Reading student writing: a Worzel Gummidge moment

Here’s the thing.

Nobody told me how to read student writing.

Nobody told me about encounters with student texts.

Why am I thinking this now? Different forms of writing are swirling mischievously around, disrupting my thinking. Mmmm…. it’s those chameleons of the assessment world, portfolios! I’m struck by the writing of first year undergraduate  BA (Hons) first year students,  5 different genres in just one portfolio assessment. I say genres because they are 5 very different writing forms. OK, so they might more correctly be sub-genres of an academic one but genres they are because the purpose of each is different. Let’s see what you think, here’s what and how they were required to write:

1. Analysis and reflection on different learning styles – I know,  see here for myth of learning styles.

2. Summarise a lecture.

3. Critically analyse a selected article.

4. Select 6 pieces of writing, analyse them and present an annotated bibliography, and

5. Write a reflective statement.

Oh and there could be a sixth if writing a reference list is a genre or sub-genre and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. Thus the sixth is organising references into a reference list using the APA6 system.

Can you now see why I feel in awe of the students achievements and why I need to keep changing my head ( a Worzel Gummidge moment). If different text forms represent different ways of thinking, language, characteristics, meaning and purpose, the students are developing awareness and skill in a wide academic genre. The student writing form is moving. Patterns within each genre organise meaning along very different lines. These different patterns create textures of language, vocabulary which are dynamic unique records of the author’s reality, their identity, voices and their lives.

Whilst what I record and how I grade these texts is visible and open to much scrutiny, only I can ask how am I reading them? My cascading uncertainties led me to undertake a little research on reading and I’m informed that I’m searching for meaning, interpreting purpose, taking apart structure, process whilst littering the text with my academic sub-genre of comments. I wonder if my comments are in a genre known to students or, if they’re like the multi-coloured pavement  graffiti indicating future work to be done but is only understood by the author and the designated contractor.

I am a reader of, and writer on student texts. I am a reader with many voices. Charles Bazerman identifies a few “..a proof reader’s eye, a textual analyst’s structured vision,  an editor’s helpful hand, a professional challenge, a marker’s red bludgeon, or a companionly ease…” I’m part of the authoritative discourse, the teacher they write for who makes marks on their writing.

What have I learnt?

That students are expected to learn the conventions, the genres form and features very quickly. That they are apprentices in academic literacy. The assumption that they’ve already begun to learn this at school may be wrong.

I’ve also learnt that I will open up my expectations to hear the multiple voices of students, instead of reinforcing the traditional boundaries of academic form and content.

I’ve learnt that I have more questions to ponder:

1. What happens as I read student writing?

2. How do I connect with the writer?

3. Is there a voice in the text?

4. What voice am I using when reading student writing?

5. How do I give the ownership of student writing back to the student?

I have much more thinking to do. More conversations to be had.

How do we help students negotiate the the language of the subject (in this example Early Years), the wide academic writing genre and their individual voice and identity?

Charles Bazerman: Reading student texts: Proteus grabbing Proteus


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