Peer Read-Alouds: A Feedback Model

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My juniors giving “readerly feedback” through a partner read-aloud.

Grading student papers and giving feedback: it’s the bane of the writing teacher’s life, but it tends to occupy a lot of our time. Particularly now, as the school year comes to an end and our inboxes fill up with piles of final papers.

It’s such a source of consternation and frustration that there are a number of professional books out there on how to make the process faster, easier, and less painless. In one of these books, aptly titled Papers, Papers, Papers: An English Teacher’s Survival Guide, legendary English teacher Carol Jago underscores the importance of our work and concludes, “We owe it to our students not to let the paper load defeat us.”

Given the research on the importance of feedback on students’ writing (Hattie & Timperley, 2007–see link), we must continue to engage with students’ papers. So how do we stay strong and avoid defeat, as Jago argues we must? There’s a way to increase the valuable feedback students receive without adding to our own workloads. The answer lies in peer response.

I know what you’re thinking: students can’t give good feedback. Students don’t trust each other’s feedback. Students give vague or downright incorrect feedback.

It’s true, students usually lack the expertise to give the kinds of feedback we teachers often give. But students are perfectly suited to give one particularly kind of valuable feedback–“readerly” feedback.

Readerly feedback complements teacherly feedback. And as, Jago writers in a Papers, Papers, Papers chapter about peer assessment, “Even the most struggling writers were adequately qualified to offer one another feedback as readers” in her classes.

So what exactly does it mean to give “feedback as readers”? It means simply that real readers provide a student writer real-time feedback about their experience reading a text.

Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Pair students. I find that it’s best to pair students who aren’t best friends (they’re more likely to stay on task) but who can get along (they’re going to be spending a good chunk of the class period together being a bit vulnerable). I also like to pair students with roughly equal writing abilities so they have something valuable to say to their partner without feeling overwhelmed, intimidated (by a much stronger writer), or irritated (by a much weaker writer). Tip: ask students before announcing pairs to at least act like they are happy with their pair–we don’t want hurt feelings!

Step 2: Explain the read-aloud. One student will read their partner’s essay aloud to their partner, the author of the essay. Hearing your own words read back to you can be scary, unpleasant, and unflattering, but it forces you to seriously confront the quality of your writing. Students will hear where their partners struggle, they’ll see confusion, comprehension, or amusement register on their face, and they’ll get a sense of how well they’ve created sonorous prose and logical cohesion in their writing when they hear it read by another person. The peer read-aloud is an uncomfortable but, potentially, quite illuminating exercise.

Step 3: Provide options for feedback. Some students may prefer to stop and discuss problem spots as they arise; others may prefer that when their partner stumbles or becomes confused, they simply bold (on the computer) or highlight (on paper) the passage and continue reading aloud. A third option is to keep a running series of notes on these troubling places either on paper or in the comments of a Google Doc. Regardless, every student should receive feedback two ways: explicitly (in writing or oral feedback) and implicitly (by listening to and watching their partner read).

Step 4: Let kids spread out and read aloud to their partners. This is a great opportunity to let your kids take their reading outdoors if weather, facilities, and school policies allow. 17 voices reading at once in a small classroom can create quite the cacophony!

The peer read-aloud process is a bit awkward, maybe even mortifying the first time, but the learning that springs from it may be profound for young writers. Plus, by allowing students to give immediate and useful feedback on a rough draft, this process allows you to save time on some papers by, say, only rubric scoring the revised drafts. This can’t be the only kind of feedback students receive, and it could grow tiresome if overused, but as part of a grand feedback plan for a year of student writing, it can take a bit of the load off of poor, overwhelmed writing teachers.

Try out a peer read-aloud and let me know how it goes, or share in the comments below any other phenomenal peer feedback practices you use with success in your own classrooms!

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