The oral group essay

Before I became an English teacher, I was a freelance journalist and a publicist. I wrote almost every day, almost always for publication. I remember working in a newsroom full of reporters, most of them muttering to themselves at their computers as they composed their stories. They would write a sentence, read it aloud, and alter it—or not.

In the classroom, I’d advise my students to read their writing aloud to themselves as they drafted, edited and proofread because that was what I’d learned by observing the professional writers around me. My students, however, were resistant. They thought it was downright crazy to talk out loud to themselves; they believed they could edit perfectly adequately by doing so silently, in their heads; or else they wrote assignments the night before the due date without ever editing their work.

When I started doing some research into the value of reading one’s writing aloud, I came across the work of Donald Graves, who founded the Writing Process Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. He had observed the writing process occurring naturally—that is, without teacher instruction—in young children, leading him to encourage educators to teach children to think of themselves as writers (Swick Slover, 2005). He had a name for my insistence on reading one’s writing aloud: he saw it as part of a stage he called “rehearsal”, and he saw rehearsal as the natural act of productive writers, whether they were elementary schoolchildren or veteran journalists (Murray, 1978).

Oral Language Rehearsal Strategies

A writer can rehearse in written language (through activities such as free writing, journal writing, note-taking, brainstorming, mind mapping, or even drawing) and also in oral language (through discussing or reading aloud with collaborators). Rehearsal can be seen as pre-writing, an early step in the writing process (Swick Slover, 2005).

As Donald Graves observed, young children tend to speak aloud what they might write on the page (Murray, 1978). Adults read aloud sensitive job-related emails. Professional writers read their own writing out loud. All of them know the benefits of oral language rehearsal. Doing it generates ideas more easily, develops a sense of audience, enhances revision, and even develops listening skills (Jones, 1989).

I tell my students, “Alone, you have no audience, but you do when you read to someone and your listener says, I don’t get it’ or ‘that sounds weird.’ Speaking a sentence out loud often reveals its weaknesses: grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, or inappropriate word choice. The eye tends to automatically correct what is already on the page or screen, so reading your own writing out loud is a better way to edit.”

Rehearsal and Collaboration: How can we build these processes into the way we teach writing?

We use rehearsal in many areas: music, drama, sports, public speaking. If rehearsal is a natural, productive process, and research suggests that it will build better writers, then how do we get our students to buy in?

Knowing that students generate better ideas together than alone, and that several editors/proofreaders are better than one (or none!), I created a structure for my high school students. I’ve used this procedure in a class of mixed-ability Ontario public high school students; in a class of mostly Mexican students at a private American school in Monterrey, Mexico; and in a class of international students in a private English-language school in the United Arab Emirates.

I wanted students to see the value in treating writing as a recursive, long-term process, where the writer re-visits a draft repeatedly, over a period of days. I wanted them to rehearse.

Planning and Assessing an Oral Group Essay

I wouldn’t necessarily follow this process with every writing assignment, but here is a procedure that I constructed for an Oral Group Essay. It’s completed almost entirely during class time, in small groups, with only one laptop per group. I’ve found that if I allow one-to-one use of laptops, the technology has an isolating effect. Even if I ask them to use Google Docs, students will write alone, without verbal collaboration. They will tend to divide up the writing (“You do the intro, I’ll do the first body paragraph, and she can do the second body paragraph”), produce sections independently, and then simply paste them together in a patchwork quilt of an essay. Not only does this mean they omit the step of rehearsing their writing, but it also leads to bad writing: these cut-and-paste essays predictably lack consistent voice and coherence as well as suffering from repetition and weak argumentation.

There are several ways of forming groups: students may choose their own groups; students may be randomly assigned to groups; or the teacher may choose. I prefer to form the groups myself, rather than allowing students to choose. Sometimes I tell them in advance that I’ll form leveled groups based on their current grade in the class. Homogeneous groups tend to be non-threatening, so members may be more willing to accept criticism from their peers (Jones, 1989).

I arrange desks so that students can work easily in small groups, and post three basic rules:

  1. Listen and respond respectfully.
  2. Do your fair share.
  3. Work collaboratively.

Students should already know what the term “writing process” means, but I remind them of its basic stages (pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, publishing). Students read their essay aloud at the end of the process: this is the publishing stage, when the finished piece is presented to an audience.

