Friday, April 14, 2006

The Most Boring Post Ever

I don't expect anyone to read this, but I spent a lot of time on it so I'm going to post it. Maybe someone interested in writing center pedagogy will find it through google, who knows. I'm hoping to get it published in Writing Center Journal. It's not exactly Sports Illustrated, but it'll have to do (because I don't think S.I. readers care about writing center theory).

An Addendum to Tutor Training: Negotiating Reading Out Loud in Writing Center Sessions

Azor Cigelske
April 14, 2006


In The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, a training manual for writing center tutors, Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner urge tutors and prospective tutors to have writers read their own texts out loud. They detail what they see to be the advantages of this method:
When the writer reads the paper, he accomplishes several things, in addition to keeping in control….Listening to the whole thing from start to finish puts you in the role of learner and the writer in the role of expert. And our anecdotal evidence is pretty good that the reader is listening, too, to the way the draft is working….he’s giving his draft a critical reading in ways that will help him revise (30).
The fact that Gillespie and Lerner use only anecdotal evidence indicates to me one of two gaps in tutor training literature that I hope to address in this paper. First, I would like to provide some practical data to support the theoretical contention that the best way to begin a Writing Center session is to have students read their own drafts. Despite the prevalence of this suggestion in tutor training manuals, there has been a dearth of research into its effectiveness.

Current Theory Regarding Reading Out Loud
Gillespie and Lerner point out three theoretical benefits to having the student read out-loud. First, the student takes ownership for her paper and has a greater degree of agency (or as Gillespie and Lerner say “control”) over the session. Second, the power in the session is better diffused between both parties. Third, the writer has a better critical engagement with the text. These same three ideas are basically paraphrased in Toni-Lee Capossela’s The Harcourt Brace Guide to Peer Tutoring: “By reading his own work, a writer reinforces the fact that the draft belongs to him. This strategy also puts him in charge, because he can stop when he comes to a passage he wants to work on. It also helps him hear passages that ‘sound funny’ even though they may look fine on paper” (11). Capossela also quotes Karen Spear as theorizing that “When writers hear their ideas in the presence of an audience, they understand themselves differently” (11).
We see the same ideas, along with a new one, coming to the fore in Jeff Brooks’ “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work,” published in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice (often used for tutor training):
Have the student read the paper aloud to you, and suggest that he hold a pencil while doing so […] this will accomplish three things. First, it will bypass that awkward first few moments of the session when you are in complete control of the paper and the student is left out of the action [….] Second, this will actively involve the student in the paper, quite likely for the first time since he wrote it. I find that many students are able to find and correct […] problems without any prompting from me. Third, this will help establish the sometimes slippery principle that good writing should sound good (222).
His first reason echoes the desire for the student to have ownership, his second reason calls to mind Gillespie and Lerner’s call for “critical engagement.” His third reason adds yet another element to the conversation, the idea that students regard their text as something that has lyrical or rhythmic potential.

