The sound of students’ voices fills my ears as I wander around the room. Fragments of stories here. An interesting line of text there. The sentences float like confetti around the room, unknowable in their entirety except to a select few.
What I’m hearing is the sound of thirty Writers finding their voice.
One of my goals for writing instruction this year is for my students to begin to identify themselves as Writers (note the use of the capital “W”). To help achieve this goal, I require my students to regularly read their work aloud to their classmates.
Why? Because before they can develop a true Writer’s identity, Writers need to:
- Recognize that everyone has a story to tell and that all stories have value;
- Acknowledge that writing is messy and imperfect;
- Understand that Writers use specific tools and techniques to control their narratives but those tools and techniques may not be present or well thought out in the early stages;
- Know that, with time and energy, Writers can harness the writing process to achieve their goals; and
- Believe that their stories deserve to be heard.
Developing a Writer’s identity is a long process and my students are only just beginning their journeys. I’ve found, however, that our students are often so focused on the final product (usually the grade) that they fail to recognize the writing process for the hot mess it is. Sure they’ve heard of the writing process and they can usually recite the steps Writers go through as they work. But they often fail to fully engage in the process themselves, erroneously believing that quality writing spontaneously appears from the minds of writing masters and growing frustrated when their own writing doesn’t immediately match their vision.
This is more a consequence of instructional approach rather than student understanding. Over time, students generally come to understand what we show them. But for many of us, the writing process remains hidden – spoken of, but seldom seen. We ask students to draft in isolation. We provide feedback to them, often in isolation, appearing as comments and markings on their paper rather than as part of a fulsome discussion. The best of us may engage in conferences, but those are often held one-on-one rather than as part of a community of Writers. Perhaps we do a round of “peer review” that devolves into a scavenger hunt for obvious flaws rather than a true exploration of the Writer’s goals and how they were trying to achieve them. After a revision round or two, again, often done in silence and isolation, the students submit their product for a final grade. They receive the grade and their work gets stuffed in their backpack, their locker, their trash can. That’s it. Finished.
Is it any wonder students don’t see themselves as Writers when their writing largely exists to be graded and discarded?
So this year, my students have been grouped into Writing Teams of between 3-4 students. They will remain in these Writing Teams for the whole year, sharing out, conferencing, suggesting, creating. Listening.
After each Writing Wednesday draft, time is set aside at the end of class for Teams to share their writing aloud with their teammates. Fragments of these narratives are what I hear as I circulate around the room. Fragments of thirty Writers telling their stories. Sharing their voices.
When I first decided to require my students to read their work aloud, I found myself worrying and second-guessing. Some students have anxiety. Some students are painfully shy. Some students come from cultures where reading work aloud is frowned up. Some students just won’t want to share. Of all the changes I’ve made to my writing instruction this year, requiring that their drafts – unpolished, imperfect, incomplete – get read aloud verbatim to their classmates was the one change I was the most fearful of implementing. But the research was clear. Writers need authentic audiences. Writers need to hear the sound of their own words. Writers need to share. And Writers need to hear other Writers as well.
So I made the leap and required the read-alouds. To my surprise, after some initial mild groaning, all students began sharing out. And after only a few weeks of school, the joy that they experience as they share out is evident. Rather than being anxious about sharing their work as I had feared, students are eager to share their work. They listen excitedly to the stories of their classmates and wait patiently to read their own writing. They remember the stories that were told during the last share session and offer increasingly meaningful feedback on the Writer’s overall development. After only a few weeks, I can already see their Writer’s identity emerging.
Asking students to share their reading aloud doesn’t have to be an intimidating process. Here are some suggestions for how to implement required read-alouds effectively:
- Place students into small groups of Writing Teams (3-4 students) and begin by asking them to only share with these students rather than the whole class. Let them get comfortable in their groups and develop trust first. Over time, the students’ confidence will increase, and they will be less intimated by the idea of sharing with larger groups.
- For younger students or students with high anxiety, scaffold your implementation of the read-alouds so that they begin by sharing only small excerpts of their writing, working their way up to a complete reading.
- Keep Writing Teams consistent throughout the year so they come to view each other as partners in their writing journey. There will be opportunities later in the year for students to share their writing with people beyond their Teams, but maintaining that consistency within their groups will allow for more effective long-term collaboration. I waited a few weeks before asking students to self-select their Team members so they had time to get a sense of the different personalities in the room before committing to a year-long partnership.
- Don’t require students to read parts of their writing that they are uncomfortable sharing. Allow students to skip over small portions of their drafts if desired and, when in doubt, allow students to choose which drafts they share with their peers.
- Except for selected portions they wish to omit, do require that students read their writing rather than summarizing it. They need to read the words exactly as they were written – imperfections and all – and to hear the words of others exactly as they were written – imperfections and all – in order to grow as Writers.
Don’t be afraid to make the writing process visible to students. Rather than writing in isolation and silence, ask your students to write out loud.