Like so many writing instructors, I frequently find myself frustrated with what appears to be a lack of attention to editing in the papers I receive from my students. In the Fall 2013 semester, I tried something new in an effort to address this issue by inviting students to record themselves reading their drafts as a part of their editing process. Too late to make it an assignment in and of itself, I provided an incentive: each student who submitted with their essay a recording of himself or herself reading it would receive an additional 5 points added to their score. Out of approximately 75 students, approximately 60% completed the exercise; along with the 5 bonus points, the vast majority of those students reaped the benefits of the added attention to editing in higher scores for organization, style and conventions, and rhetorical awareness.
When I assigned this exercise for the first time, having students read their own writing out loud was not a new part of my pedagogy. I have long encouraged students to read their writing out loud, but that has almost always been in the context of tutoring. As evidenced in the resources to be found online, such as that available through the websites of the University Writing Center at Texas A&M University and of The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reading out loud is central to writing center pedagogy. (UNC, in fact, provides a detailed handout that is particularly helpful because it recommends software and web-based applications that make it possible for a computer to read text to you.)
However, such resources don’t address ways for instructors to transfer the approach into the classroom, which is something that I have found to be very frustrating. As a tutor, it was easy for me to sit down with a student and do one of two things:
- Have the student begin to read a paragraph and then when they deviate from what’s on the page, direct them to review the sentence(s) more closely, or
- Read the paragraph to the student myself and have them mark up their paper with what they hear that they don’t like or realize is incorrect.
One of those two strategies almost always worked, and by the end of a tutoring session both the student and I would feel—know—that we accomplished something.
While these strategies have been successful for me when working individually with students, I have rarely felt that level and certainty of accomplishment in the classroom when it comes to teaching editing. When most composition instructors have 75-150 students (or more), there is simply not time to work with each student individually like this. Pairing students up in peer review presents its own problems with 12-15 students reading different papers in unison in the echo chamber of the standard university classroom. And, even though you can always discuss the technique as a part of teaching revision and editing, that is no guarantee that students will actually try it when they are on their own and working on their essays, particularly if they wait until the last minute to start writing. Having students complete this exercise of reading their own writing out loud outside of class and record it seemed to eliminate these potential problems, with the further benefit that students no longer needed peer review partners and could begin to learn how to objectively critique themselves.
Some of the things we discover when we record ourselves reading are documented in studies like David Bartholomae’s 1980 article “The Study of Error.” Upon taping a student reading his own writing, Bartholomae found that when he was reading out loud, the student would often self-correct errors in his papers, thus indicating that some of the errors we commonly see in student writing are related to performance, not competency (263). As he goes on to explain, the problem stems not from “laziness or inattention when editing” but instead “the tremendous difficulty such a student has objectifying language and seeing it as black and white marks on the page” (Bartholomae 263). Making one’s own voice foreign and unfamiliar, as happens when you listen to a recording of yourself, makes it much easier for a student to objectify the material they have created. As writing professionals, we probably take the difficultly of stepping outside yourself and objectively reading your own work for granted—I know I do. Thus, having students record themselves is a stepping-stone to a skill we all do automatically.
The most interesting effect of error analysis I find, however, is that “By having students share in the process of investigating and interpreting the patterns of error in their writing” we give them a way to “see themselves as language users, rather than as victims of a language that uses them” (Bartholomae 258). As a tutor I was always struck by the discouragement my students felt when their grammatical and syntactical errors were reduced to red marks on a page. While students are ultimately responsible for what is on the page and not what is in their head, the notes and comments we make on papers as we grade don’t acknowledge what a student is trying to accomplish or what that student thought he or she was accomplishing, two things that we need to recognize if we are emphasizing process. Having students read their writing out loud is one way to acknowledge what didn’t make it onto the page and allow them to build on that during revision. Yet, even telling students about Bartholomae’s findings can be beneficial in its own right. As students read their writing out loud and find that they too self-correct, they can begin to realize that their errors are not an indication of their aptitude or ability, which can be just the motivation they need.
For me though, the idea of having students record themselves reading their own writing came from music pedagogy. I was often directed to record myself when I was studying the viola and it was one of the tasks that I dreaded the most. I dreaded it because I knew that what I would hear when playing back the recording would sound very little like what I imagined to be coming from my instrument. Not unlike a student who knows what she wants to write but can’t transfer the words from her head to the paper, I could always hear the phrase in my head as I wanted to play it though I struggled to get that same sound out of my viola when I put my bow to the strings. Thinking about my own experience, I realized that although their tools are different, musicians take a text and interpret it for an audience just as writers do, and they face some of the same challenges. Both performance and written text exist in a rhetorical context. Just like the sound of my viola coming into my ear as I play, my words and ideas echo in my head as I write. My sentences and word choices sound just how I would like them to sound in that space. Yet, I have learned, as all writers and musicians do, that what I’m hearing is very rarely what my audience is hearing. I’m projecting what I want to hear onto the data I’m actually receiving. So, both the musician and the writer need to consider audience—and, in some cases during the drafting process, create one in themselves and by themselves.
