Read-and-Think Aloud: A Revised Approach to Peer Review
I never liked peer review when I was in college. I considered the sessions to be a grueling waste of time, especially as well-meaning classmates scrawled in careless letters, “That was great! ☺” Thus, as I planned the first peer-review session for the Opinion Editorial unit, I proceeded with uncertainty and hesitance, mingled with some moaning and groaning. How could I facilitate a meaningful peer review experience for my students? What skills would they need to engage in critical thinking and scholarly discourse? How could I help my students focus on offering holistic-level suggestions for their peers? These were the key questions I considered as I experimented with different peer review ideas.
My main approach went as follows. For the first two units, I assigned a partner for each student. Based on informal writing assignments that had already been graded, I tried to pair students according to their strengths, weaknesses, and essay topics. The students exchanged their essays with each other through e-mail or Google Docs and were expected to read the draft and provide extensive feedback for homework. When we discussed effective peer-review strategies in class, I instructed my students to avoid making any comments, suggestions, or edits as they read the draft for the first time. I wanted them to understand the argument, the thesis statement, and the supporting reasons first. Then, in subsequent read-throughs, students were advised to read the draft thoroughly and make appropriate comments, as directed by a handout that I provided for them. When students came to class having completed their homework, they discussed their feedback with their partners for the first half of class. As students shared their comments, I encouraged them to ask questions about the argument, the main points, and the use of specific rhetorical strategies. Students were to use this time to engage in a thoughtful conversation in which they justified their rhetorical choices and accepted guidance for revisions.
At the end of class, I asked my students if they found the peer review session helpful. After witnessing a sea of bobbing heads, I mentally patted myself on the back and thought, “I’ve got this whole peer review thing down”—then I read the student reflections. Many students expressed frustration that their classmates fixed only grammatical errors. One girl’s statement, in particular, caught my attention, as she wrote, “Peer review is great for my self-esteem! I got so many compliments and smiley faces!” This student’s delighted comment indicated several things to me. First, students were relying heavily on “safety language,” such as undue praise, because they are tentative about offering constructive criticism (Paulsen, Alexander, and Armstrong 325). Students do not want to risk offending their peers, especially as they will associate with each other for an entire semester. Second, students were not yet seeing the big picture, the global revisions that are necessary to transform a piece of writing into an outstanding draft. And finally, as a coach and facilitator, I needed to support my students with scaffolding, a process in which I first guide my students extensively and then gradually withdraw aid as my students are able to perform competently and independently. Thus, I designed the read-and-think-aloud protocol, a model for peer review based upon the research of educators that encourages students to collaborate in small intellectual communities in which they think complex ideas aloud, participate in decision-making, discuss specific application of revisions, and reconceptualize their writing.
Before discussing my revised model in detail, it is important to understand student writers’ current approaches to peer review and the patterns in their techniques. Scholars Eric Paulsen, Jonathan Alexander, and Sonya Armstrong performed a study in which fifteen student participants were evaluated as they peer-reviewed an essay with both holistic and surface-level errors. Eye-tracking technology was used to determine which parts of the essay the students looked at, how long they looked there, and where they looked next. Following analysis of the eye-tracking data and reviewers’ verbal responses, the scholars determined that students possess an “overwhelming predilection for foregrounding surface-level issues” (317), meaning they focused on smaller errors such as punctuation, word usage, and syntax. Students, however, were less likely to suggest holistic revisions, indicating an uncertainty about how to recognize and revise global concerns (319-320). The scholars’ findings confirmed my own students’ experience with peer review. Students’ proclivities to correct spelling errors, insert commas, and identify sentence fragments diverted attention from the larger problems such as vague thesis statements, unsupported claims, and lack of organization. As I pushed students to probe deeper and investigate flaws with the argument, they were hesitant and displayed a lack of confidence in articulating what they did not know. My goal, therefore, was to design a model of peer review in which students felt encouraged to verbalize their uncertainties because “such hesitancies are a natural part of the reading and making-meaning process that all readers encounter” (327).
I wanted my students to feel more comfortable with having doubts and questions about their writing so they could truly engage with their drafts and experiment with different rhetorical decisions. I developed a new system of peer review that removed students from their comfort zone. Well in advance, I asked students to come to class with a single hardcopy of their draft and briefly explained the read-and-think-aloud protocol. They knew, ahead of time, that they would read their draft in front of their classmates. As expected, I saw looks of confusion among students, which is why I took almost an entire class period to model the system with them. I wanted to make sure students understood my expectations after extensive modeling and that they would imitate our class standard of offering thoughtful and constructive commentary—this ideal is called “reciprocal teaching” (Graff 82). As many educators confirm, with “guidance from an adult . . . a learner would be able to function beyond his or her current developmental level” (Lin and Samuel 738). My intent in modeling peer review was to “bridge the students’ current developmental progress to a higher cognitive level of thinking” so that, eventually, with repetition and practice, learners could perform on their own (743).
