Can You Hear Me?
Reading Aloud as a Tool for In-Class Peer Review
Composition teachers have exhausted the peer-review experience during which students swap papers, read silently for an inevitably imbalanced amount of time, and finish nonchalantly congratulating each other on a job well done. In an effort to stimulate the peer review practice in my first-year writing and rhetoric course, I decided to integrate reading aloud. When I first announced that my students would be reading their papers aloud to their peers, the nervousness in the classroom was as tangible as my students’ gasps were audible. I had fully expected a few to feel uneasy, but never expected the actual aural groans seeping from my students’ desks. As a writer myself, I have relied upon reading aloud in my personal revision practice for years, but rarely engaged it in a classroom setting. Despite the proven benefits reading aloud has for writing composition, the overall use of reading aloud strategies in composition classrooms appears to diminish post elementary school.
While evidence shows reading aloud improves collegiate writing, scholars disagree on its overall effectiveness in catching grammatical errors and whether the student gains more as the reader or the listener of their own work. However, in all of this research, experts have largely ignored the benefits of reading aloud in class as part of peer review. By engaging with this research as well as incorporating my own students’ experience using the reading aloud practice in class, I argue not only that reading aloud is an effective tool for a writer’s personal revision, but that the benefits of reading aloud are enhanced when incorporated into in-class peer review.
The Relationship between Writing and Speaking
In her article “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing,” Cynthia Selfe analyzes the historical relationship between writing and speaking in US composition classrooms. During the eighteenth century, the oral practice from Western classical traditions seeped into American collegiate education outcomes. The goal was to enhance students’ skills in public speaking rather than enhance their proficiency in the written word. However, as print and literacy gained popularity during the late nineteenth and the twentieth century, “aurality was both subsumed by, and defined in opposition to, writing; thus establishing and perpetuating a false binary between the two modalities of expression” (Selfe 617). Yet these two modes of expression couldn’t be more symbiotic.
Although the writing process is often considered a static and silent activity, research shows that writing may involve a greater bodily engagement than previously thought. Peter Elbow, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, advocates for a more bodily experience, claiming that reading aloud:
intensifies our own experience of our own words through multiple channels of perception. We don’t just see them with our eyes and understand them with our minds; we feel them with our mouths and hear them in our ears—and indeed experience them proprioceptively in our bodies (Elbow 237).
This engagement of multiple channels allows a greater mental engagement in the writing and reading process. However, whether consciously opening our mouths to read aloud, psychologists report that “all of us, whether or not we move our lips when we read, subvocalize, or silently recite the text to ourselves” (Yagoda 35). Thus, even when reading silently, our vocal chords want to verbalize the words on the page. In opening our mouth and allowing the vocal chords to verbalize, Debbie Rowe claims that “more sections of the brain are used because more senses are in use. This increases the number of receptors that are engaged in processing information . . . which lessens the likelihood of skimming and overlooking potential problems in the written work” (Rowe 90). With more receptors engaged, reading aloud stalls the practice of skimming. This should allow both the mouth and ear to reflect and reject potential problems or syntactic strangeness often overlooked by the eyes, but scholars still debate whether reading aloud strategies actually catch grammatical errors on the page.
I Don’t Speak Good, But I Write Real Well.
If students do not hear the grammatical mistakes in their everyday speech, will they recognize errors when reading aloud? In 1973, Wilson Snipes looked into the concern that “orientation to an oral culture has helped cause a gradual decrease in student ability to handle written English in traditionally acceptable ways,” pointing specifically to habitual “haphazard punctuation,” “loose rambling style,” and “diminutive vocabulary” (qtd. in Selfe 629-30). While I agree that reading aloud may not help students recognize their misuse of the semicolon or other consistent spoken errors, surely reading aloud helps students catch misplaced, misspelled, or missing words. Especially with the use of word processors, students often hastily mistype words that spell check does not detect. However, when reading the work aloud, students catch those undetected mistakes better. They can hear the misplacement of “die” for the intended word “dire” even when their eyes may have skimmed over it. And yet, as Patrick Hartwell wrote in his essay on grammar, “[m]ost students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote” (qtd. in Garrison 289). Thus, while the student may unconsciously correct the errors aurally, they either do not visually recognize the error on the page, or do not stop reading in order to fix the error.
Despite this research, some scholars, like Linda Hall and Peter Elbow, still assert that the “goal of revising by mouth and ear is not to ‘correct grammar’ but clarity and strength” (Elbow 222). In fact, Linda Hall sees reading aloud as an opportunity for students to put aside the strict adherence to grammar rules. Looking to the initial practice of a child sounding words out for comprehension, Hall claims that “sounding it out also teaches by example the rules of grammar and mechanics, but more important, it can invest students with the power, not just the right, to ignore the rules when the situation warrants it” (Hall 394). Students can therefore ignore the traditional grammar rules in order to give precedence to the sound and clarity of their paper. I had hoped this would be the case with my first attempt to incorporate reading aloud in my in-class peer reviews. Like Elbow and Hall, I desired to steer my students away from the entrapment of correcting errors on the page and instead focus on how the argument, style, and overall coherence of the paper resonated in their ears.
