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.)