Have you ever paid attention to how people talk about reading and writing? We talk about hearing voices in written work and understanding what the author is trying to say. We speak of writing and reading as if they fall under the realm of verbal communication because all written forms of communication are based off of speech.
(I mean, you’re reading this blog in a fixed, visual format online rather than hearing me talk in person or via video, yet I’m sitting at my computer imagining myself speaking to you as I write. You will likely never read this out loud, but you’ll hear my voice when you take in these words.)
To put it in a more global context, here’s a nugget of astounding information from Walter J. Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy to make you think about the prevalence of speech and scarcity of writing in our global community:
“Language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages spoken in the course of human history only around
106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.” [i]
Societies don’t operate primarily on words as text, we operate on words as sounds communicated in person, where inflection, volume, emphasis, and pauses all work to layer the meaning of the words themselves. With years of indoctrination into literacy, however, our culture seems to give more weight to written text and the process of creating it than they do to conversations. It’s easy to forget that, in writing, we merely immortalize our thoughts, our “internalized version of conversation,” which are similar to the conversations that occur among peer groups in order to socially solidify beliefs and opinions.[ii]
From the other end, according to child development researcher and social constructionist Lev Vygotsky, language is a learned instrument by which we talk through our tasks with others in order to re-externalize the language of internalized conversation.”[iii] We’ve been using speech every day since our earliest years to enter discourse communities and reach consensus on group discussion—it’s our most well honed social method of organizing our thoughts and reaching conclusions and it mirrors the individual thinking process. We speak not only to transmit our ideas to others, but also to make better sense of those ideas to ourselves.
When we get into classrooms and writing centers, then, speaking becomes the most effective tool for teaching writing—whether during development, outlining, or revising. Scholar of rhetoric, composition, and literacy, Stephen M. North, emphasizes that “talk[ing] with excited writers at the height of their engagement with their work [is] the lifeblood of a writing center.”[iv] The ability to organize your thoughts with the clarity and speed necessary to verbally communicate the ideas you plan to put to paper is a trainable skill that works hand-in-hand with writing skills.
For students who struggle with writing, collaborative sessions with peers can help develop verbal communication skills, problem identifying and solving, and thought organization. According to Kenneth A. Bruffee, peer collaborations can be more beneficial than discussions with teachers or tutors, since conversation is more natural with others in your same discourse community. The practice of collaborative learning in classrooms during all stages of the writing process helps students begin to “internalize conversation about writing and carry it away with them so that they continue to be good writers on their own.”[v] By including the topics of writing, thought organization, and writing processes into our everyday discourse community, we integrate the physical writing techniques (brainstorming, outlining, drafting) into our natural thought process, thereby making writing feel like a more natural and organic way of communicating ideas. More like talking. Like other methods of teaching and tutoring writing, collaborative conversations serve to improve both the product and the process, the writing and the writer.
Similar tactics prove beneficial in tutoring sessions as well, as advocated by author and scholar Andrea Lunsford. By embracing social construction theory in writing centers we reconfigure the power balance and create a space for collaboration in tutoring, which “engages the whole student and encourages active learning.”[vi] However, creating negotiating groups who share power and control of a situation in order to further both the process and product is a daunting task—great care must be taken to promote conversation instead of appropriation. One of the many backlashes to interactive tutoring is the fear that involved tutors become the puppeteer of the work and writer. Donald A McAndrew warns readers, in the third chapter of his teaching guide Tutoring Writing, that the tutoring session is not a place for students to hand over control of their work to a more adept writer for a fix-it service.
Tutors must take care, then, that conversations are truly conversational, with equal input from both (or all) participants for the end goal of compelling thought generation, not necessarily for consensus or uniformity of thought, as posited by John Trimbur in “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.”[vii] And even if they do manage to create truly collaborative atmospheres for their students, there’s always the possibility that their work will face negative reactions from readers.