The Incorporation of Reading Aloud in My Own Classroom
I began by organizing the students into groups of three: a reader and two peer listeners. Only the reader had the physical draft in front of them in order to ensure those reviewing would focus on global issues instead of the sentence-level distractions. Those errors, I hypothesized, would be caught and corrected by the readers themselves. I believed as Peter Elbow defends, that:
if we read every sentence aloud carefully with full investment—and if we then fiddle and adjust our words till they feel right in the mouth and sound right in the ear—the resulting sentence will be strong and clear . . . it will help us improve weakness in longer passages and organization . . . [and] reshape what is unclear and awkward (Elbow 9).
As the reader read their paper aloud, the two listeners simply listened and took notes furiously on a corresponding worksheet. These notes then fueled their suggestions made after the reading for the paper’s improvements. To further test my hypothesis, in my second incorporation of reading aloud for peer review, I allowed the listeners to read along silently as the writer read aloud. When asked which peer-review session was most effective, the students reported intriguing results. While their experience as the writer differed little between the two sessions, the students vastly preferred reading along silently versus just listening and taking notes. Perhaps having the paper in front of them helped the readers pay attention, or perhaps not having the paper made them feel unsteady, but despite this discomfort, even when simply listening, the peers’ focus on global issues coupled with the reader’s focus on sentence-level errors proved favorable.
Following with my hypothesis, the majority of my students reported that reading aloud helped them catch their mistakes better than reading silently. One student explained that “when I get in the mode, or in the zone, I tend to get tunnel vision. I will crank out a paragraph that I think is awesome, but when I go back and re-read it, it is as sloppy as can be. Reading aloud helps me spot my errors and it helps me recognize when it’s right.” When asked to rank what they noticed most when reading their paper aloud, the students generally ranked wordiness, grammar mistakes, and misplaced or missing words as strikingly more noticeable than argument, content, or even organization. This resonated with my hope that the reader would be able to catch sentence-level errors by reading aloud.
Although my students seemed to correct their grammar mistakes as they read, a few reported that, like the results found by Patrick Hartwell, correcting mistakes in the midst of reading was awkward and difficult. Even after I encouraged my students to pause and correct any mistakes they found during their reading, one student complained that “I just want to stop and fix my mistakes, but feel I have to keep reading because I have an audience.” While reading aloud privately may induce a better environment for stopping and correcting mistakes, I still argue that having a peer present allows for a stronger revision on a more holistic level. Reading aloud for peer review grants the readers an opportunity to catch surface-level mistakes as they read while the peers simultaneously focus on the style, general flow, and overall coherence.
What We Find When We Read Aloud
While not all scholars agree that reading aloud is an effective tool for catching grammatical errors, the majority find that reading aloud produces strong, clear, and fluid writing. Reading the written word aloud allows the students to hear their own voice and feel the rhythm of their words. As Peter Elbow describes it, “reading aloud can help us hear a general loss of energy or focus or presence—the air gradually seeping out of the tire” (Elbow 226). Certainly if students run out of breath reading a stuffy sentence, this should alert them that perhaps the sentence is too wordy. Similarly, the jarring shifts from one idea to another should note confusion to the students’ mouth and ears, helping students produce more fluid transitions between thoughts and paragraphs. Ben Yagoda claims that reading aloud “is the only sure way to spot the clinkers [and] the rum rhythms” (Yagoda 36). I further argue that reading aloud enhances stylistic word choice as students note when words taste delicious or overused passing over the tongue.
While reading aloud certainly helped my own students’ compositions become clearer and more fluid, it also allowed them to hear if the words they wrote sounded like something they would actually say. Reading aloud offers the student a distinct opportunity to evaluate how well their finished product matches their original intentions. Linda Flower et al. explain that “writers are comparing the text as they read it to that set of intentions and criteria which they represent to themselves” (Flower et al. 29). I assert that this evaluation is heightened when peers are incorporated in the reading experience more than when students merely read their papers to themselves privately.
With the pressure of a peer listening, students must represent themselves to someone other than themselves. It forces them to own their writing and be true to their voice. Recently, when I asked one student what she liked about reading her paper aloud in peer review, she responded with “hearing my style and being able to portray it in the voice I want. Sometimes it can read funny on paper if I don’t imagine the intonations.” Another noted that there is a “self-motivation that comes from hearing how I sound out loud.” While my students may have initially been embarrassed to read in front of their peers, I believe this nervousness allowed them to be extra sensitive to the presentation of their voice. Furthermore, they were able to deliver their writing to an actual audience instead of trying to conjure up an imaginary audience in their mind.
