On Reading Aloud

Student Voices, Writing Centers / Monday, February 28th, 2011

img_3360 It’s been loud in Madison these past two weeks. Tens of thousands of people have gathered each day in our city, collectively and individually giving voice to their concerns about a piece of legislation which impacts every member of our state and beyond. Demonstrators on both sides of the debate have shouted, sung and discussed themselves hoarse. The Capitol building, day and night, has been filled with bodies, but also writing—signs, notes, posters, fliers. Whatever positions the throngs of visitors to our Capitol hold, they’ve come to exercise their voices, and the impact of these weeks has been to demonstrate that a voice of the people exists.

“Voice” is one of those concepts in writing that can mean any number of things, so many that it often dissolves into something so vague it may cease to seem useful. But like the concept of “rights” which has been occupying Madison in particular these past two weeks, the weakness of the concept—and by “weakness” I mean the difficulty in fixing its definition—is one of its strengths. It can be variably invested with meaning, mapped onto or found to underlie so many other aspects of writing: it plays a part in every point of the rhetorical triangle and acts as a sort of cognate for tone, style, point of view, personality, purpose. In creative and critical writing a long-term goal is to “find your voice.” In red-pen in the margins of one of your essays you may see its various incarnations—at one moment in that more figurative sense, “you have developed a compelling voice here,” and at another its more practical, grammatical cousin, “avoid the passive voice!”

The big! topical! hook! I began this post with, and the rumination on the abstract notion of “voice” that followed, may both seem to poorly lead into what I really want to discuss: a more literal moment of “voice” in writing center tutoring, specifically, reading aloud. But personal conviction, active participation in communication, and that hodgepodge of ways “voice” factors into any piece of writing are all implicated in reading aloud as standard tutorial practice.

My writing center sessions begin, as most do, with introductions and working through a few brief intake questions about the writer, task, and goals for the session and revision. Then we read the paper aloud. “We” more accurately being the writer. Though a student may find reading aloud to be somewhat intimidating, it greatly reduces the awkwardness for both writer and tutor, as reading through the draft can be done “together” with an active reader and active listener, rather than the tutor reading silently while the student sweats it out. The practical benefits don’t end there. This simple practice manages to “catch” more mechanical errors (and in a more efficient and shared way) than reading silently by either writer or tutor will. Mechanical concerns which escape the eye are caught by the ear, and can be quickly corrected by the writer as he or she reads, or can simply be noted and then discussed if the student has a specific question about a technical rule. Additionally, sentences that may be technically correct may still sound awkward or unwieldy when we hear them out loud, leading the writer to reconsider phrasing and syntax, and often even logic and overall meaning.

Pragmatically, reading aloud is simply a great way to get through the draft before the discussion “really” starts. But this simple practice can play a dramatic role in transforming the writer’s relationship to the writing. Reading work aloud gives voice to the writing in a way that puts a writer in a position to “own” his or her words, to connect the words on the page to his or her speaking, thinking, arguing self. Because of the discomfort involved in this process it’s paradoxically empowering and disempowering. Which is precisely why it is so useful. When you read aloud you are forced to take ownership of your words at the same time you’re giving them away by sharing them with an audience.

Reading to a one-person audience in a tutorial session offers more to the writer than an increased awareness of a more abstract audience, though that shouldn’t be discounted. Adding a listener into the chain of exchange between student and instructor reminds the student that the instructor is a listener, too. Even the silent reader “hears” writing, I would argue, more than we as writers often “hear” our words as we write them. Reading aloud can then lead to heightened investment in not only the meaning of the writing, but also the style.

So to begin to recap: reading aloud is great! It gives us a way to share the work at the beginning of a session. It does wonders for proofreading. It can cause a writer to connect the writing task to their sense of self, and thus bolster their commitment to its improvement. But there’s another sort of paradox at work in reading aloud which is my favorite among this list, and why I love the space of the writing center for giving voice to student writing: at the very same time the student is asked to own his or her words, and thus be potentially more invested in their work and conscious of how this given writing task can represent their academic self, they are let off the hook. They can change those words. And we can help. They can, in dialoguing with a tutor, decide they really want to say something else. There’s something about the way that reading aloud demands commitment and starts the process of revision that just really does it for me as an instructor and a student.

All that being said, however sympathetic and friendly we (instructors) are, it’s tough to read to us. It’s a performance. A student has the courage to make an appointment or stop at our table, looking for our expertise and collaboration, and we turn things back on them, asking for theirs to be the sole voice for the first 10 minutes or so of their session. Before having students read aloud, I give them a (much abbreviated) explanation of why I think it’s so useful, and thus why I’m asking them to do so. What explanations do you give? How do you deal with, ease, or embrace that discomfort in your sessions? Do you often read, aloud for students? Do you think global concerns are revealed as efficiently as local concerns when a draft is read aloud? And, finally, do you read your own work aloud as often as you ask your students to do so?

And please, Wisconsin, whether you are bravely reading your English 169 essay over the din of the Gordon Commons cafeteria, or shouting your support or opposition to a piece of legislation, continue to make your voice heard.

3 Replies to “On Reading Aloud”

  1. Megan, I like both of your related ruminations about voice. And I would welcome a discussion on the first issue you raise–that of “finding one’s voice” as a writer. I often find that when I encourage students to do this, what I really mean is that I want them to be interesting or funny. But I don’t know that they can decode that meaning, nor do I know whether it’s reasonable to expect all my students to adopt the kind of wry “voice” I like to read. So I’ve stopped using “voice” and started talking about more measurable aspects of writing, like using interesting specifics, saying something new, or connecting with the reader in some way. But I wonder whether those are much better–or ultimately, any less problematically normative than my old veiled injunctions to be funny.

    I agree with all of your reasons for liking the “read aloud” method. Additionally, after a particularly productive session of reading aloud, I often encourage students to do it at home with other assignments. This adds just one more benefit: they learn an at-home revision strategy through working with you.

    I’m glad you wrote on this topic. It’s one of my favorite parts of a session. I love seeing different writer’s personalities come across in the reading aloud process. Some get animated, and speak with their hands. Some revise as they read. Some apologize. It’s a great way to get to know your student’s anxieties, and/or what they like about their writing.

    Great post!

  2. what a smart, thoughtful, and timely piece about voice, Megan! I found myself thinking about voice more than once these past few weeks in the very settings you mention: our Writing Center and the Capitol. Seeing some of my students in both spaces made me wonder in what ways, if any, “voice” in the two sites are commingling and affecting each other — a student’s academic voice versus her political one; the words she she submits to her TA in intro sociology versus the words she writes on a hand-made protest sign.

    Of course, voice never is a matter of “versus,” is it? It’s always “both and.” Our literate behaviors may appear discrete, but we’re whole people: complex, contradictory, hopeful, frustrated, doing our best to make sense of this crazy world, wherever our place on the political and academic spectrums.

    This is a post that made me think. Thank you!

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