Expanding our Repertoire of Responses: CARM in Tutor Education

By Mike Haen

Mike Haen is a first-year tutor at the UW-Madison Writing Center and a second-year PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric. He teaches English 100 and has worked as a writing center tutor at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.

Five years ago, I was an undergraduate tutor-in-training at Marquette University. All prospective tutors at the Ott Memorial Writing Center are required to complete a semester-long training course, in which undergraduates familiarize themselves with writing center pedagogy and reflect on their writing processes. For me, the most memorable moments in that class required us to attend closely to tutoring interactions. We did this by (1) observing experienced tutors in sessions, (2) role-playing imagined interactions with classmates, and (3) transcribing a few minutes of tutoring talk.


The author, Mike.

In this post, I advocate using a novel communication training method that’s applied in other workplace settings (e.g. neighborhood mediation hotlines; doctor-patient interactions). Developed by British social scientist Elizabeth Stokoe (2014), the Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (CARM) examines the “sorts of problems and roadblocks that can occur in interaction” (p. 256) by having trainees role-play from real video or audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions. Before role-playing, trainees watch a clip of an unfolding interaction (e.g. when a caller to a mediation hotline describes a problem to a call taker). Trainees then role-play what they might do next to handle the situation. When finished role-playing, they watch the rest of the clip and observe how the practitioner (e.g. call taker) dealt with the roadblock or problem.  Finally, as a group, trainees discuss the responder’s practices and the success of those practices.

As its name indicates, CARM is based in Conversation Analysis (CA), which examines participants’ conversational actions (e.g. complaints, suggestions) and how they “manage turn-taking, repair, and other systemic dimensions of interaction” (Heritage, 2004, p. 104). Through turn-by-turn analysis of talk, CA poses the inquiry of why that now? (Schegloff and Sacks, 1973). The use of CA methodological frameworks in studies on writing center talk (Thonus 2002; Waring, 2005; Godbee, 2012) makes CARM a suitable and sensible training approach. It can help tutors build their repertoire of responses for various situations (e.g. responding to frustrated writers). That said, I don’t want to dismiss role-play and other activities (e.g. observation; transcription). Instead, I want to explain what CARM looks like and how it brings together the advantages of typical training activities.


Tutor Training Activities: Role-Play, Observation, and Transcription

Most tutor education programs use role-play, observation, recording, and/or transcription to train about interaction. In a past Another Word post, Matthew Pearson and Lauri Dietz (2013) have explained how in-person observations function as a key component of their training at DePaul University. They write that their new tutors “shadow experienced peer writing tutors’ appointments and are shadowed by experienced peer writing tutors in their first appointments.”

The Ott Memorial Writing Center at Marquette University

Marquette University’s Writing Center

Many centers also employ a slightly modified form of observation—known at Marquette University and the University of Central Florida as Video Peer Observation Discussion (VPOD). Tutors video-record their sessions, view the videos, and analyze and reflect on those videos with their peers. Then, they discuss their pedagogical approaches, and consider how they might revise their approaches in the future. We use a similar method here at UW-Madison.

However, training activities based in videotaping don’t always ask tutors to transcribe their interactions and examine their turns-at-talk, even though close vertical transcription has been promoted as a training activity in the field (Gilewicz & Thonus, 2003). Gilewicz and Thonus write that, “By taking the time to prepare close vertical transcriptions of tutorials that include hesitations, repetitions, timed pauses, backchannels, overlaps and paralinguistic features, writing center tutors and researchers obtain much more information to work with” (p. 46).

Next, I show how CARM merges the imagination of role-play, the authentic interaction involved in observation, and the micro-level details of close transcription.


Modeling CARM as a Training Method

CARM might be used to help tutors consider potential responses to writers who express troubles or problems. In the video example below, which was collected in 2014 as part of a Midwest Writing Centers Association grant-funded study (IRB#: 14.078-UWM), Bob (a graduate student) is working with Meg (an undergraduate tutor). Bob is expressing a trouble about a scholarly article he needed to read to complete his writing assignment. He appears frustrated and explains why he uses a “direct quote” from the article in his own writing.

Transcription Key:  

  1. (n) Indicates length of a pause in seconds                    3. heh/.hh  Indicates laughter/in-breath
  2. Brackets [ ] Indicates overlapping talk                        4. (    )          Indicates unintelligible talk


After showing this transcribed extract and the accompanying clip, tutors would be asked to role-play or consider options for responding after Bob’s ‘You know what I mean?’ Presumably, Bob is looking for some sort of affiliative response from Meg here—one that supports or endorses his stance. Such a response tends to be standard advice in training manuals like The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors (108) as well (e.g. “using an I statement, rephrase what the writer is saying in order to help him identify his emotions and problems”).

Before viewing the rest of the interaction (below), I challenge you to brainstorm how Meg might respond to Bob.


As you can see, Meg does not respond with strong affiliation—something like “It seems like you’re struggling with academic language and I totally get where you’re coming from” or “I’ve been confused by scholarly articles before too.” Instead, she acknowledges his trouble briefly (“yeah”) and then quickly moves to referencing the teacher–turning Bob’s attention to what that reader might think about his quotation of the passage. Meg refers back to his initial turns about the quotation rather than the later ones. Bob responds by admitting that he “was concerned about” his quotation practices (“relying too much on text”), and proceeds to explain that concern.

communicationBob’s response shows that Meg’s practice (e.g. invoking the teacher) is successful, even though it does not conform with the typical response we’d imagine or with what training manuals recommend. His response indicates that he aligns with Meg’s concern about “relying too much” on the scholarly text, and that he needs to justify his writing choice. This example shows how CARM can raise tutors’ awareness of what they might expect to happen in interaction, as compared to what actually can and does happen. It reveals that a range of responses can be successful in responding to a writer, and that tutors might orient to different details of the unfolding interaction. Through making a collection of similar examples (e.g. writer expressing troubles) and applying CARM to them, tutors can build their repertoire of responses.