Some Empirical Support for Current Theory
I hoped to validate these theories with some data from students who had been through a writing center session. As a pilot study, I distributed an e-mail survey to University of Louisville Writing Center clients in December 2004. I received 44 responses from students who had a writing center session in the Fall Semester 2004. In order to validate my results, I distributed a follow-up survey in March 2006, involving students who had writing center sessions (with different consultants) in the first half of the Spring 2006 Semester. I asked four questions in common, with similar results in both studies. (I added one follow-up question to the second survey, which will be discussed later)
The first question I asked was whether the student’s paper was read out-loud (by either the student or the consultant). In the first survey, 40 out of 44, or 91% of sessions involved reading out-loud. In the second survey, 25 of 27, or 93% of sessions involved reading out-loud. Reasons given for not having this part of a session included wanting to pay attention to specific sections of the paper, and wanting an honest reaction to a fiction piece. The frequency of the practice underscores in my mind the importance for research and discussion.
The second question I asked was “Who read…you or the consultant?” In the first survey, roughly two-thirds reported that they read (27 to 13 in which the consultant read). The results of my second survey were even more pronounced: roughly three-fourths of sessions in which the paper was read out-loud involved the student doing the reading (19 of 25). These results were not surprising given the emphasis in tutor training literature on having the student read. See figure 1 for a summary of results.
My next question was an attempt to determine if the students found value in the out-loud part of a session. I asked, “Did you find yourself gaining any insight by having the paper read aloud, or was it simply a way for the consultant to get familiar with the paper?” I intended the question to be open enough to give students a legitimate, guilt-free response if they felt the out-loud portion was not especially helpful to them. However, both surveys indicated much satisfaction with this part of the session.
I broke responses down into two categories, depending on whether the student or the consultant did the reading. In the first survey 24 of the 27 students who did the reading claimed they gained insight (89%), compared with only two who said that it was beneficial only for the consultant (7%). More than half of those who had the consultant read also claimed to benefit, but the percentage was lower. Of the 13 students, nine said it was helpful (69%), while four said it was not. I find it significant that despite the much smaller sample size, this group had twice the number of respondents who claimed no benefit. In the more recent survey, 17 of the 19 students who read themselves gained insight (again 89%), while all six students who had the consultant read reported that they gained insight. Overall, 56 of 64 respondents, or 88% reported gaining insight by having their papers read out-loud, validating this as a worthwhile part of a writing center session. See figure 2 for a graphic representation of results.
My final question was an attempt to determine the level of critical engagement with the text, as well as a writer’s ability to assert power in the session. I simply asked if students interrupted at any point during the out-loud portion with questions or comments. Once again, I broke the data down into categories depending on whether the student or consultant did the reading. In the first survey, of the 27 who read their own papers, 22 said they interrupted at some point (81%), compared to four who said they did not (15%). One student could not remember. Of the 13 students who had the consultant read, eight (62%) said they interrupted, compared to four (31%) who did not. One student did not respond to this question. In the more recent survey, of the 19 students who read their own papers, 12 (63%) said they interrupted, while five (26%) said they did not. Two students did not remember. Of the six students who had the consultant read, four of the six interrupted while the other two did not. Overall, 34 of 46 (74%) students who read their own papers interrupted, while 12 of 19 (63%) students who had the consultant read interrupted. I think this shows a reasonable level of attentiveness and ownership in both situations, though the numbers do seem to suggest that students who do their own reading have more ownership and control in a session, and are more likely to interrupt the reading with critical observations. Figure 3 summarizes the findings related to this question.
I was able to compile some qualitative data with my surveys as well, as I invited students to contribute any observations or remarks about the out-loud session. Many students validated the theoretical postulations in the tutor training manuals. One student said, “I think reading out loud is a great approach. It allows the writer to hear the paper from a third person perspective, allowing him/her to pick up on areas that don’t quite ‘sound right’ or flow.” This echoes Capossela’s idea that “[reading] helps [students] hear passages that ‘sound funny’ even though they may look fine on paper.” It also supports Brooks’s notion that “good writing should sound good.”
Another student remarked, “I found certain points did not make sense after reading aloud. This is such a simple task, but I have not been reading aloud while working on papers at home. I think it helps to read to another person, because you are more aware of someone listening.” This echoes Spears’ assertion that “When writers hear their ideas in the presence of an audience, they understand themselves differently.”
One of the more glowing endorsements of the out-loud process came from another student: “I think it’s best for the person writing the paper [to read] because I know it turned a light on for me. I went from going to the writing lab for every paper to writing my own without any help and no loss of grade, simply from reading the paper out loud.”

