Deepening the Classroom Writing Community Through Collaborative Writing

In our first post in this series, Establishing a Classroom Writing Community: Three Essential Elements, we explored the power of establishing a community of writers within our classrooms. In this post we will look at how we can support our writers in even deeper collaboration within that community.

Collaborative writing is a practice that supports both student engagement and growth in writing skills. However, if you’ve ever participated in a group writing project, you may know that it requires some risk-taking and openness to feedback. It often feels uncomfortable at first. Because establishing this type of writing community can be challenging, in this post we will highlight how we built collaboration when teaching a specific writing strategy, sentence combining.

Let’s look first at the components of collaborative writing we want to establish with our students. Then we can see how these components come alive as we teach the specific writing strategy of sentence combining.

Students engage in collaborative writing.

The Complexity of Collaboration when Writing

In 2009, Troy and his colleague Peter Kittle tried to suss out the nuances of what collaborative writing looks like: 

Genuine collaboration involves a number of tasks beyond simply getting along and adding one part: giving ideas and feedback, creating content, debating the merits of an overall argument for the paper, writing and revising a particular section, researching information for that section, sharing one’s writing by raising questions for peers about content and style, editing all parts of the document, taking a risk as a writer by sharing all of this publicly, and encouraging one’s group members to engage in all of these tasks. In short, when a collaborative writing group produces a text, its members share full responsibility for the final product. (p. 527) 

In this sense, collaboration is much more than mere cooperation or peer response. Collaborative writers are developing emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, such as:

  • active listening
  • empathy
  • negotiation

These skills are the foundation for creating successful communities of writers and enable our students to be active and successful members of groups.

In addition, collaborative writers need to work together to put words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into entire documents. It is difficult work for any pair (or small group) of writers to blend various ideas into a seamless whole. 

Using Sentence Combining to Scaffold Collaboration for Young Writers

As we consider what this work looks like in a community of elementary school writers, we need to be mindful of the ways that this process grows over time and how it supports our overall instructional goals. 

In the example below, we consider one way that students can work collaboratively in groups to write, first with words and ideas presented by others. From there, as they build more confidence and trust, students can then utilize the technology tools that they have available to them in order to make collaboration even more powerful. 

Using a strategy that has been proven effective from the What Works Clearinghouse’s (WWC) “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers” (2012/2018)—sentence combining—we can start to think about implications for collaborative writing. 

Described as a process where “[s]tudents combine two or more sentences into one simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence” (p. 31), the activity helps students think through different options to determine new opportunities for expression and ensure that “meaning, style, and grammatical correctness” (p. 32) remain consistent. 

As you teach students to revise using sentence combining, you might ask small groups to create at least two versions of a combined sentence: one that would be the most direct combination of the shorter sentences and another that would be an unexpected variation. For instance, a group of students might first be presented with the following:

“I went to the store. I needed to get milk. I needed to get bread. I needed to get eggs.”

The most obvious combination would lead to something like:

 “I went to the store because I needed to get milk, bread, and eggs.” 

This condensed the short, choppy sentences and put items into a list. Of course, the word “because” needed to be added to make the original sentences work together, and that’s an OK move. 

Then, to make it a little more interesting—and to further conversations about author’s craft—the students could work together to reverse the order, writing something like:

“Because I needed to get milk, bread, and eggs, I went to the store.” 

This turned the list into a descriptive phrase that introduced the reason to go to the store. 

They might even try playing with punctuation, setting the phrase off with em dashes: 

“I—needing milk, bread, and eggs—went to the store.” 

And, so on, as the groups of students brainstorm various ways to combine the sentences.

The goal, as noted in the WWC report, is not for students to be quizzed on every grammatical choice that they make, but instead for them to see that revising in this manner can help them “apply their skills in authentic settings, as opposed to editing language on a generic worksheet” and could help them to provide better feedback and suggestions on their peers’ work. 

Using Technology to Aid Collaboration and Understanding

To make this activity even more collaborative—and to layer in a bit of technology—we can ask students to document their changes to the initial set of short sentences as they work together. In this instance, we would simply ask them to use Google Slides. 

The teacher would provide the initial slide that had the four sentences, though each word would be presented as an individual text box on the slide. Students would then have the freedom to move the text boxes around and play with different sentence combinations. They could copy the initial slide and make multiple iterations. As they work, they would of course be discussing the choices that they made to recombine the words and revise the simple sentences into more complex ones. 

To help deepen their understanding of the writing process and articulate what is happening in their collaboration as they create their new combinations, students could write about their choices using the “comment” tool, or in the “speaker notes” section under the slide. Students could also be asked to record a brief screencast, as partners, describing the choices that they made as writers during the sentence combining process. 

Low-Pressure Opportunities to Learn Through Collaboration

Using sentence combining as an entry point for deeper, more substantive collaborations is effective for a number of reasons. First, the focus is on writing that was not authored by anyone in the group. By providing students with a list of choppy sentences that they work together to revise, they are practicing the soft skills of collaboration in a low-pressure manner. 

Second, by documenting their writerly decisions that they made together, students are becoming more aware of the choices each makes in their individual, and collective, author’s craft. Deciding how to order ideas, utilize punctuation, and add emphasis are all great conversations to have as writers who are working to make meaning. 

And, finally, when students return to their own writing, the WWC report reminds us that “they can use their newly learned sentence-construction skills to improve their compositions” (p. 32). Thus, the skills they learn together can, in turn, help them in being a writer on their own, too. 

These playful, brief collaborations around sentence combining have the potential to both help our writers grow and build community in the classroom. 


Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N.(2012).Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012- 4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Kittle, P., & Hicks, T. (2009). Transforming the Group Paper with Collaborative Online Writing. Pedagogy, 9(3), 525–538.