By Neil Simpkins
Neil is the current TA Assistant Director at the UW-Madison Writing Center. He previously worked at the Agnes Scott College writing center as a tutor and coordinator. He is in the Composition and Rhetoric Ph.D. program at UW-Madison.
Prior to attending UW-Madison, I tutored at the Agnes Scott College Center for Writing and Speaking. At Agnes, tutors generally read and annotated drafts of the paper quietly while the student read to herself, got a cup of tea, or relaxed in the center. When I moved to UW-Madison, one of the biggest changes in practice that I adapted to was asking students to read drafts out loud. It felt like such a big question to ask, especially for students new to the Writing Center! As a practice I had never used, having the student read aloud also felt strange to me. But reading aloud also externalized the piece, gave the writer a fresh perspective, and fit well with the constraints of our business-like space of separated cubicles. Ever since that shift I have had a lot of questions about this practice. How does reading out loud—or not reading out loud—shape the space of the writing center, student experiences of tutorials, and the learning that happens in our sessions?
This last fall, I set out with a team of instructors at UW-Madison to interrogate reading out loud. In our ongoing education group, we read Rebecca Block’s recent article in The Writing Center Journal titled “Disruptive Design: An Empirical Study of Reading Aloud in the Writing Center” and then turned a critical eye to our own practices. Through these two efforts, we reflected on the different modes and methods of reading out loud, as well as some of the consequences of this practice. Specifically, our conclusions and questions centered on three main areas: the effects of reading out loud on achieving goals within a session, how reading aloud shapes the spaces where we work, and how the benefits and drawbacks of reading out loud shift across working with different student populations.
How Reading Out Loud Affects the Goals of Writing Center Sessions
Outlining three different strategies (instructors reading out loud, students reading out loud, and a method drawn from composition studies called “point-predict”), Block shows that the method of reading out loud affects the session outcomes. When either writers or instructors read texts out loud, Block found that sessions tended to focus more on sentence-level or formatting concerns. Block’s study experiments with the method of “point-predict,” where an instructor reads the writer’s work out loud, pauses when they think a main point has been made, and predicts what will come next while the writer takes notes. She finds that sessions using the “point-predict” method of reading out loud lead to more focus on higher order concerns in writing, in particular global organization. Block is careful not to present “point-predict” as a magic bullet to more global focus, and instead leaves us with the primary conclusion that the kind of reading that we do in a session does have a major effect on the session. The effects reading out loud has are also in conversation with the goals and outcomes that the student and the instructor might want from the tutorial.
As a response to Block’s claims, several of our tutors experimented in their own sessions (admittedly without a quasi-experimental design behind their efforts) with these different methods to see what effect these different methods had on the session. While we mostly confirmed the claim that “point-predict” lead to stronger focus on global concerns, our experiments left us with a few questions and observations. First, we wondered how pointing and predicting related to pointing and summarizing without predicting, as several tutors found that they focused on summarizing after reading out loud. We also discovered that students like to participate in the predictions of where their paper will go alongside the instructor (even if, sometimes, the paper isn’t actually going in that direction). We also felt like the success of “point-predict” in achieving focus on global issues varied greatly depending on the genre of what we working on as well as other factors such as student anxiety, assignment clarity, and familiarity with the Writing Center more generally. Sometimes, students’ goals in their sessions were primarily focused on sentence-level concerns or in some cases cross-communication goals, such as practicing reading a speech out loud. Finally, we wondered what we lost sometimes as instructors by reading aloud—when I tried “point-predict,” I couldn’t continue the practice I’ve developed of taking copious notes, primarily for myself and not the writer. What might a study focused on instructors’ perceptions of what helps them work best with regards to reading aloud find, we wondered?
Reading Out Loud Shapes the Space of the Writing Center
Whether tutors or students read the writing at hand out loud, we discussed at length how this affects the space of the writing center. Reading out loud externalizes a text, and makes it audible to anyone in earshot whether or not they are the intended audience. In between meetings of our OGE, I sat in at the front desk to sub for a receptionist and witnessed this first hand. A graduate student read out loud a portion of her draft to the tutor she had been meeting with for some time, and then asked a question about organization. “I love what you’re saying!” another tutor sitting in our waiting area offered congenially. In this example, the writer knew both tutors and a broader conversation about her work was welcome. But any time writing is read out loud, it opens the writer up to criticism beyond the small space of our conferences.
Reading out loud also shapes the spaces that we occupy temporarily, such as in satellite tutoring. In many ways this is the foundation of the lively, generative vibe of tutoring in these spaces. However, they can also create tension with the missions of the space we share. Once, when tutoring at the Center for Cultural Enrichment, a residence program that seeks to “provide a safe and all-inclusive space that brings to life the Residence Life core values of academics, diversity, community, and involvement” at UW-Madison, I had a white student read aloud a paper with a racist claim. As I worked with this student, pushing against her argument and her wording, I felt the air in the room tense as other students in the room—mostly students of color—began to listen in on our session. The aural performance of this student’s paper ran counter to the mission of the space that we share with the CCE for that moment.
Our group also considered ways that reading out loud functions or shapes our practices in our digital writing spaces, like our Skype satellite and our asynchronous email instruction. In email instruction, our tutors noted that they often suggested that the student read the paper out loud to get a different sense of it before or during revision. As we explore screencasting, we wondered how “point-predict” might be a useful method in that mode. Reading out loud in Skype satellites helps to create continuity with the work we do in a digital space that is meant to model our in-person tutoring services, bringing the in-person “space” to a digital environment.
How the Benefits and Drawbacks of Reading Out Loud Shift across Working with Different Student Populations
As we reflected on our own experiments and experiences, our group raised a few more questions about reading out loud with regards to student experiences. Several of the members of our group raised questions about whether Block’s findings would hold true for ESL students, in particular because different modes of reading out loud might increase social pressures around language. We wondered if students writing about sensitive topics, especially in personal writing like application essays, might have a different experience with having their text made audible in our writing center spaces. We also shared experiences thinking about disability in writing center spaces; sometimes disability makes reading out loud the only mode through which writing can be shared between tutor and student; other times, disability makes reading out loud impossible for one or both parties. We might benefit from also thinking about reading out as an accessibility practice, one that shifts across different disability contexts with its own range of disability-related affordances and constraints.
To wrap up our reflections, I’ll frame some of the discussions we raised above in our ongoing education as questions for us to consider about the practice of reading out loud. You might think of these as areas of future research about reading out loud or just questions to consider about this practice in your own writing center.
- Most of our conversations about reading out loud have focused on what students get out of the various ways we implement this practice. What do tutors get out of the different ways we read out loud?
- How does reading out loud change or shape the spaces where we work? How can we balance the unpredictability of reading out loud with our missions—as well as the missions of spaces we might inhabit through satellite teaching?
- What can we learn from reading out loud that might be useful for asynchronous and synchronous online instruction?
- How do different student populations’ needs affect the usefulness of this practice?
And finally, the most important question of all: what questions and reflections do you have about reading out loud in your own writing centers?
Special thanks to the participants of our Fall 2016 OGE on Reading Out Loud: Dominique Bourg Hacker, Rick Ness, Antonio Tang, Kathleen Daly, Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, Zach Marshall, Julia Meuse, Anna Muenchrath, and Antonio Byrd