Text-Talk in the IRW Classroom

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I had the privilege of presenting as part of a CCCC panel on “Writing about Writing at the Community College” a couple of weeks ago in Kansas City (along with Elizabeth Johnston and Angelique Johnston of Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY). One theme reiterated throughout the panel is that implementation of writing about writing pedagogy needs to be rooted in the “community” of the community college – the local context and culture.

In my case, the context is teaching writing about writing in a sheltered ESL first-year composition course with an IRW co-requisite. I use six “anchor” texts that introduce my students to writing about writing (WAW) during the term, and students write about these (multiple times) in connection with other essays drawn from our departmentally selected reader. The first assignment for students is a literacy narrative; they connect their own experiences to those of other writers and to the concept of Discourse (from the work of James Gee, our first anchor text). The literacy narrative has revealed a lot about the language, reading, and writing experiences of my students.

This semester I decided I wanted more information about my students’ reading habits and strategies, beyond the stories they had chosen to tell in their first assignment. Mid-term, I gave students an anonymous survey to gauge how they were working through our anchor texts, by far the most challenging of the reading assignments in the course. I queried them about the amount of time spent on these, the number of times each text was read, and the strategies they used—as well as the areas that caused the most trouble and the suggestions they had for me to facilitate their reading efforts.

Some of the findings were expected: students were reading the challenging selections less than 3 times, on average, and spending an average of 3-4 hours (total) with each one, despite my recommendations to revisit them multiple times. Students also reported that the vocabulary was the primary impediment to reading, and they requested reading and vocabulary guides in advance of the readings. Given the experiences they have described in previous English language instruction, these findings were not surprising.

Fifty percent of my current students also asked for more time to discuss the readings in class, and many commented that they don’t feel comfortable with the readings until after class discussion. Again, given their accounts of previous education experiences (in which there was no need to do assigned reading in advance because instructors would “go over it” in the next class) these comments were expected.

But when I asked students what strategies they were using when reading outside of class, I noticed something I had not seen before: while almost all students reported annotating texts (as we have taught them to do) and using dictionaries or translators, only one student reported talking to another student about the text, and none reported talking to an instructor about the text outside of class. Also, students said they did not use graphs, charts, or pictures to organize their thinking about the readings, even though we frequently create such charts, graphs, outlines, and pictures (as well as paraphrases and responses) in class.  

These results led to an epiphany about my students’ reading process: this particular group views “text-talking” and making visual representations of assigned texts as teacher-directed, in-class processes. Their literacy narratives suggest that they engage in text-talk easily enough when it comes to self-selected reading, but that practice has not transferred as a strategy for approaching academic texts.

So this is my next IRW challenge: how can I foster text-talk and visual representations of texts outside of the classroom as reading strategies? Of course, I could assign an out-of-class discussion, require students to stop by my office and chat, or work with a team to build a graphic presentation before class. But will these activities transfer beyond my class as effective strategies for reading complicated texts? I can’t answer that yet. I will need to keep experimenting.

What are you doing to get your students engaged in “text-talk,” especially for challenging academic readings?

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.