Academic journal article English Journal

The Emerging Shape of Voice

Academic journal article English Journal

The Emerging Shape of Voice

Article excerpt

Picture a group of classroom teachers gathered around a table late one afternoon discussing the results of the statewide writing assessment, the returned scored papers scattered across the table top. "I don't understand the rationale behind these scores; just what is it they are looking for?" someone asks, perplexed. Someone else mentions that the highest scoring papers seem to include voice, though voice itself is not a part of the state rubric. So began our journey to discover precisely which rhetorical elements are most closely associated with the assessment scores (Swain, Graves, and Morse, "A Prominent"). Such knowledge, we believed, would provide teachers some direction for teaching practice.

Our research did not begin with a specific interest in voice, though voice emerged as a prominent feature. Voice, it should be noted, is a fairly recent phenomenon in the composition curriculum. We mark its birth with Walker Gibson's seminal essay, "The 'Speaking Voice' Approach and the Teaching of Composition," though the professional conception of voice has evolved significantly over the past 60 years. Even though many teachers of writing emphasize voice, it remains an elusive and shadowy construct. "Writer's 'Voice' is an at once vexing and enduring notion, both widely critiqued and persistently indispensible . . . . The notion lives wherever the craft of writing is prized" (DiPardo, Storms, and Selland 170). Rather than focus on definitions of voice or theoretical insights about voice, our study focuses on its occurrence in student writing. Some background information about our study is helpful to understand the context in which voice emerged as a prominent feature.

The Context

To realize our goal of correlating state assessment scores with specific features of writing, we collected 464 pieces of writing from a seventh-grade writing assessment, all from three schools in the rural south. Outside readers had previously scored the essays on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest. To assist in examining the writing, we recruited a team of twelve experienced language arts teachers. All had National Writing Project affiliation, advanced degrees, and/or National Board certification.

Although we did not know the specific prompt, we deduced that it concerned students' favorite after-school activities. Our purpose was to see as clearly as possible what was in the writing, to come to the papers with fresh eyes, no rubrics, no guidelines, no preconceptions. We asked team members, "What stands out to you? What is prominent?" We coined the term prominent feature to describe the elements we saw. In all, we identified 32 prominent features in the papers, 22 positive and 10 negative. Voice was one of the 22 positive features (Swain, Graves, and Morse, "A Prominent" 84-85).

We did not attempt to define voice. We relied instead on the experience and the tacit wisdom of our readers to determine whether or not voice was present in the individual papers. Readers raised questions, shared problematic passages, and discussed what constitutes prominence. Sometimes they consulted with the principal investigators, sometimes with the whole group.

All the papers were read twice, first by the original reader and then by another team member. When a question arose, the two readers discussed it, sometimes conferring with principal investigators. There were three kinds of changes: (1) a feature that the first reader had missed, (2) a feature not found by the second reader, (3) a feature mis-i dentified. The principal investigators then read all 464 papers to confirm accuracy.

The percentage of agreement over all readings was established at 97 percent. The following passage, taken from the original research, describes the method for arriving at the level of agreement:

There were 484 changes in the prominent features assigned . . . across multiple readings. The percentage of agreement in this case is 97%. . . . …

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