Teaching Writing

Read-Around Groups: Low-Stakes and High-Impact Writing in First-Year Composition


By Caitlin Holmes

Since Dr. José Bowen visited Mason in September 2014, I have been working to implement more of his suggestions for teaching practice into my class. I wrote previously about utilizing one such suggestion: a combination of reading, writing in response, and discussion to understand the rhetorical nature of APA style. More recently, I have experimented with another approach to improving student writing in a low-stakes environment that requires students to show the higher-order thinking skills that Dr. Bowen emphasized: read-around groups. During his workshop at Mason, Bowen reminded us that students respond well to uncertainty, failure, and experimentation, and read-around groups (or RAGs, as they are also known) certainly allow for those conditions to emerge in a productive way.

Read-around groups – developed by Jenee Gossard (see attached article here) and further expanded by a myriad of instructors, regional writing projects, and school districts – encourage students to move beyond the tunnel vision that is usually associated with personal writing and instead develop a more global and inductive sense of how their writing compares with other students. The exercise, which can be completed in one day or over the course of several, requires that students read and assess their peers’ work anonymously, but without the same demands as formal peer review. The advantage is, as Gossard notes, that “students read, discuss, and revise their papers three or four times before ever handing them in,” which she argues allows the teacher to “comment more directly on issues of composition” (148-49). Faculty grade hundreds of papers each term, which gives us the uniquely advantageous perspective of comparison; we know what we are looking for in student writing because we have seen so much of it. Read-around groups allow students access to that perspective and encourage them to learn from the approaches that other students have taken in solving problems in their papers (Gossard 148).

The exercise proceeds as follows: my students submitted their writing online – a paragraph of source material in conversation. I printed the paragraphs, ensured there were no names, and assigned each paper a number before class began. A brief discussion took place to concretize what in particular readers ought to be thinking about while going through the papers. In the case of my English 101 class, students needed to think about what effective source synthesis meant and what it should look like. We established those criteria, and I wrote them on the board. Students were placed in groups of 4, and I redistributed the drafts along with a recording sheet. Students were given 30 seconds (I timed and called out “pass”) to read the paragraph, then they passed it to the next person in the group. They pass until everyone in the group has read each paper, and then they discuss which one was the best. In other words, the students are evaluating the paragraph in comparison to the criteria we have established as a class. Once they pick a favorite, the group writes down the number on the recording sheet, and the batch of papers is given to the next group. The reading and discussion continues until every student has read every paper.

The reading and selection process is only one part of the exercise; groups then list their favorite papers’ numbers, and – usually – one or two papers will emerge as the strongest writing in the class. The groups still have the papers, and so I will ask what was so strong about those particular paragraphs. Passages can be read out loud, connections are made to the original criteria, and overall thoughts articulated about what those writers did well. Students consequently learn not only to identify excellent writing, but also articulate the moves that made a piece of writing so successful. Overall, the exercise takes between 30-50 minutes, depending on class size and the assignment length.

Admittedly, my use of read-around groups does not perfectly match what Gossard describes in her article. I have not, for example, revisited drafts at multiple stages across many days; my course schedule simply does not allow it at this point. However, I do believe that my approach to read-around groups can be implemented in a variety of disciplines without the long-term commitment of multiple class days. In the article I have attached to my post, Judith Sanderson – a biology and English teacher – relates how in her read-around groups, she allowed her biology students to take notes as they read other students’ writing to prepare for revision or examinations (153). I can imagine that encouraging science students to bring an introduction to a lab report or a methods section for a quick read-around group exercise could cull out many of the errors that might arise, as well as encourage faculty to clarify any misunderstandings that students might have prior to the grading process.

Students tend to be more conscientious – as all of the authors in the attached article note – when they write for their peers and know that they will be held accountable to all of them, not just one. Read-around groups therefore provide a paradoxically low-stakes and high-stakes way to conduct peer review of, encourage revision toward, and develop discourse about successful writing. I plan to integrate RAGs more fully in my advanced writing course next semester with the hope that students will benefit both from the early drafting process as well as the critical thinking that the exercise stimulates. Many thanks again to the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence for bringing Dr. Bowen to Mason, as well as Betsy Cornell from the Moses Lake School District in Moses Lake, Washington, for identifying RAGs as a way to support my college students’ writing development.

 Works Cited

 Goddard, Jenee. “Using Read-Around Groups to Establish Criteria for Good Writing.” Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process. Ed. Carol B. Olson. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, 1987. 148-151. Print.

Sanderson, Judith. “Using Read-Around Groups in a Biology Class.” Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process. Ed. Carol B. Olson. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, 1987. 153-154. Print.