My responsibility as teacher is to:

  1. Provide a clear definition of the tasks.
  2. Provide a clear timeline.
  3. Provide guidance that doesn’t interfere with students’ writing process (so I need to deliver the necessary lead-up instruction; rearrange the classroom to accommodate group work; select group members; define the rules).
  4. Monitor the groups’ progress.
  5. Validate their work through collaborative assessment, debriefing, and seeking feedback from students (Jones, 1989).

The Process

In groups of three or four, students choose a topic from a list. Sometimes I provide the list; sometimes we generate it together. I prefer to allow students at least some choice of topic, so they’re more invested in the assignment.

Each group co-writes and co-edits a full-length essay. Every group member must participate in the process; students fill out a confidential peer evaluation sheet each day (see Rubric 1), so I can intervene if one student appears not to be participating.

I give four to five hours of class time in total (in a grade 12 class). I discuss my expectations for the writing process with them in advance. Each day, I list their goals on the board. A daily goal might be: “Draft thesis + outline body paragraphs in detail.” As they move through the process, they naturally rehearse their writing since they are working face-to-face with others, and since they have access to only one laptop.

I expect them to rehearse during structured class time. I point out that, since they all have so much homework (!), I’m building essay-writing time into the school day for their benefit.

Assessment

The final product is read aloud to be assessed (and/or the teacher could collect a printed copy.) The presenters are marked by two sets of evaluators (the teacher plus another student group) as they present. Both the student evaluators and I use a rubric that is easy to annotate quickly as the essay is read aloud (see Rubric 2). The student evaluators then meet in the hall to come to consensus.

Both of our marking sheets are given to the presenters; the teacher’s grade is summative. I use the student evaluators’ marking sheet to debrief after the process, as it usually generates discussion questions such as:

  • Who is your audience? How does that affect the structure or wording of your essay?
  • What was confusing for your audience? Why?
  • What strategies helped your audience follow your argument? How can you signal your intentions to your reader?

If there’s a notable mismatch between the grade given by student evaluators and the grade given by the teacher, that could be discussed during the debriefing. Debriefing could also cover such questions as:

  • How does the students’ interpretation of the rubric compare to the teacher’s?
  • What standard is expected of their writing?
  • How does the writing process, including rehearsal, help them meet those standards?

Students are engaged in the process from start to finish. They are part of a group that creates a written piece; they decide who presents the piece; finally, they help evaluate another group’s writing.

Effects and Results

For once, writing is a social activity rather than a solitary one (Jones, 1989). My students often approach academic writing as something to be churned out alone, silently, and as fast as possible, with little regard for audience. On the other hand, the Oral Group Essay is lively, sometimes even a bit scrappy, as face-to-face interaction forces participants to test, question and then defend or change their word choice, their syntax, or their content. Students form a mini-community, as they would in a writing workshop. For many of my students, this is the first time they’ll actually use the steps of the writing process. I’ve had groups spend an entire hour writing one body paragraph. This leaves them astounded. Until that point, they’d simply been slapping something down the night before rather than following any process.

Students have commented that the oral presentation format forces them to listen and note-take more carefully than they’re used to: more is at stake if they are fulfilling the role of student evaluators.

Eavesdropping on the Oral Group Essay

This is a record of actual student dialogue during the writing process of the oral group essay, from classrooms in Ontario (public schools with some students whose first language was not English); Monterrey, Mexico (where almost all students spoke Spanish as their first language); and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (with an international population, many of who spoke English as their second language). All were English language and literature classrooms at the Grade 12 level, where students were writing either comparison-contrast essays or argumentation-persuasion essays. I collected these comments to use during the debriefing, where my students and I reflected on how their interactions improved different aspects of the essay.

Comments about Organization:

  • “No, that IS the proof; we can’t use it as the point!”
  • 1st student: “How come you’re switching back and forth?”
    2nd student: “That’s the structure, look at the handout. See, you do topic A first, then topic B.”
  • 1st student: “Oh, so topic A is that character?”
  • “Where’s our rubric? We should check that.”

Comments about Ideas and Support:

  • “Wait, wait, what’s the thesis?”
  • “First of all, what are we trying to prove?”
  • “No, that’s too much like our other point, we’re just repeating ourselves.”
  • “Where’s that part where the character says she’s ashamed to be her father’s daughter?”
  • “No, no, wait, I found a better quote.”
  • “We’re saying nothing.”

