Reading Out Loud in the Writing Center: Reflections and Questions

Uncategorized / Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

By Neil Simpkins –

picture of neil staring at the camera wearing glasses
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.

Some Conclusions

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

9 Replies to “Reading Out Loud in the Writing Center: Reflections and Questions”

  1. Thanks for such a wonderful post, Neil! And thanks especially for being critical about a common and important practice of writing centers. Your second point on reading aloud in a shared space is something that I’ve thought a lot about—something that I want to be more cautious of in my own work. There’s something so communal about writing centers, which is a positive thing, but the act of reading something aloud can also feel very public. In your case, it wasn’t the writer who felt particularly vulnerable but the others in the room, which is a vantage point I haven’t considered as much but certainly need to. This makes me wonder how we might be more concerned with physical spaces and take those into consideration when writers come into our center.

    In addition, your post is making me consider how the practice of reading aloud has helped me, as a writer who uses the center, but perhaps deserves a little more explanation when advising new writers to do so. What I like about reading aloud is that it can illuminate parts of my writing that I didn’t otherwise notice, and I frequently comment on areas that I want to reflect more on with the tutor. I’ve come to learn this about myself as a writer but should consider expanding my reasons for why this practice is so helpful for writers.

    Finally, you make such an important point about access issues, which all tutors need to think more deeply about. Overall, it seems like we may want to revise the way we greet writers to include conversation where we can negotiate the methods we see as helpful and the methods writers themselves find valuable. Before jumping in and suggesting certain practices, your post makes me want to ask more about the space in which we work and how that might support the writing at hand and the tools we use in the process.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stephanie! I think to your last point that there is a great potential for a convergence between the move towards RAD research in writing center fields and a greater focus on building accessibility into our design. When we develop or examine our practices, we should be trying to see if these practices actually do what we think they do through empirical focus that also considers the different access needs students bring to our spaces!

  2. Thanks for writing this post, Neil! I really enjoyed participating in this work group. It’s intriguing how even some of the more routine aspects of a writing center session can have significant pedagogical effects and reveal larger philosophical beliefs behind what we do.

  3. Neil, although I wasn’t in your OGE group, I’ve been thinking about the practice of reading out loud since you first mentioned it – even having you just pose the question has helped me significantly shift the way I use it during conferences with students. For one, when I ask students to read their draft out loud, I’ve become much more conscientious about explaining why I ask them to do so; doing so is part of the meta-teaching work we do, I think. You’re right that we often talk about reading out loud as a way for students to get critical distance from a draft or notice sentence-level mistakes that they might not catch otherwise, but this isn’t always true, especially for ELL writers who are asking us to help them learn what a mistake looks like. In cases where writers mention that they want to work on grammar or style, I’ve started helping students pay attention to the times when they speak what they “meant” to write, rather than what’s on the page. Sometimes, I point out when the spoken and typed words differ as a way of making phrasing suggestions rooted in students’ own authority over the text, or helping students to build confidence by pointing out that they really do know how to phrase something, even if they didn’t believe they did.

    I also think of reading out loud as a really being “about” audience, and since so much of what’s valuable about Writing Center conversations is the chance for writers to find test audiences, I’ve been experimenting with how I can use the practice of reading out loud to enhance writers’ attunement to audiences. Beyond sentence-level issues, I’ve noticed that writers who are concerned with clarity of argument often also benefit from reading out loud because the “invisible” audience they write to is suddenly real, embodied, right next to them. I’ve been reflecting lately on whether reading out loud can help a writer take better care of their audiences, better anticipate their needs. As your experience at the CCE also suggests, I think there might be some affective work in reading out loud worth noticing. Also, once in a while, I try a variation on “point prediction.” Lately, I’ve been offering to skim a student’s draft for them. They look relieved until I tell them I’m not going to read silently. Instead, I trace a pencil along the lines while I mutter out loud, voicing my thoughts and reactions. I explain to them that I’m doing this not to give them definitive, thought-through suggestions but to let them witness the way an audience responds to their writing. It doesn’t always work the way I want it to, but when it does, students wind up taking more extensive notes than when they do the reading or I do the reading silently. I should probably ask one of them what they’re taking notes on – I wonder whether they’re recording my reactions, jotting ideas for revisions, or making a note-to-self to never make another appointment with such a weirdo tutor…

    You also ask what tutors get from asking students to read. I’ve also realized that having students read often helps me to be a better audience for them – as you said, it gives me space to take notes, and I know that it helps my comprehension to both hear and see things at the same time. That’s not nothing – part of knowing and valuing our own neurodiversity, no?

    Anyway, I realize that this might come across as a boastful “look at the great things I do” comment, but I certainly don’t mean it to. I just wanted to let you know about some of the ways you’ve really, really gotten in my head in a good and productive way. I’d love to know any ideas you or other commenters have about the value of any of these techniques or how I could sharpen them, and I look forward to reading more about what others have been trying.

    Leigh Elion
    Co-Director, English 100 Tutorial Program
    Writing Center Instructor
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

    1. Hi Leigh,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Now I am really thinking about the affective dimensions of reading aloud, even beyond being able to hear what someone has written. I wrote a little bit about the “hum” of satellites and how reading aloud is a big part of that. At some of our satellites, especially dining hall locations, the reading is both a clarifier of the general hum as well as something that adds to it. That’s pretty cool–an academic reverb throughout this space. I’m just musing here…anyways, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  4. Thanks, Neil, for your post and for the OGE! It was great to be able to consider critically the practice of reading aloud.

    Since the OGE ended, I’ve been a lot more aware of the way I use reading aloud during conferences. First of all, I haven’t been using point-predict. It was nice for a few sessions, but it made me feel a little anxious: if writing was clearly structured, it was easy to predict, and if it wasn’t, it was a lot harder, which made me feel performance anxiety about something that I could probably have simply pointed out to the writer (“Hey, it was difficult to see that you were going in that direction.”). It’s nice to have it as a tool in my bag, though, and I bet I’ll use it again.

    Second, I keep thinking about reading aloud and how the practice is complicated for many ELL writers. Ever since I realized that reading aloud often also involves mental translation for ELL writers, I’ve tried to give them the option of me reading aloud, to take the pressure off. After all, many of them want to hear how certain words are pronounced without having to ask. However, I think I’m doing a rather poor job of introducing the practice. I usually say something like, “If you feel more comfortable with me reading, I could read aloud.” It probably comes across as, “I’d rather not do this, but tell me whether you would feel awkward if I don’t.” Many writers are relieved. But I think I could do better. Maybe a question like, “Would you find it helpful to hear me read your draft aloud this time?” would be a better way of acknowledging what the practice of reading aloud is supposed to do – help writers by putting sound to the text.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Zach! I’m thinking of something else we discussed in this OGE–the “spiel” you give about reading out loud, and how important it is to a successful use of reading out loud, no matter what method you’re using. I like how you’re framing the question in the last sentence of your comment!

  5. Neil, I very much appreciate the way your blog entry helps us re-think reading aloud. You’ve complicated it and the critiques of it in very useful ways for tutors. Well done!

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