Another Gap in the Literature
Although much, both quantitatively and qualitatively in my surveys supports the theoretical positions of the training manuals, I also found some data, particularly on the qualitative side, which calls into question some of the assumptions made in the training manuals, and also points to a second gap in the manuals that needs to be addressed.
Current tutor training literature implies that the model of “student reading and consultant listening” is universally preferential to a model of “consultant reads and student listens.” Yet, some students found it more beneficial if the latter method is employed. One student who responded negatively when asked if any insight was gained from the out-loud portion responded, “Had the consultant read it out loud I may have been able to gain some insight. It is easier to gain insight when you listen to someone read your paper.” Another student said, “I think reading it out loud is the first step in gaining an overall knowledge of how your paper will sound if someone else is reading it.” Yet another student said “I definitely feel the consultant should read the paper aloud, because I feel it is more effective for both the consultant and the student. The consultant is able to visually look at the paper and check for grammatical erros [sic], while the student can hear his or her own ideas and see how his or her paper sounds.” Certainly, this makes sense in light of the theory that different people have different learning styles and strengths. An auditory learner, as the latter student quoted seems to be, would more likely benefit from hearing rather than reading her or his paper.
So how is it that the first student, who likely would have benefited more from having her paper read to her, ends up reading the paper herself? I made one alteration to the survey the second time around. I asked students how the reader was determined. Her response: “The consultant asked me to read my paper out loud.” In doing so, the consultant was following the advice of Capossela’s training manual: “Have the writer read the draft aloud” (10). Interestingly, no advice is offered as to how exactly the consultant should go about “having” the writer do this. The implication is that the consultant should exercise his or her power and demand the student follow this directive. This is highly ironic given that a main point in Capossela’s manual is to “Let the writer set the agenda and be in charge of the conversation. If you seize control of the conversation, the way a doctor does with a patient, the writer will sit passively, waiting for you to make a diagnosis and recommend a cure” (10). Further advice is given for how to empower the student, from how to situate the conference spatially to how to ask questions rather than make statements. However, lack of direction on how to negotiate the reading out-loud in a session is a second major gap in this and other tutor training literature. The gap is apparent in Brooks’ article as well. He uses the same wording as Capossela: “Have the student read the paper aloud to you.” Ironically, the chapter is titled “Making the Student Do All the Work.” In this case, the verb “making” seems to belie the degree of agency that Brooks is ostensibly advocating as his central thesis.
Consider Capossela’s “back-up” plan: “If the writer is reluctant to read, you read the draft aloud. This is not as desirable as [having the student read], but it is better than silent reading” (11). There is a gap between “Have the student read.” and “If the student is reluctant to read…” How much reluctance must a student show in order for the consultant to offer the alternative? Must students be made to feel reluctant if they prefer the alternative method?
Given the gap in teaching consultants how to negotiate out-loud reading, it is unsurprising that there would be different variations in technique. One of the students surveyed in spring 2006 felt she had to read out-loud even though she didn’t want to because “the consultant asked me to.” Another student, who nevertheless reported that he gained insight from reading out-loud, remarked that he did the reading himself because “[The consultant] didn’t seem like he wanted to so I volunteered.” Although this session apparently turned out well, one can’t but be a little troubled by the suggestion that the student needed to pick up on nonverbal or unspoken cues in order to determine the session’s agenda.
Though it is apparently undesirable for a consultant to be too insistent regarding the reading out-loud, perhaps the consultant can be too neutral. By presenting the student with both options as equally desirable, many students who could perhaps benefit from reading their own papers may instead elect to nominate the consultant, feeling self-conscious or reluctant to read their own work. An example is this response from a student when asked who read the paper and how this was determined: “[The consultant] read it. She said that it’s usually best to read the papers out loud, and asked if it was OK for either of us to read it. I said that it was fine to read it out loud, and asked her if she would do it.” The student doesn’t tell us why she chose not to read it, but it appears possible that had the consultant been more directive, she would have been more likely to read it herself.
The issue of student comfort is another aspect of the negotiation that could be better addressed by the training literature. In an article often used in tutor training, Thomas Newkirk points out that “When we push students to speak, to evaluate; when we listen and don’t rush to fill silences, we may be able to transform the rules of studenthood…” (315). Newkirk is expressing the same desire for student empowerment that other theorists use as the basis for requiring student reading. But the verb “push” implies that discomfort on the student’s part is inevitable. It is quite likely that he is primarily speaking of an intellectual discomfort, which most pedagogical theorists would likely acknowledge as more positive than negative. However, given the real life dynamics involved in a student writing conference, one wonders if it is necessary that emotional discomfort must also be present. Is there a way for students to be afforded a comfortable environment so that they are more likely to accept intellectual challenges?
