Integrating Reading and Writing

Integrating Reading and Writing

Though the connection between reading and writing seems to be a "given," reading was not always a dominant force in writing classrooms. In the nineteenth century, students did not typically write analyses of what they read, but instead wrote themes on prescribed topics, such as Vanity, Democracy, Ethics, and so on. Reading and writing became curricularly linked at the turn of the century, when Harvard and other universities decided that reading literature was essential to learning to write.

The reasons for this curricular link are the same today as they were one hundred years ago. Those who argue in favor of reading in the writing classroom claim that reading inspires students, introducing them to great ideas and improving their ability to think critically and analytically. Moreover, reading centers class discussion, giving students something to talk about beyond their own personal experiences. Reading also gives students something to write about: at eighteen, students often lack the experience to come up with sophisticated subjects for their essays; texts provide these ideas. Finally, reading illustrates models of truly excellent writing, thereby offering students instruction in voice, organization, syntax, and language.

Still, professors who teach writing often find themselves questioning the role of reading in the first-year writing classrooms. These professors are concerned about the amount of class time they devote to discussing readings as opposed to the amount of class time they devote to teaching writing. They worry that the attention to reading and analyzing course materials risks crowding out writing instruction—which, they feel, should be the priority of the course.

But we needn't think of reading and writing as disparate course activities. In fact, reading and writing work best when one process fuels or informs the other. In order to make sure that reading and writing are working together effectively in your classroom, you might wish to consider the following:

  • Limit the amount of reading assigned so that students have time to devote themselves to their writing.
  • Devote class discussion or perhaps a writing assignment to an analysis of how an argument is constructed, rather than focusing exclusively on the content.
  • Provide students with course readings that are well written, and take time in class to talk with students about what, exactly, makes the writing so good.
  • Provide students with models of bad writing, taking time to talk about what, exactly, makes the writing so bad.
  • Generate materials - perhaps with your students - that articulate the qualities of good writing in your particular discipline; ask students to evaluate a piece of writing according to these standards. (For this exercise, consider breaking students into smaller groups and then reconvening to compare observations.)

Writing and its Role in Learning the Course Materials

The discussion of how writing might be used to improve our students' learning has been with us since the early seventies, when James Britton (in "Writing to Learn and Learning to Write") and Janet Emig (in "Writing as a Mode of Learning") illustrated how and why writing was essential to learning. Emig's work, which argues that writing is a unique mode of learning, is especially persuasive in convincing us that writing should be a part of all of our courses.

According to Emig, writing is unique to learning because it originates a verbal construct that is graphically recorded. The italics point to what Emig feels is the important distinction between writing and the other ways of learning, like listening, reading, and talking. Listening is passive: it neither originates with the reader nor is graphically recorded. Reading involves communication that is graphically recorded; however, the ideas do not originate with the learner. Talking can offer original ideas, but because talking is not graphically recorded the learner's thinking and communicating don't need to be as sharp as when writing. When writing, students must both originate and record their thinking. They must attend simultaneously to process and product.

Emig and other write-to-learn proponents claim not only that students' learning is improved when writing is part of the learning process, but also that courses that rely on lectures, reading assignments, and quizzes are "anathema" to student learning, because students are not required to be active in shaping their own understanding of the course materials. Courses that use class discussion are more effective, because students are required to participate in the learning process by articulating their ideas. However, class discussion cannot provide the same learning benefits that writing will, in that talk is loose and inherently redundant, "leaning on the environment" to communicate its point. Writing, on the other hand, must be structured, meticulous, and concise. It must provide a context for an audience that is not part of the environment but that exists apart from the writer. In sum, writing forces students to become more careful, more engaged participants in the learning process.

Writing to Learn

So far, we have been discussing why writing is important to the learning process. We've yet to consider how professors might incorporate writing into their students' learning processes.

Typically, write-to-learn exercises are of two types: those that parallel or are part of our students' reading processes, and those that are part of our students' discovery or invention processes. We'll look at each in turn.

Write to Improve Reading

Using writing to enhance our students' reading experiences is perhaps the most common write-to-learn exercise. Professors who use these sorts of exercises typically have developed them because they understand that students often read texts passively, simply to glean information. Write-to-learn exercises like the ones listed below insure that students work closely and carefully with texts.

  • Ask students to write in their texts. Students are too often passive readers. If they are instructed to write in the margins—where they can challenge or ask questions of the writer—the reading process becomes far more active. Furthermore, in writing in the margins, students find that there is "room" on the page for their conversations—a visual reminder that all texts are part of an ongoing discussion and are not the last word on a given subject.
  • Ask students to keep a reading journal. In journals, students are free to pursue their ideas in any way that they feel is productive. Some professors respond in writing to the journals, seeing them as an opportunity to engage students in dialogue about the course materials. Other professors don't read the journals; instead, they simply note that they've been kept. In any case, reading journals are particularly effective in encouraging students to use the writing process to deepen their understanding of the course materials.
  • Ask students to write short response papers. These can be rooted to one particular passage in the text (of the students' choosing). Short response papers not only encourage students to write their way towards a more complete understanding of the texts, they also serve as the basis for class discussions. Some professors discuss students' response essays in class, noting when a student has raised a particularly interesting observation or has produced a particularly elegant turn of phrase.

Write to Discover What You Think

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for first-year students is coming up with a good academic response to course content. Students are sometimes bewildered by the prospect of coming up with original responses to the materials they are reading or the lectures they are hearing in class. Even if they can find a topic that intrigues them, students often don't know how to transform their interest into an academic question. Once the question is developed, students are often at a loss as to what position they might take.

Writing can help students to discover interesting questions and to make interesting responses. Students need to be told that writing isn't just a way of telling; it's a way of knowing as well. Indeed, experienced writers often don't know what they think about a particular subject until they write about it. As E. M. Forster says, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" Even writers who have a good sense of the questions that they intend to pursue often don't make connections among their ideas until they sit down to write about them. As C. S. Lewis said about his own writing:

I do not sit at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it, for I am an explorer... When I have discovered the meaning to me of the various fragments of experience which are constellating in my mind, I have begun to make sense of such experience and to realize some pattern in it; and often I have gone some way with the poem before I am able to grasp the theme which lies hidden in the material that has accumulated.

How can instructors use writing to get students to discover what it is that they think about a topic? Some ideas follow:

  • Assign discovery drafts. Discovery drafts are focused free-writing exercises, in which students sit down at the computer and allow themselves to "think out loud" on a particular topic. If students aren't sure about how to approach the discovery draft, have them frame it as a letter—to you, to themselves, or to a friend. Discovery drafts are especially useful if students are encountering ideas that are foreign to them. Typically, students don't write well about subjects that they aren't familiar with. Discovery drafts help students to become familiar with the phrasings and nuances of difficult or new material.
  • Assign in-class free-writing assignments. Present students with a topic (or let them come up with their own) and allot fifteen minutes of class time for free-writing. Then use what students have written to guide the class discussion.
  • Create writing and research assignments whose chief aim is to make students discover new ways of thinking about the course materials. For example, provide students with a passage from a text that is full of allusions, then ask students to go to the library to track these allusions down. Students can then write a short paper about how knowledge of these allusions illuminates the text. Or ask students to go to the library or to the Internet to find five facts relevant to a particular assignment and then to write a short essay about how these facts have brought a new or revised understanding of the text.
  • Use blitzmail or the Blackboard discussion board. Ask students to blitz you and the class with questions and ideas about course materials. Or have them post their thoughts on the Blackboard discussion board. Ask students to reply to these emails and postings in order to contribute to an ongoing group discovery about the topic at hand.