I was a writing center tutor when I was in graduate school, and my current school allows me to run a student-tutored writing lab for our population during the school day – a dream come true!
Anyone who has worked as a writing tutor knows that it changes how you see yourself as an instructor. You see beautifully and poorly constructed writing assignments and equally helpful or unhelpful commentary on written work. Helping students navigate an instructor’s expectations makes you better at setting expectations for your own students.
Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical contribution of writing center theory is the focus on the writer over the writing. A good tutor’s job is to improve the writer, not the paper, a concept described in Stephen North’s 1984 essay “The Idea of a Writing Center.” This is often done through questioning strategies that force the writer to think about her writing rather than commands of how to “fix” it.
After training my tutors in writing center theory each year, it occurred to me that these ideas could transform writing workshops in my classroom. Now, before my first writing workshop each year, I make sure to teach all my students on a foundational writing center concept: HOCs and LOCs.
Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) and Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) are how we set the agenda of a writing center appointment. In our writing lab, we have roughly 20 minutes for an appointment, so we need to quickly choose a focus. How do we decide? HOCs and LOCs are our guide.
HOCs are typically big-picture questions related to revision. Does the paper actually fit the assignment? Is the author’s purpose clear? Does the author need better or more evidence? Has the author provided enough explanation? Would the ideas be better structured a different way?
These ideas are higher order because, if they are not meant, nothing else really matters. The paper can have beautiful imagery and perfect grammar, but if the message is not communicated, who cares?
LOCs are often editing issues. I prefer to call them “later” order concerns rather than lower. They are still important, but they should be addressed later in the writing process or at least after the HOCs. These include punctuation, spelling, correct citations, and word choice. Of course, any issue can become a HOC if it interferes with meaning too much. A student whose grammar is incomprehensible may need a lesson on basic sentence structure first.
In my experience, left to their own devices, students focus first on LOCs, regardless of the goals of the workshop. It is so much easier to tell someone where to add a comma or that “effect” is misspelled than it is to find out what someone was actually trying to say. For my students to be able to have useful workshops, I need to push them beyond what is easy.
To train my students, we first outline the HOCs and LOCs on the board. Then, together we read a sample paper out loud, and I have them determine what area should be worked on first and why. What are the most pressing issues in the paper? If you really want to challenge them, make sure the paper has some glaring grammatical problems but even bigger issues with argument.
Then, we discuss our process and rules for writing workshop.
- Start with the author’s concerns. Most authors know what they are having trouble with, so ask the author first. This also puts the author in control of her own paper.
- Read each paper out loud with everyone in the group listening. Ideally, the author should read his own paper. This keeps busy hands from adding commas all over. Students are never allowed to simply pass papers around in my classroom.
- Have a conversation about the paper. I encourage my students to ask questions, such as “What did you mean here?” or “I thought what you were trying to say was … Was that correct?” or “Why did you choose to put this example in this paragraph?” Questions force the writer to think about his own choices and be an active participant.
- Brainstorm possible solutions to problems together and make sure that the author writes them down.
Over the course of working on a paper, we will eventually get to those LOCs, but again, we do not just want good papers but better writers. Students discussing the decisions behind their writing will inevitably lead to more fluent writers.
If you’re interested in reading more about writing center theory, a great place to start is The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring.
Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.