To be fair, training manuals do recognize the degree of apprehension that students may be feeling, and they offer advice for consultants to help assuage nervousness. For example, Gillespie and Lerner advise that
[w]riters can come to the writing center with either clear or vague ideas of what will happen, but many come with apprehensions and vulnerabilities. Some see it as a sign that they are not strong writers. […] Most are nervous. So taking a few minutes to get to know the writer is really important. Even if you only have a short time to work together, it’s important to set a collegial, congenial, friendly tone during those crucial first minutes (28).
Certainly this is sound advice, but given the difficulty many students may face in being asked to read aloud, shouldn’t extra attention be paid to how to ease students concerns about being called on to do this. I’d like to share a few survey responses I got to indicate the importance of this issue. One student said “At first I was so afraid…” Another remarked that “id [sic] rather not be around alot [sic] of people id like to have the option of going into a private room so I can fully focus on my paper and not have the distractions of the other people.” Such an arrangement could be logistically impossible for some writing centers, but could the consultant have said something to ease the writer’s fears and perhaps caused the other people in the room to be less of an issue? Another student actually went so far as to suggest what she would like consultants to say:
It was a little unnerving having my paper read aloud because I am so worried that I did not write the paper well enough and I will embarrass myself. It would be beneficial that they [sic] tutor say something along the lines of I am not going to judge or make you feel stupid…Obviously not exactly those words but something along those lines. It will reassure the writer to not be worried or apprehensive about their work and the session will potentially be more successful because the writer will be so comfortable and willing to work.
One can’t help but be impressed with the degree to which this student recognizes her own emotional needs, recognizes how they can be met through the consultant’s verbal interaction, and also sees the big picture pedagogical benefits of having those needs met.
I’d like to focus on one more area in which the gap between theory and instruction may result in an inability to maximize the degree to which the out-loud portion of a session can be helpful. As stated previously, Capossela states that “[reading out loud]… puts him in charge, because he can stop when he comes to a passage he wants to work on.” As my survey results indicate, students who do their own reading are more likely to do just that. However, are there some students who fail to do this because they have not been advised that it is permissible? Could students be afraid to interrupt a consultant reading for fear of being rude? I didn’t ask in my survey why people didn’t interrupt, but one student volunteered that he didn’t because “he was reading.” I’m not sure if this answer was indicative of personal preference or of a misunderstanding about how the session could proceed.
While I have focused on the gap in tutor training literature as it relates primarily to 1) how it is decided who reads, 2) how the student could be made comfortable with this process, and 3) how the student is notified of the appropriateness of interrupting, the fact is that there is a gap regarding anything said about how reading out-loud is negotiated. There is little advice given in the literature about what could be said regarding this part of the session. This is all the more surprising given the amount of space in general that tutor training manuals give to session negotiations.
For example, Gillespie and Lerner devote about six pages to the dynamics involved at the start of a session. Included in these six pages is a sample dialogue. To their credit, at the end of the dialogue, they do include a suggestion for what a student can say regarding reading out-loud: “I’ll tell you what, will you read it to me? Reading’s a good way, you can tell me, in a sense, what I should listen for, what your concerns are with this draft. And reading it out loud is a good way for you to get a feel for how it’s shaping up, what your language is like” (32). Gillespie and Lerner bring to the reader’s attention that the sample tutor provides a “short justification” (33), something in my opinion that is very desirable. However, I’m unsatisfied that the suggested dialogue doesn’t address potential fears about reading out-loud, nor does it invite the student to interrupt her own reading. Further, I fear that the first sentence is too directive. While it is a question, by starting with the phrase “I’ll tell you what” the tutor clearly establishes a power advantage over the student and perhaps practices a subtle coercion. Perhaps asking “Are you comfortable reading this to me?” would be more desirable.
Although Gillespie and Lerner offer a perhaps less than ideal sample, at least they make an effort to address this part of the negotiation. Capossela has an entire chapter entitled “Getting to Know You,” along with an eight part list of “preliminaries” before starting a session, though absent any firm advice about how to negotiate reading. In The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Leigh Ryan entitles a chapter “Inside the Tutoring Session,” in which extensive attention is paid to strategies for effective tutoring, with an emphasis on session negotiation. In a section entitled “Setting the Agenda,” Ryan remarks, “As you and the writer talk during these first few minutes, look for information that will help you understand his or her concerns and determine what you can do” (15). It is admirable that she recommends a “few minutes” devoted to determining how best to help the student. Like Gillespie and Lerner, she goes on to include sample dialogues. Unfortunately, nothing in the entire chapter addresses reading out-loud. As previously mentioned, both Baker and Newkirk, in their articles in The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice, emphasize the role of the student in the writing session, and how the tutor can help to empower the student. They both offer suggestions about how to accomplish this, but unfortunately neither gives direction regarding what a tutor might say.

