Taking on the Text with Your Student Writer

By Cheryl Comeau-Kirschner, Ph.D.

In my writing class one day, I asked students to trade papers while following guidelines for thorough peer review of their drafts, I thought to myself: “They seem well-prepared to engage in this activity.” How naïve I was! The majority of students asked vague questions and made cursory suggestions for improvement. In that moment, I realized that I had to try a different approach, and it became clear that the student writers and reviewers could benefit from adapting a reading strategy called Questioning the Author (QtA). This same approach is also one that parents can use when responding to teens’ writing projects or homework assignments.

Little by Little

QtA is a reading strategy that students use during their reading rather than after their reading. This is important because it engages students from the beginning and throughout the reading process.

Perhaps the greatest strength of QtA is that students become more active readers who make queries, engage in discussion, and construct knowledge–rather than just retrieving information afterward. Beck, McKeown, Hamilton & Kucan describe how students who take on “a text little by little, idea by idea” develop deeper understanding, especially about how ideas might be connected or related in a piece or in an entire text. I have often used QtA in my developmental reading courses with promising results, and I began to see how several aspects of QtA could also be used with student writers and peer reviewers in the classroom or at home.

Two students working on computersPhoto by hackNY.org

My first step to adjust QtA for peer review was to sort out the difference between questions and queries. Whether I used QtA in a reading or writing class, it was important to avoid asking questions that focused on simple information recall or retrieval. Such questions often result in responses that mimic the author’s language rather than including the reader’s own interpretation. For peer review, those kind of questions do not help readers to suggest possible revisions for the author.

Instead, queries assist readers with comprehension, increase their engagement, and build on their understanding of the author’s intended meaning. Smith & Zygouris-Coe believe QtA also helps “students see themselves as ‘revisers’ of the material they read, where they are highly aware of their own meaning-making processes” (p. 1). With this in mind, a number of QtA’s open-ended probes provide opportunities for collaboration that can be applied to the writing process.

I chose and modified two main types of QtA queries that peer reviewers can ask student writers:

 

  • Initiating queries

 

These queries initiate ongoing discussion and involvement with a text so that readers can elaborate on their evolving comprehension (and/or lack of understanding). For the writing process, peer reviewers and student writers begin and maintain discussion as they work through a draft together. Each pair receives a grid with initiating queries, and the peer reviewer can query the student writer and write or type a response in each portion of the grid.

The queries are listed with bullet points rather than numbers, because there is no order to the queries. Nor should a peer reviewer feel pressured to use every single query; the grid serves as a guide for discussion rather than a scripted interaction.

Initiating queries can be simple or more in-depth, depending on the level of student writing. For instance, a parent may want to ask fewer questions if he or she works with a middle schooler vs. a high schooler or even a college student.

Basic Peer Review Queries:

  • What is the topic of your essay?
  • What do you know about this topic?
  • Does your draft have a beginning, middle, and end?

More In-Depth Queries:

  • What are you saying here? In other words, what is your thesis/topic sentence? How can I tell?
  • Why are you saying this here? Why is it important to know? What does your bias seem to be? How can I tell?
  • Is your writing clear? Why or why not? How can you have been clearer or easier for me to understand?
  • How might I write this if I were writing this essay?

(2) Follow-up queries

Follow-up queries help focus the content and direction of a peer-review discussion. They help peer reviewers and student writers to look at the intended meaning rather than just what appears on the page. Here again, peer reviewers can pick and choose certain queries based on their suggestions for improvement. For example, there may be an idea emerging in the draft that is promising, but not fully or clearly expressed. In this instance, peer reviewers might ask questions that guide the writer in making the intended meaning more evident.

Basic Peer Review Queries:

  • Can you explain to me what you want to focus on here?
  • Am I right that you mean x in this part? (The “x” is the peer reviewer’s interpretation about what the word, phrase, or sentence means. However, it is best to save discussions about the meaning of overall paragraphs for more in-depth queries, because younger or less developed student writers may not have the ability to engage in reflection for differing levels of ideas simultaneously.)

More In-Depth Queries:

  • That’s what you say here, but is that what you mean?
  • How does that (word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph) add to the ideas you’re talking about in this part?
  • Can you take that idea a little further in this part?
  • Does this (word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph) make sense? How does this connect with what you said before?
  • Why are you saying this now?
  • How might I revise this if it were my essay?

Reconceiving the peer review process to be more query-focused in the classroom or at home still requires incremental steps and support to help peer reviewers and student writers feel comfortable with the open-ended nature of such queries. (To learn more about how “discussion moves” can facilitate this aspect of the approach, see Beck & McKeown’s Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author). That said, I have witnessed a deeper understanding of the writing and revision process, and most importantly, better final drafts!

Cheryl Comeau-Kirschner, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She teaches academic reading and writing and critical thinking to English language learners and native English speakers.
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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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