Thinking about self-critique through music has always been more powerful than thinking about it through the context of writing, something that I recognize now has to do with the multimodality of musical interpretation and performance. Whereas the closeness of the writer to her writing is largely metaphorical or allegorical, the closeness of the musician to the sound she creates is literal and physical. Particularly in the case of the violin and viola, which are held in close proximity to the ear, the musician gets a distorted perception of the sound she is creating; the sound emitted from the instrument is literally too close for the musician to analyze. Thus, having students record themselves reading their own writing brings sound into the writing process, literally heightening the discord between what is on the page and what the student thinks is on the page. Unlike musicians, writers aren’t forced to acknowledge the physical and aural component of our craft, which is something that borrowing from music pedagogy like this can recover for us.
In my first attempt to transfer the success of this reading out loud strategy to the classroom, I focused primarily on the practical benefits of recording: it would avoid the chaos of doing the exercise in class, it would give the students a tool for editing their own work, and it would make it easy for me to ensure that the students did, in fact, read their writing out loud. For those of us using a multimodal approach to teaching writing, however, it is imperative that we acknowledge that composition, regardless of the mode, is always a process, and that that process is multimodal. We are already doing a lot of that work, such as when we ask students to summarize an argument in a Tweet or graph the structure of their argument, and asking them to record themselves reading their writing is just one more tool for us, and the students, to employ. At least in my own teaching, I find that in focusing on nurturing our students’ proficiency in the WOVEN modes of communication—written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal—it is all too easy to think only of the end product, particularly when we have the opportunity to make use of new technologies and platforms in our assignments.
It is important to note though that the same technology that can distract us from the multimodality of process is what allows us to teach self-critique in the way I’ve described here. When Bartholomae taped his students reading their papers for his error analysis research nearly three decades ago, it would have been difficult for students to take on that task themselves. However, with smartphones and laptops with built-in microphones and recording software, nearly all college students can easily record themselves and submit the audio file via a learning management system, email, or other file sharing service. Even so, multimodal assignments can be intimidating for instructors to implement for the first time. Admittedly, I probably would have taken much longer to have tried it had I not been teaching in a program with a multimodal approach and where projects that require students to create audio recordings are so common. For that reason, one of the things I like most about this assignment is that it doesn’t rely on technology that is expensive or specialized, so it could be used in almost any institutional setting. The assignment also provides a low-stakes opportunity for both students and instructors who are just beginning to make use of digital resources in their work to gain experience and confidence. For instance, I found it to be a great trial run for a later project in which students created an audio tour segment for an art exhibition.
The experience revealed to me that having students record themselves reading their own writing can be a useful exercise for many students because the process can be tailored to the individual and adapted over time to address different challenges. For non-native speakers, recording themselves reading can help them develop their reading, writing, and speaking skills in a safe space where they might feel more confident and willing to take risks. For students who struggle with focus and attention to detail, the process forces them to slow down and attend to each word. For students who can recognize formal style and grammar when they hear it but who cannot yet replicate it on the page, recording plays to their auditory strengths. Finally, for students who already have mastery of formal, academic writing, recording provides an opportunity to experiment and challenge themselves. In fact, in future classes, I would like to use the exercise as a means of tailoring goals to individual students, identifying an area of improvement for each student to focus on over the course of the semester, whether that be learning to modulate the rate and tone of their speech or to exploit a variety of sentence lengths in a paper.
As with any assignment, this one had its flaws but they were flaws that could be easily remedied. For example, I strongly suspect that some students submitted a recording but didn’t use as a tool for editing their papers. To address this in the future, I would require students to submit their marked up drafts and a reflection examining the experience of listening to their recordings and identifying the patterns of errors they found. I would also build this into the scaffolding of the project in order to reinforce that such practices are central to the composition process as opposed to something that goes above and beyond, that is “bonus.” Nonetheless, whatever way you choose to integrate recording into your class, in asking your students to read their work out loud, you are “teaching [them] a form of reading” (Bartholomae 267) that is invaluable.
Bartholomae, David. “The Study of Error.” College Composition and Communication. 31.3 (1980): 253-269.
About the Author:
Caitlin L. Kelly (PhD in English, University of Missouri; MA in English, University of Tennessee) has been a Brittain Fellow since Fall 2013. Her research area is 18th-century/Romantic-era British literature and culture, with particular interests in religious and print cultures and the development of the novel. In her teaching, Caitlin often draws on adaptation theory to think about rhetorical strategies and modes of communication, and she has taught texts like Pamela and Shamela, Pride and Prejudice and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and Tristram Shandy and A Cock and Bull Story. Follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.