes her text in a dialogue with the voices she has heard, but also in a dialogue with what lies ahead in time, with voices and reactions she anticipates.


A sosio-cultural approach to communication and learning implies - among other thing - that an individual’s contribution can only be described and understood as an integral part of a social interaction. Above I have given examples of how particular learning and teaching activities in the classroom can be organized on the basis of a sociocultural approach to language and writing.


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. M. Holquist, translated by Emerson & Holquist. Austin: University of Texas. 9th paperback printing: 1994.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Cole, M. (1988). The zone of proximal development: Where culture and cognition create each other. Wertsch, J.V. (ed): Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotsian perspectives. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 146-161.

Ewald, H.R. (1993). Waiting for answerability: Bakhtin and composition studies. College Composition and Communication, 44 (3), 331-349.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wasser, J. Davidson & Bresler, L. (1996). Working in the interpretive zone: Conceptualizing collaboration in qualitative research teams. Educational Researcher, 25 (5), 5-15.

Wertsch, J.V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J.S., Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.



1.For a critical discussion of various interpretations of Bakhtin, see Ewald 1993.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 15 February 2000