Conclusion: CARM’s Benefits

I hope I’ve demonstrated how and why a CARM framework might be useful in training. To summarize, here are some fundamental benefits of the approach, which are usually mutually exclusive to observation, role-playing, and transcription:

Professor Elizabeth Stokoe

Professor Elizabeth Stokoe

  1. It makes training interactive, rather than passive.
  2. It values both imagined responses and actual responses to problems or roadblocks in conversation.
  3. It attunes tutors to micro-level details in interaction.
  4. It expands tutors’ repertoire of responses by considering what might and what does happen.

Now, I’d like to hear from you. If you lead tutor education, what methods have you used to help tutors attend to their conversational practices? Or if you’re a tutor, what valuable methods have you encountered in training? What might be missing from CARM?



Gilewicz, M., & Thonus, T. (2003). Close vertical transcription in writing center training and research. Writing Center Journal, 24, 40-55.

Godbee, B. (2012). Toward explaining the transformative power of talk about, around, and for writing.” Research in the Teaching of English, 47:2, 171-197.

Heritage, J. (2004). Conversation analysis and institutional talk. In Robert Sanders and Kristine Fitch (eds), Handbook of Language and Social Interaction. Mahwah NJ, Erlbaum: 103-146.

Schegloff, E. A. & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8:  289–327.

Stokoe, E. (2013). The (in)authenticity of simulated talk: Comparing role-played and actual conversation and the implications for communication training. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 46 (2)

Stokoe, E. (2014). The Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (CARM): A method for training communication skills as an alternative to simulated role-play. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 47 (3), 255-265.

Thonus, T. (2002). Tutor and student assessments of academic writing tutorials: What is “success”? Assessing Writing, 8, 110-134.

Waring, H. Z. (2005). Peer tutoring in a graduate writing center: Identity, expertise and advice resisting. Applied Linguistics, 26: 141-168.


5 thoughts on “Expanding our Repertoire of Responses: CARM in Tutor Education

  1. Thanks, Mike, for this really thoughtful, thought-provoking post. As you note, here at Marquette we heisted this idea of professional development through small group Video Peer Observation Discussion (VPOD) from Mark Hall’s smart work at University of Central Florida. (In fact, I’m pretty sure he talks about the VPOD work in a book he has coming out in the spring.)

    We’ve found it quite useful to look together at short clips of video in small groups that loop back into large staff discussions: following Mark’s lead, I’ve asked tutors to meet in small groups to share and discuss clips of 5-7 minutes, then choose one of those clips to bring to the full staff meeting for further discussion. That’s helped us have large staff conversations about sessions that are grounded in specifics (and less likely to veer into generalized venting). But I really like this idea of choosing even shorter bits of interaction then pressing pause and encouraging tutors to brainstorm what they might do next. I think this post will inspire our next round of staff meetings! Thanks!


    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad that this might inspire some work in staff meetings. And, thank you for providing more details on VPOD. Informing readers about the logistics (e.g. small group and large group discussion of 5-7 minute clips) is an important part I missed in this post.

      I’ll also look out for Mark Hall’s book!


  2. Thanks for sharing this, Mike! I’m wondering how CARM could be built into new kinds of tutor training that our field is exploring, such as the interactive digital modules we’ve been developing here at UW-Madison.

    • Thanks for asking!

      I think that CARM can be integrated into, or adapted for, our web-based simulation training/interactive digital modules in two ways to address two potential problems:

      1.) Small, but consequential details. In our web-based simulation, the sample session progresses mostly through written narration of the events happening (e.g. writer asks tutor about whether her descriptions of studies are too vague for an experimental lab report). Most of the events, besides the reading aloud of the draft, lack audio and visual components of interaction. That is, we (as trainees) are offered a basic outline of the structure of a session and how to manage time in the session, but are provided limited understanding of how tutors and writers organize their activity through conversational actions. Because of this, trainees going through this model as might be left with a very general understanding of how writing choices are arrived at through collaboration of tutor and writer. I think audio and visual components like eye gaze, pauses or hesitations in speech, and laughter are very important details to attend to in training tutors about collaboration. By including videotaped (authentic) interactions (with participants’ approval) in this web-based simulation, you could draw tutors’ attention to smaller, but still consequential, details.

      2.) Structure of writing center talk and power in talk about writing. By requiring tutors to transcribe or read transcriptions corresponding to the videotaped interactions in this training activity, you might also alert tutors to dimensions of power and authority that emerge through talk about writing. For example, a tutor who takes more turns-at-talk and frequently couches advice in very directive ways (‘definitely write…’) might encourage trainees to think about what contexts and circumstances require such conversational practices. A first-year undergraduate writer confused about the assignment might call for a more directive approach, while a first-year graduate student who is struggling to write a conference abstract might benefit from a more indirect, Socratic questioning approach. The process of creating or reading transcriptions can help trainees reflect on the relationship between power and circumstance, which raises the issue of directive vs. nondirective methods, in talk about writing.

      I hope this answers your question!

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