Observing Videotaped Sessions: How Tutors Fill the Gaps
Given the relative lack of direction for writing tutors in the training literature, I wondered how tutors set out negotiating the out-loud portion of their sessions. I also wanted to compare the feedback I received from students with an observation of actual writing center sessions. I started by viewing tapes of six sessions from fall 2003 at the University of Louisville Writing Center.
The survey indicated that consultants encouraged students to read out loud; the tapes backed up this notion and provided a clear picture as to how this was accomplished. Of the six sessions I viewed, four involved the student reading and two had the consultant read. All four sessions that included student reading involved the consultant leading the students toward reading themselves. In each case, the consultant allowed the student the possibility of opting out of reading, but the question was posed in such a manner as to make a positive response more likely. One consultant referenced an earlier session and said, “So you feel pretty comfortable then (reading aloud)?” Another consultant asked, “Do you feel comfortable reading?”. Another asked “Do you care to read it out loud?” The fourth consultant was even more leading than others in stating: “What we usually do is have you read this out loud.”
Of the two sessions that involved consultant-reading, one of the consultants was just as leading with her question, asking it in identical terms to one of the others: “Do you feel comfortable reading?” In this case, though, the student responded in the negative. The consultant followed up by asking “You want me too?” The student then responded in the affirmative. This session was different from the others in another respect, as well—of the six sessions viewed this was the only one with an ESL student. There may have been a correlation between the two factors, with an ESL student perhaps more likely to articulate discomfort reading out loud than a native speaker.
One of the survey responses from an ESL student indicated that in a typical session the consultant is more likely to do the reading: “Sometimes I am reading but most of the times [sic] the consultant does. Probably because I am foreign and it is just easier and faster that way. Nobody even decides it’s [sic] just happens.” Without more research, it is difficult to say if it is just as desirable for ESL students to do their own reading as native-born speakers, but I feel certain that they should be given the chance to state a preference
Only one of the six sessions involved a consultant posing the out loud question in neutral terms. The consultant gave the student advantages for either approach: “There are two ways of doing this. If I read you get to hear the way it sounds. If you read you get to read it the way you want to.” The student said he needed to hear it, and picked the former, allowing the consultant to read. Just as with the survey respondent, when given a neutral option, the student chose to listen rather than read.
One area in which the videotaped observations tended to contradict e-mail responses is in the area of student interruptions. Although a majority of students who responded to the survey claimed to have interrupted the reading with questions or comments, the videotaped sessions showed little evidence of this. In the session in which the consultant read a native speaker’s paper, the student did not interrupt at all. He did appear to be looking at the paper for the majority of the session, although at one point he took his cell phone out of his pocket, opened it, pressed buttons (perhaps turning it off), then closed it and set it on the table. This would seem to indicate less that 100% concentration during the session.
The sessions that involved student reading also featured minimal interaction during the out-loud portion. One student made two brief observations about sentence level issues. Another session that involved no interaction did include the student making some minor changes as she read. Although the fourth student-read session involved no interruption, there was an interesting student-consultant interaction. At one point the consultant tacitly handed the student a pen; the student marked down a change and handed it back to the consultant without missing a beat. Perhaps part of the reason for students’ reluctance to interrupt is that they were not advised to do so. None of the consultants told the students that they were free to stop or ask questions while reading.
The one session that involved lots of interaction and interruption was the one with the consultant reading to the ESL student. Most of the interruptions were initiated by the student, but the nature of the session dictated that much discussion take place in order to clarify meaning within each paragraph before global issues could be discussed.
In addition to learning how the readership is negotiated, viewing the tapes allowed me to observe the degree to which consultants provide students with a rationale for the out-loud portion. Three of the six consultants told the students why it was a good idea to read out loud. As already noted, one consultant pointed out advantages of reading out loud when asking the student which method was preferred. Another consultant told the student, “Sometimes you can hear things you can’t see” (while pointing to her ear for added effect). The third consultant said, “You’ll catch any mistakes or awkward sentences.”
