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Listening to Writing

Author: NYCWP



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Listening to Writing


Writing is a process of discovery and constructing meaning. Active listening is a process which encourages writers to discover and construct more of what they mean.

As teachers we frequently assume that we understand students’ intentions in writing. We also often assume that any corrections or additions we make on students’ drafts are necessarily the ones they should make. However, if we are to enable our students to become better writers, they need to retain ownership of their texts. One way to ensure this is to provide students with the opportunity to engage in the process of active listening by reflecting and “saying back” to students what it is we hear in their texts.

Writers need to know what they have communicated before they can benefit from reactions or judgments. Listening allows writers to know they’ve been understood. Sometimes writers may not be sure what they want to communicate. Listening helps them to clarify their intended meaning and to extend and strengthen their discourse. In active listening, listeners set aside their own personal preoccupations and become, in effect, mirrors for another writer.

The Practice of Listening

Once writers have read their drafts aloud, listeners respond in a variety of ways:

  1. Listeners take a moment to pause and allow a writer’s words to take hold.

  1. Listeners “say back” what they hear by repeating exact words, by expressing the gist of what was said or by summarizing in their own words what they heard.

  1. Listeners phrase declarative sentences in a questioning tone. Listeners do not interview the writer.

  1. Sometimes listeners focus on the underlying sense of a piece and reflect that back to the writer.

  1. If listeners are confused, they need to ask the writer to reread either the whole piece or a section they have missed.

Listening is interactive. Listening responses are invitations to writers to move the discourse forward. As writers develop and clarify their meaning, listeners continue to reflect back the sense of what is being said. Writers will let the listeners know if they’ve understood or captured the meaning accurately. Writers may nod affirmatively, or say, “Yes and…” and then develop more of what they mean. Or they may look puzzled and confused and say, “No, that’s not it…” Either way listeners are helping writers clarify and develop meaning. A sequence of active listening ends when writers know what they want to do next with the piece of writing.


Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing. New York: Everest House, 1978.

Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 31, No. 4, December, 1980.

Prepared by:

Elaine Avidon

Jerry Megna

Sondra Perl

© 1983 The New York City Writing Project

DMU Timestamp: April 30, 2019 18:47

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