Words of Wisdom
Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it's right, it's easy. It's the other way round, too. If it's slovenly written, then it's hard to read. It doesn't give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.
A simple, but surprisingly effective strategy for improving student writing is having them read their words aloud. This technique is so effective that it is a standard part of most sessions at the UWC. While students are often surprised by the request, most quickly come to realize the value of giving voice to their words. Why does reading aloud improve writing?
- Reading aloud gives students a chance to hear the sound of their words. That may seem simple, but it’s significant. Good writing flows. It has a compelling rhythm. Students often fail to understand that—until they hear themselves speaking aloud the words they’ve put on the page.
- Reading aloud helps students hear what they can’t see. Sometimes students have been looking at a paper so long or writing so fast that they fail to see what they’ve actually written down. When students read aloud, they usually find quite a few errors all on their own. Most are obvious mistakes like misspellings or omitted words, but sometimes students also spot bigger concerns like paragraphs that veer off topic or evidence that doesn’t say what they thought it did.
- Reading aloud slows them down. The brain is faster than the mouth, so when students read silently, they tend to zip right along. But when they say their words aloud, they’re forced to read more slowly. That can help them pay attention to things they’ve been speeding past and give them a fresh perspective on their efforts.
- Reading aloud is multi-sensory. People tend to remember more about a subject—and engage with it more deeply—when they involve more of their senses. When students see and hear their words, those words resonate more loudly with them.
- Reading aloud makes students more accountable for their work. When students turn a paper in, the idea that someone—the instructor—is actually going to read it can be pretty remote—and easy to dismiss. But when their reader is right there in front of them, it’s harder to gloss over the fact that they didn’t put much effort into a paper or didn’t bother to proofread.
Six Ways to Use Reading Aloud with Your Students
- Encourage students to read aloud when proofreading their papers. If you mention this in class, most students won’t bother with it. If you mention it repeatedly, though, a few of them might at least give it a try. For instance, when you find lots of simple surface errors in a completed paper, you might ask in your comments, “Did you read this aloud to yourself?” Eventually, students will get the idea.
- Incorporate reading aloud into a peer response session. After you describe the procedures for the peer review, students can break into small groups and read their work aloud to each other before discussing it. (If some students are especially uncomfortable with reading in front of others, you might allow them to let someone else read for them.)
- Read examples of professional writing aloud to students in your class. Let them hear the smooth cadence of an effective paragraph and the jarring disconnects of a clunky one. (This activity could also be part of a video or audio podcast you produce for students to access outside of class.)
- Assign students the task of finding examples of good writing to read aloud in class. The assignment will encourage them to consider what they believe constitutes good writing and can also be a way to familiarize them with some of the books and journals that are part of your discipline’s canon.
- Ask students to read their writing to you when they come in for a conference. It will remind you to listen to what your students are saying, and it will encourage students to put more thought into what they’re writing.
- Have students read their finished work aloud to the class or in small groups. All too frequently, students’ writing dies a humble death, having been read only by the course instructor in some quiet office away from the classroom. The student writes, the teacher reads silently, affixes a grade or makes comments, the student reads the comments (perhaps), and the process ends. They can read longer assignments, but if your aim is to reinforce the learning of course content through writing, you might ask them to share responses to a prompt given in class or for homework, and you should focus response more on content, argument, and the development of ideas. You should provide some ground rules for class conduct so that students feel safe and willing to share. Ask them how they would like their work to be received, how they might provide a respectful and safe classroom environment, and help them achieve that.
There are a number of gains from this activity.
- It creates a purpose and an audience for the writing. The more students understand writing as a form of communicating, the better their writing becomes.
- The practice of sharing work builds up a community of writers in the class. As students hear how their peers have responded to a prompt, they begin to build up a sense of possible techniques and approaches they might use. Of course, the instructor should model appropriate responses. This is a time to affirm the positive aspects of students’ efforts rather than to give an exhaustive critique.
- The activity helps students hone their critical listening skills. While it is important for you to guide the class in responding to the student brave enough to read aloud, it is also important to help them move to a space where they can provide constructive criticism for each other. For example, teach them to repeat what they hear: “So, I think you wrote that . . .” That way, writers can begin to figure out if their message is even getting across, and listeners are encouraged to pay attention.
- Reading aloud can spark discussion about course material.