After viewing these six session, I viewed more recent sessions (Fall 2005), again from the University of Louisville writing center. I had more specific coding questions while watching these sessions. I wanted to know how the consultant phrased the issue of reading out loud (did he suggest, state, or ask that the consultant read; suggest, state, or ask that the student read; phrase the issue neutrally; or phrase the question to include both possibilities though favoring one?). I wanted to know what outcomes resulted from these different approaches. I wanted to know if the student showed any reluctance to reading and how it was dealt with. I was looking for evidence of the consultant giving directions about what the student should do during reading (such as interrupting). Finally, I wanted to know if in fact the students were interrupting, or if there was any other evidence to indicate if the student was or was not engaged during the reading.
Of the six 2005 sessions, there was again variation in how the out-loud portion of the session was negotiated. Two of the sessions had the consultant out-right state that the student should read. Two more had the consultant ask the students if they would read (though one consultant ingeniously prefaced the question by saying, “Generally one of us will read out-loud,” before directly asking the student if she would read. This seems to be a favorable way of encouraging the student to read without locking her into that behavior). In another, the consultant asked if she should read, and the other session actually had the student volunteer to read before the consultant even broached the subject. The outcome of these different approaches resulted in four sessions in which the student read and two in which the consultant read. One of the results was rather predictable; the session in which the consultant asked if she should read resulted in the student’s quickly agreeing. The other involved an ESL student responding negatively when the consultant asked if he would read. In that case, the consultant quickly volunteered to read, which the student readily accepted. Interestingly, one of the sessions in which the consultant stated that the student should read involved another ESL student. She consented to reading without any signs of reluctance.
Actually, none of the students in the videotapes demonstrated any reluctance, even non-verbally, to having their paper read out-loud. However, I’m not sure that this willingness can be attributed to anything that consultants said to ease concerns. Only two of the six consultants gave specific rationales to the students for reading out-loud. One consultant said that reading gives the student the chance to “hear things you missed,” while another student said “you can hear better how the paper flows.”
Only two of the six consultants gave specific instructions for what the student might do during reading (or listening). One consultant actually instructed his student to stop every paragraph (which she did, if only at times to get affirmation to keep reading). The other consultant told the student to “Mark anything you see you want to come back to,” though the student didn’t end up marking anything. In all, four of the six sessions involved the student interrupting the reading and either changing something or asking a question. This is consistent with the survey results, but one wonders if the percentage would be even higher with the students were more informed about what could potentially occur during the out-loud portion of a session.
Conclusions
Though there is no universally correct way to negotiate the out-loud portion of a writing center session, the lack of research into this topic and the lack of direction in tutor training manuals makes this a neglected area of writing center theory. The number of different approaches that consultants take, some of them highly divergent from one another, indicates that some general consensus should be explored. It is my belief that consultants should spend more time negotiating this part of a session, that students should be encouraged to read their own papers (while still being given the opportunity to listen), that students should be made aware of why this is a part of the session, that students be given direction for what to do during reading (and be empowered to interrupt the reading at any time), and that students emotional needs regarding reading out loud be met. I think if these aspects are all covered in the negotiation, we stand a better chance that the session, in the words of the student survey respondent, “will potentially be more successful because the writer will be so comfortable and willing to work”.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is officially the longest post ever.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Marley said...

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6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said you didn't expect anyone to read it, but I read it. So there. Also, it was interesting. One thing that surprised me was that some people do NOT want to read their papers aloud. I guess I had thought that since I liked reading my papers aloud, everyone else would.
-Fangirl Kitten

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

seriously though, what are the purpose of cummerbunds?

8:12 PM  
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10:45 PM  
Blogger PurrPrints said...

Hey--I don't know if you are still around the blogosphere, but i actually am a reader who found your post through doing a google search on reading aloud--I'm getting ready to do my dissertation on it (at UofL, actually) and i'm wondering if you ever did anything further with your research. Did you look into it more down the line? Did it get published anywhere? I haven't found anything that really discusses reading out loud in tutoring sessions outside of the training manuals.

Thanks in advance for your help!

8:57 PM  

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