When everybody produced their drafts, we read the prompt and rubric out loud. Paulsen, Alexander, and Armstrong confirmed in their study that students do not read the prompt thoroughly before beginning peer review (321). I suspected that this was true also with my own students, and I wanted them to be aware of what components they should look for during read-and-think-aloud. After we reviewed the assignment, I asked one student, Tanner, to sit in the middle of the classroom and read his draft aloud. He was understandably nervous and felt vulnerable, but I explained my rationale behind the read-aloud strategy. Reading aloud “triples students’ concern for their writing when they know the class will hear and critique their work” (Megyeri 74). My students felt an appropriate amount of pressure. They invested more time and effort into their initial drafts because they did not want to look foolish or ill-prepared in front of their peers. This strategy also reinforces the idea that writing “deserves an audience, some recognition, and a moment of appreciation” (74). When students read in front of their peers, they are more mindful of their audience’s needs. Finally, reading aloud forces students to proofread—Tanner read his draft aloud with pen in hand because whenever he stumbled or heard an error as he spoke, he quickly corrected it. Thus he was responsible for the sentence-level errors, while his peers helped him with global revisions.
As Tanner read his draft aloud, I asked him to introduce each paragraph by saying, “Introduction” or “Body Paragraph 1.” This strategy guided his classmates through the structure and organization of his paper, which was especially helpful because they did not have his draft in front of them. Students were forced to listen so they could set grammar aside and acquire a global view of his writing. Additionally, having Tanner introduce each paragraph helped students complete the handout I provided in which they recorded questions, observations, and suggestions that were specific to each section of his paper. In previous peer review sessions, students offered vague advice, but they gave “no indication as to where or how” the writer could address various problems (Oosta and Hoatlin 67). Writers had no way of knowing what areas to improve, and some felt discouraged, as the reaction-based comments were often negative. This model, on the other hand, encourages students to make “specific, technique-based comments” (68) and to record at what point they began to feel confused about the argument.
In addition to announcing each paragraph, Tanner allowed for a pregnant pause after every few passages. This pause enabled the think-aloud protocol, a technique in which students talk out loud as they reconceptualize their emerging texts and “reflect in complex ways” (Brockman 85). Stopping momentarily provides writers with the opportunity to practice metacognition and self-reflection as they help each other reassess the rhetorical task, the central argument, and composing processes (84). When Tanner paused during his reading, at least three students offered feedback while he recorded notes and annotations on his draft. As a part of thinking aloud while giving feedback, my students began with “sentence starters” such as: (1) I think he’s saying. . . (2) I’m confused by. . . (3) The argument up to here is. . . and (4) I expect the next thing to be. . . (Graff 82). The sentence starters encouraged my students “to understand rather than fix” during peer review (81). Additionally, these statements forced them to frame their comments encouragingly and critically, so they could avoid using “safety language.” If, at any point, reviewers expressed confusion or did not understand a main point, this was an indication to Tanner that he needed to clarify his argument in order to address the needs of his audience. At first, the think-aloud portion of peer review felt foreign to my students. Some of them struggled to articulate their uncertainties, but once I responded to Tanner’s draft first, they understood the procedure. We continued the pattern of pausing after a few paragraphs and offering feedback using sentence starters until Tanner finished reading and everybody had participated. The reviewers gave the completed handouts to Tanner, and my students felt more confident to continue the read-and-think aloud-approach in smaller groups of four.
The next stage in the read-and-think-aloud process was to resume the work in small groups in order to encourage more self-directed learning. One student would read their paper aloud while group members took notes and offered feedback during pregnant pauses. I chose to continue peer review in small groups in order to combat a problem that I saw in instructor conferences and one-on-one tutoring sessions with struggling learners. With my presence, students “[tended] to rely on [their teacher’s] expertise rather than question the advice they receive and work out their own revision strategies’ (Goosey 18). The process of discovery and exploration in writing was absent because students applied my suggestions without much thought, rather than consider which rhetorical decisions would be best for their paper. Thus I assigned small groups to create a low-risk environment because when peers “[lack] institutional authority, students are encouraged to make their own decisions about incorporating, amending, or even disregarding the advice they receive” (18). Discussions flowed freely, and students engaged in more critical discourse and thinking because they were still responsible for making informed decisions about their compositions.
I will suggest that part of the reason the response groups worked so effectively was because I assigned the members of each group. In the past, I gave students the option to form their own groups, but this proved inefficient because the stronger writers merged together and the weaker writers merged together. Peer review was a waste of time for the latter group because students did not possess the skills to genuinely help each other. Having learned from this mistake, I assigned two strong writers and two weak writers to each group. Quality student-to-student interactions were forged because the “assistance and guidance from the more capable [writers] helped the less competent learners to understand” the assignment as well as the flaws in their argument (Lin and Samuel 743). With significant peer scaffolds, my weaker writers felt more equipped to approach revisions. Additionally, they felt more of an obligation to reciprocate during peer review by making a genuine effort to help all members of the group. My stronger writers benefited too, because, as they assumed the role of a mentor, teaching and guiding their peers enabled them to reflect on their own writing. Additionally, my stronger writers benefited from another skilled student who could offer constructive feedback.
