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for writing instructors, for writing tutors

How to Read Student Writing for Content

I encourage instructors, tutors, and education students to train themselves to read student writing for content (or Higher Order Concerns) rather than error (or Lower Order Concerns). After reading Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error,” in which he observes that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find,“ they usually agree with me that reading for content is a good idea–“But how can I do that when there are so many errors?” they ask.  

You have to train yourself. This is something I learned from Janice Neuleib, who told me to learn to read at two levels, which she called “ground level” and “25,000 feet.” Ground level is where you notice the grammar, usage, mechanics, etc. and 25,000 feet is where you notice the big picture stuff. As I’ve trained myself to read at these two levels, I’ve added a third, which I call “10,000 feet”; at this level, I notice stylistic aspects of a piece of writing, such as sentence structure (not grammar! I mean aspects such as whether or not sentences are hypotactic or paratactic, running or periodic, noun-based or verb-based).

Here are some steps I suggest you take if you’d like to train yourself to read at Neuleib’s two levels or my three levels:

  1. Begin by asking students to format their writing in a way that suggests it should be read for content—i.e. single spaced.
  2. Think of what you are about to do as “respond to student writing” rather than “grade papers” or “correct papers.” Frame the task in terms of responding rather than fixing or judging.
  3. Read student writing under conditions that are similar to those in which you read for pleasure. For me, this means at a coffee shop or at home in a comfortable chair.
  4. Read the paper once for each level you are reading at, so that your brain can focus on one task—reading for content or reading for surface error (or reading for style, if you add the third level). For the 25,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, picking up ideas and concepts and noticing how they are developed throughout the piece of writing. For the 10,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, stopping at a random point on each page to read sentences carefully. For the ground level reading, I read one page carefully (yes, only one page, because I am looking for patterns of error to highlight for the student, not proofreading—which, after all, is the student’s job, not mine).

If you try to build this habit into your practice, give it at least 30 repetitions before it feels even remotely natural. Like all habits, it takes time to make it feel “normal.” (And by 30 repetitions, I mean responding to 30 sets of papers).

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