Comments about Conventions:

  • Student typing on a laptop, taking dictation: “What am I doing here? Semi-colon, comma, open quotes, what?”
  • “Is minute [adjective] spelled the same way as minute [noun]?”

Comments about Sentence Fluency:

  • “OK, I’m going to read this and you tell me how it sounds.”
  • “‘We have received information from a source from the UN?’ That sounds weird.”
  • “What’s with all the rhetorical questions?”
  • 1st student: “What do you mean, ‘at the peak of their colonization’”?
    2nd student: “Like, when they were colonizing a lot.”
  • 1st student: “Should we really say that?”
    2nd student: “No, it’s just fluff.”

Comments about Word Choice:

  • “How would you say ‘segunda plata’ in English?”
  • “You know how Gratiano’s a loudmouth? And he’s always shooting his mouth off? What’s a word for that, an adjective?”
  • “Fairy-tale-ish? Fairy-tale-y? Fairy-tale-like?”
  • “Can you share differences? I mean, you can share similarities, but can you share differences?”
  • “We can’t say ‘brawl’ [in a sentence referring to a massacre] — it sounds like they’re just pushing each other.”
  • 1st student: “How do you say ‘shows’ but in a better way?”
    2nd student: “Envisions?”
    1st student: “No, that doesn’t fit, but that’s a good word.”

Comments about Voice:

  • “You can’t say, ‘happily ever after,’ that’s corny.”
  • “We have to change ‘having a hard time.’ That’s so cheesy.”
  • Here are three students having a sophisticated, productive conversation about their own writing – and they did not need a teacher to have it:
  • 1st student: “Paige, you’re unhappy with this.”
  • Paige: “Well, just read the whole sentence again.”
  • 2nd student: “You’re just unhappy with the word ‘masses’.”
    Paige: “No, I think we’re too focused on writing more and longer, and we should be more succinct.”
    1st student: “Well, I think we’re still brainstorming, we just have too many ideas.”

Addressing Potential Problems

  1. Groups do not use time effectively.
    Solution: As a student said during one debriefing: “You know what really helped? That you put a daily schedule on the board for us.”
  2. Instead of working collaboratively, students simply divide up the writing, then email it to one student who cobbles it together.
    Solution: Warn them of the pitfalls (incoherence, inconsistency, repetition, redundancy). The teacher must monitor progress. If the assignment is a five-paragraph essay, don’t allow five-member groups as this encourages them to divide the assignment into one paragraph per student.
  3. Students lack proficiency in reading aloud.
    Solution: Not every student has to read aloud, but stipulate a minimum of two readers so that a change in readers can be used to signal a new paragraph. Also, reassure readers that no one is watching them, as their evaluators will be too busy listening to them and taking notes. Give readers class time to rehearse the oral presentation so they can be coached by the rest of the group to read slowly and clearly, to pause at natural stops, to say “open quote/close quote” if necessary to indication quotations.
  4. Evaluator groups may be most concerned with what grade the group they’re marking gave them if they are allowed to mark each other. That is, they may want to take revenge!
    Solution: Do not allow two groups to mark each other; instead, set up a rotation system.
  5. Evaluator group can’t reach consensus or can’t recall part of the essay they heard.
    Solution: Provide a printed copy of the essay, but only if the group reaches an impasse. Another option is to record the presentation.

I’ve included the peer evaluation form (Rubric 1) and the essay rubric (Rubric 2) that I’ve used, but you can construct your own, depending upon the level of your students and the type of writing assignment. Perhaps you will choose to use the small group oral process to produce an essay that students will “publish” in print, rather than by presenting it orally. The real objective is to encourage students to rehearse their writing, and to see the value of the writing process.

References

Jones, G. P. (1989). Rev. of The contemporary writing curriculum: Rehearsing, composing, and valuing, by R. Huff & C. R. Kline, Jr. Journal of Advanced Composition, 9(1/2), 195–197.

Murray, D. M. (1978). Write Before Writing. College Composition and Communication Vol. 29, No. 4, (1978): 375 – 381.

Swick Slover, K. (2005). The write way. UNH Magazine Online. Retrieved from http://unhmagazine.unh.edu/w05/writeway.html

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Teaching, Writing
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Contact Fall 2016
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