Lunsford gives examples of some common treatment of collaborative work: professors who encourage student collaboration in the classroom are seen as lazy, positions of authority are denied to scholars with a repertoire of collaborative work, and student collaborators are disqualified from poetry prizes. [viii] These examples point to an underlying problem in perceptions of acceptable writing processes that affects the way teachers and tutors choose methods of teaching student writers.
In addition to her research into audience reception of co-authored work, Lunsford’s personal experiences with collaboration (she frequently co-writes with contemporary Lisa Ede), shows that although theories of socially constructed knowledge are rising in popularity, applying those theories in practice are not yet accepted in the academic sphere. Co-authored works, whether at the student or professional level, are generally not considered worthy of the same level of recognition as pieces with only one author.[ix] Somehow, writing together on one topic is equated with cheating, even though these same readers support the idea of socially constructed and contextual knowledge.
Critics of collaboration in classrooms worry that the “autonomy of the individual” faces threat from “group think” molding “peer indoctrination classes.”[x] A group of students may experience a number of power dynamics and social fears that inhibit an exchange of ideas and creative thought construction. Similar to peer revision sessions, students involved may fear rocking the boat, or considering controversial opinions, and aim to reach consensus by conforming to the ideologies most valued by the strongest voices involved.
Furthermore, while collaborative learning helps writers organize their thoughts and validate their opinions in a social context, it does not necessarily guarantee easier transformation onto the page. For many passionate thinkers with unpolished writing processes, conversations about the ideas driving written work are easy. The problem arises when faced with a blank Word document. In these instances, alternate methods that focus on empowering a student to give their words the same weight in sound as on paper help break the writer’s block.
Some students may need to write themselves around to their point with frequent free writes at the start of their writing process—which translates the brainstorming conversation from thinking and speaking, to writing. For most writers free writes offer more creativity and stream of consciousness without the often inhibiting effects of self-editing. My personal writing process involves starting an internal conversation and letting my fingers capture the words onscreen as they echo in my head. I start with my introduction and after a few pages of compelling and well-written exposition, I finally arrive at a condensed and complex thesis. From there, I can go read what I have and pick out any usable lines or ideas—usually there are none, but the point is to spark an internal discussion that aids in thesis-building and organization.
This approach does not work for all writers who struggle with bringing their conversation to the page. In these instances, tutors can spark conversation with their tutees and record the session for future playback or have the student dictate to them. As mentioned in my previous reflection on tutoring sessions, dictation can be very useful, especially when sessions have a close deadline. These techniques keep sessions wholly student-centered in terms of idea creation, as the tutee does nearly all the talking except for brief interruptions by the tutor/dictatee for clarification. If we, as teachers and tutors of writing, often have the task of helping students find their writing voice, then why not encourage them to hear their real voices during the writing process? Conversation only helps bridge the gap between ideas and verbal language; for many students, a gap remains between verbal language and written language. As concisely stated by The Writing Wizard on cambridgecoaching.com, “once your writing voice and your speaking voice start to merge, your writing will improve,” and if the emphasis is truly on better writers, not better writing, dictation and voice recording should become just as integral to the tutoring and teaching sphere as collaborative discussion.
The ideas of social construction don’t stop with group discourse, they extend into all arenas where conversation takes place. Free writes: written conversation with self. Voice recording: verbal conversation with self. Online forums: written conversation with others. Peer response groups: verbal communication with others. Dictation: written recording of re-externalized internal conversation involving others. Each exercise should be explored with student writers in order to broaden their understanding of the criteria for acceptable writing processes and help them find their personal practice of writing, and their voice.
[i] Ong, Walter J. “The orality of language.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1988. 7.
[ii] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge.” College English. 48.8 (1986). 777.
[iv] North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English. 46.5 (1984): 443.
[v] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Writing and Collaboration.” Collaborative Learning. 2nd Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 58.
[vii] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 608.
[viii] Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 16 (1991): 2.
[x] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 602.