As the final component of the read-and-think-aloud approach, I moved from group to group and participated in the peer review alongside my students. I noticed that some students offered vague feedback that was not truly substantive. For example, some students would verbalize, “I like this idea.” As Nelson Graff suggested, I encouraged my students to think more complexly by asking questions such as “Why do you like this idea? How does it strengthen the argument? Where do you see this taking place in the paper?” (83). These questions pushed my students to engage in more critical thinking, and they were trained to give the specific, technique-based comments that are most helpful in peer review.
Not only did I want to guide and check students’ progress, but I also wanted to show my students that I was learning with them. Donald Murray encourages writing instructors to engage in the process of discovery with students. If the instructor has a reluctant or disgruntled attitude about peer review, students will certainly follow suit. He writes: “If students are to learn to write, then the writing teachers must cross over from the role of critic to player. The worst model for the writing class is for the teacher to be standing at the front of the room talking; the best model is for the teacher to be sitting at the rear of the room writing” (Murray 59). I may not have been sitting at the back of the classroom writing, but I sat next to my students, took notes, and listened to a student read her draft. I showed my students that I care about peer review, and that it is a crucial step in the writing process. Additionally, my students recognized that I am a learner, too, and I am still shaping my strategies to offer encouraging, helpful, and constructive feedback on their working drafts.
At the end of peer review, I asked my students for honest verbal and written feedback. This time, I felt it appropriate to physically pat myself on the back. I noticed a major difference because students were not indifferently nodding their heads. Instead, they were eager to talk to each other about their experience. I was pleased by my students’ responses in their reflections. Many expressed how they had felt nervous in reading their draft aloud, but because all of their classmates were in the same boat, students were respectful and encouraging toward each other. Students felt like most of their questions were answered regarding the soundness of their argument, and they were pleased that more focus was invested in global, rather than local, revisions. When I asked students if they wanted to peer-review using this model again, all but one (the student who did not prepare a draft) responded affirmatively and stated that the pressure of reading aloud forced them to devote their absolute best to a working draft.
When it came time for conferencing, there was a noticeable difference in each student’s session. Many students approached me with budding ideas, complex questions, and even topic changes, which I welcomed. Our conversations were more reciprocal, and I felt less prescriptive in offering suggestions. My students seemed more engaged in the writing process, and they were more willing to make decisions regarding their own writing. After grading the issues papers, I continued to see patterns of change. I was most pleased to see significant global changes in the papers of my struggling writers. These writers made a better effort to offer analysis in order to connect ideas to their thesis statements. They significantly improved their topic statements, providing a clear structure for each paragraph. My stronger writers continued to excel, but several switched topics following the read-and-think-aloud sessions. They found that when they discussed their ideas with interested peers, the conversation enabled them to brainstorm about a different perspective they could take in their draft. Following the peer review, my students felt like they had more control over their writing and the revision process, and they discovered that they could rely on their peers for thoughtful feedback.
While this model was effective, it certainly was not perfect. Many students wished that they had more time to peer-review, and I express the same sentiment. The read-and-think-aloud approach was stretched over two full days because the process was so unfamiliar to students, and yet the class still felt rushed as they read and offered feedback. As Lin and Samuel note, peer review should be time-consuming, so “systematic and careful planning needs to be considered by teachers at the beginning of each semester to ensure that enough time is allocated for group work and peer response sessions” (743). There is definitely value in these scholars’ suggestion, and I want to plan accordingly next semester. I created this model late in the semester, after I had tried everything else. Next time, however, I am eager to introduce this approach at the beginning of the course. It will be unfamiliar to students during the Opinion Editorial unit, but by the time we progress to the Issues Paper unit, my hope is that students will evolve into self-directed learners. While I am always willing to guide my students, my role as teacher should be less important toward the end of the writing course because “students [will] have the scent of their own meanings” (Murray 60). The read-and-think-aloud approach to peer review entrusts students with responsibility and an obligation toward their peers. I have found, however, that with extensive scaffolding and encouragement, students are capable of advanced thinking and offering intelligent observations in collaborative communities.
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Goosey, Veronica. “Creating a Community of Knowledgeable Peers: Writing Center Benefits for Beginning Writers.” Locutorium 1 (2006): 1-11. BYU English Composition. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Graff, Nelson. “Approaching Authentic Peer Review.” The English Journal 98.5 (2009): 81-87. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
Lin, Sandra, and Moses Samuel. “Scaffolding during Peer Response Sessions.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 90 (2013): 737-44. ScienceDirect. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Megyeri, Kathy A. “Reading Aloud Student Writing.” The English Journal 85.3 (1996): 74-79. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Murray, Donald M. “Teaching the Motivating Force of Revision.” The English Journal 67.7 (1978): 56-60. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2015
Oosta, Allie, and Rori-Leigh Hoatlin. “Developing Stronger Peer-to-Peer Feedback in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Workshop.” Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric 9 (2012): 64-76. Digital file.
Paulsen, Eric J., Jonathan Alexander, and Sonya Armstrong. “Peer Review Re-Viewed: Investigating the Juxtaposition of Composition Students’ Eye Movements and Peer-Review Processes.” Research in the Teaching of English 41.3 (2007): 304- 35. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.