Two areas that don't get much discussion in writing center research

I've recently become interested in two areas that don't seem to garner much discussion amongst people writing about the writing center: the read-aloud portion of tutoring sessions and tutoring creative writers. Granted, these two topics don't seem to overlap (though I promise they do have an overlap in my odd brain, but since it isn't completely relevant to my point here I won't bore you with it), except in their shared absence of discussion, but I think both merit looking into a bit more, especially reading aloud.

In my experience, and from what little I've found to read, it seems like most of us read aloud for a combination of fairly standard reasons:
  1. It's the least awkward way to find out what a client has written (having a client just sitting there silently while someone read through, and took notes on, their paper would probably be nerve-wracking and awkward).
  2. It seems to help clients notice things they wouldn't otherwise pick up in their writing (most commonly this seems to be grammar or spelling self-correction, but there also seems to be a general hope that it is a way for writers to distance themselves from their writing and hear it more from an audience perspective).
While I certainly agree with both these reasons, I've also noticed reading aloud can create issues--the most common one seems to be that reading aloud makes it harder to discuss higher order concerns first, because grammar and spelling errors tend to stand out in the reading more dramatically than organization and content (though those certainly can stand out sometimes).

I'm wondering, in other words, whether it might be worthwhile to experiment with reading aloud, to try incorporating some rhetorical questioning into the reading aloud process (or other things). Not that these would necessarily improve this portion of the tutoring session, just that it seems worthwhile to consider tinkering with something that has become so standard as to be almost unnoticed by anyone investigating ways of improving consulting sessions.

So, what have your experiences been with reading aloud? What do you think about the practice?

Oh--and since I mentioned it at the beginning--I'd also be curious to know whether anyone has seen discussions of either reading aloud or of tutoring creative writing that I might not have found in my searching. Feel free to make suggestions :)


  1. Anonymous7:07 AM

    Interesting. Before reading your post, I had not thought of the issues that reading aloud could create; I'd only thought of its benefits, the ones you point out.

    I don't know if there's any conversation online about having students read their work aloud in tutorials, but I have read about this technique in the print tutoring manuals. And I have read about tutoring creative writing in the print manuals as well.

    I was trained to use this technique when I started tutoring, at Simmons College in 2002, when I was in grad school. There, in the writing center, tutorials were an hour long, so there was plenty of time to both have a student read aloud a 4 or 5 page paper and still discuss the work meaningfully. So, I always asked them to read aloud. However, when I began my work at the Mount Ida College writing center, where most tutorials were a half-hour, I realized I didn't have the same luxury of time, so I stopped having students read an entire paper aloud. And yet, I still fell back on the technique, and would always get them to read aloud a paragraph or two, esp. ones that were problematic: in sense, or in grammar.

    Hmmm. So, you see, that shows how I rely on reading aloud as a way for students to hear and experience their work at the micro level. You have a point.

    And yet, I have sometimes read aloud my work, to myself or to a peer, and it has helped me discover parts that drag, parts that are unclear, or even parts that lack substance. But, does it work for me at the level of meaning, because of my more practiced ability at "tutoring" myself?

    I like your idea of offering the student some rhetorical prompt before she begins reading aloud, some direction. Or, we could ask students what they'd like us tutors to listen for, and that, I would hope, would also activate and direct their focus on their own work. Your question also makes me wonder if it's really too much to keep asking students to read aloud a 4 or 5 page paper, just 'cause there is time. Maybe reading aloud passages that the student selects would be more strategic.

    When I don't ask the student to read aloud, choosing to read the work silently to myself, I first talk to them about how they can use that down time. So, if they're at the beginning of the process of writing a lit paper, for example, I might suggest that they look again at the primary source and consider evidence. Or, if there are 2 copies of the paper available, I give them a revision task: "Look at your paper, and find and evaluate the topic sentences in each paragraph." I can even give them a handout on citation rules, and have them evaluate their documentation style. Anyway, that time can be used fruitfully.

  2. Here at BSU, we have an option for half or whole hour consult time. Like you, I try to get in at least some "read aloud" time - although I find if I offer a student the choice, generally they ask me to read it rather than read it themselves. I don't try to emphasize trouble spots, although I may stop, pause, back up and repeat a phrase if it isn't "working" for me. Sometimes I make a little star next to it so we know where to pick up later. I'm working on a proposal for the next conference where I want to talk about the role of dialogue, of useful conversation, in the context of the traditionally "solitary" activity of writing. I was laughed at for talking to myself when I was younger, but now realize that I was just lacking a peer to talk to about writing process and stories. As soon as workshops entered my world, I had no need for it. :) Now that I work in a Writing Center, I often feel that joy and hunger for dialogue about writing, much more than the stereotypical cranky crabbing about assignments. Do you notice that in your work?

  3. I like asking the student if he or she is more comfortable reading the paper than hearing me read it. I've only had a few students who opt to read it themselves. I enjoy reading out loud and I remember/comprehend things better when I hear them. :)

    I agree that reading out loud sometimes tends to shove higher-order concerns to the back burner, though. One way I try to avoid that is to focus on the paragraph(s) as a whole, making just marginal grammar shtuff notes along the way. I'll read a section, and if I have any questions about its ideas or content, etc., I'll make sure to ask the writer about those first before I point out places for grammar-tweaking. So far, it seems to work out. :) I'm interested in other peoples' manners and methods, though.

  4. Anonymous12:57 PM

    I really like this post. It's thought provoking.

    I really do see the benefits of reading aloud in a tutoring session. At the school I am at we do have half hour sessions, but usually the student papers aren't so long that we cannot get through them and get a good twenty minutes or so to focus on problems in.

    I think one problem with reading aloud could stem from not reading through the whole paper. If we focus on a paper paragraph by paragraph we aren't going to get the overall picture of what the student is trying to say and instead we are going to focus on lower level concerns, such as grammar, instead of higher level concerns, such as content. I feel when reading a paper aloud it should be read all the way through.

    We're also instructed to take notes while the student reads their paper aloud. We keep a rough outline of what is contained in their body paragraphs and little quick notes of errors we observe during the reading. Also, if at all possible, it is always good to have the assignment requirements laid out before both the student and the tutor to be sure the paper is what the instructor is looking for. When the student finishes, to be sure the session is on track, we ask the student to point out their thesis and support in their paper. I think making content, continuity and the assignment the first priority we can negate falling into the trap of just correcting grammar while higher level concerns are present.


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