The Audience versus the Rhetor
By its very nature, reading aloud induces a greater sense of audience awareness as students become both rhetor and audience to their work. Peter Elbow notes that “when I speak aloud the words I’ve written, it’s almost as though I’ve magically brought another person into the room” (Elbow 238). But reading aloud behind closed doors, or even having a computer read your paper to you, differs from reading in front of a peer. When reading aloud privately to oneself, the writer’s agency and authority must split between being the rhetor and the audience. This concern about agency’s place in reading aloud comes forth as Debbie Rowe questions:
If reading aloud to revise is a merger of the subject and the other, where does the seat of agency rest in that moment? The rhetor half or the audience half of the self? Or both? This is a unique situation in which agency is fragmented within one person, though some might argue that this too is an artificial situation since the intended audience is absent (Rowe 29).
With the reader being both rhetor and audience, does the reader evaluate their work defensively as the writer or critically as the audience? Are they ever capable of doing both? I believe that while reading aloud privately can improve audience awareness, it is difficult for the reader to think as both the writer and audience member.
Perhaps this is why many composition classrooms have moved to incorporate Text-To-Speech (TTS) software for student use during revision. These TTS computers read the composition out loud to the student, allowing the student to hear their words read by someone else. They step further away from the realm of the Rhetor and more fully enter the perspective of their reader. With this software, students can stop the computer’s recitation at any time to make revisions. It eliminates that probability of students unconsciously correcting their sentence-level errors, reading what they think they wrote instead of what they truly put down on the page. But both Debbie Rowe’s and Kevin Garrison’s research have come to the conclusion that having a computer read the student’s paper aloud is not equal to the experience of having the student read their own paper aloud in its benefits or outcomes.
Both Garrison and Rowe call into question this belief that computers lead to more thorough revision or improved writing. In his research, Garrison notes the major limitations of TTS software. First, he notes that “computers tend to make an already complex task (writing) even more complex by introducing more tools” (Garrison 290). More importantly though, he notes that computers lead to a revision focused on merely surface-level changes rather than global or content revisions. Surprisingly, Garrison shows that even students simply using Microsoft Word made more changes on a global level than those revising by hearing their paper read by the TTS software (Garrison). No matter how realistic the computer’s voice might be, it cannot read the paper the way the writer intended. Without the opportunity to hear their own words in their own mouth and ears, the students cannot truly feel the rhythms, the lagging motion, or the inconsistency of thought. Furthermore, without the presence of a peer, the writer does not receive a perspective from ears and eyes outside of his own body. Reading aloud in peer review allows for those multiple eyes and ears. It merges reader, listener, writer, audience, and rhetor together in a revision workshop. As one of my students reasoned,
I like the discussion [reading aloud] creates. It helps to read aloud to peers because they pick up on things in my paper as I say them that I didn’t think about, or I that I overlooked. Often times it is hard for me to revise my own paper because every time I read over it, I have the same thought process. This way I get a new perspective.
I find that it is this new perspective that really transforms students’ papers from mediocre to exceptionally aware and empathetic pieces of prose.
Limitations of Reading Aloud for Peer Review
While all of my students reported reading aloud as helpful or extremely helpful for their peer-review revision, there were still limitations to the reading aloud experience. Reading a paper aloud, especially if the reader stops occasionally to make corrections, takes time. For instance, in a fifty-minute class, it would be impossible for all twenty students to read through an eight- to ten-page research paper and have time for feedback. Not only that, but reading a lengthy paper aloud often taxes the reader’s voice as well as the listeners’ attention spans. However, since the papers are being read together, the likelihood of peers finishing at different times, or wasting time waiting for their partner to finish reading silently, goes away. Thus, even with the limitations, I conclude that reading aloud should be incorporated in class for peer review.
Besides the occasional reference to voice, the use of aurality for written composition has nearly become extinct in composition classrooms. While some students may personally incorporate reading aloud to catch mistakes or to check for general clarity, students are missing out on the benefits of reading aloud during in-class peer review. By splitting the duty of revising global and local-level errors between the reader and listener, and by allowing the reader to present their voice in front of an actual audience, reading aloud during peer review produces writing that is clear, strong, and fluid, as well as a much more enjoyable peer-review experience. As one of my students acknowledged, “[reading aloud] takes more work, but is well worth it.”
Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Flower, Linda, et al. “Detection, Diagnosis, and the Strategies of Revision.” College Composition and Communication 37.1 (1986): 16-55. Print.
Garrison, Kevin. “An Empirical Analysis of using Text-to-Speech Software to Revise First-Year College Students’ Essays.” Computers and Composition 26.4 (2009): 288-301. Print.
Hall, Linda. “Why Read Aloud?” Southwest Review 91.3 (2006): 386-96. Print.
Rowe, Debbie. “What Feels Good in the Mouth and Sounds Right to the Ear”: An Examination of the Practice of Reading Aloud during Revision. Diss. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2010. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2010. Print.
Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC 60:4 (2009): 616-63. Print.
Yagoda, Ben. The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style in Voice and Writing. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.