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READING AND WRITING TOGETHER

Writing is not a skill that students learn separate from other processes. It combines many complex activities, including categorizing, building key terms and concepts for a subject, measuring one's reaction to a subject, making new connections, abstracting, figuring out significance, and developing arguments—to name a few. Our highest cognitive functions are developed and supported through active and interconnected use of language—speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

In practice, this means that reading (and speaking and listening) can be used as a springboard for writing projects, and writing can be used as a way to understand reading. A variety of informal, often ungraded, writing activities may be used, for instance, to help students understand that critical reading can be practiced through writing about reading and that writing projects can be strengthened through careful, critical reading. Classroom practices can be designed so that students use writing to read and reading to write. Writing courses consistently provide such integrated activities for students; however, in First Year Seminars and content-area courses, reading and writing can also be practiced together and sequenced effectively to support the learning experience.

Follow the links to sample syllabi that show through their course schedules how reading and writing can be sequenced together:

Helping Students Develop Critical Reading and Writing Skills

Consider the following comment in terms of what is at stake for students:

"What our beginning college writers do not understand . . . is the view of academic life implied by writing across the curriculum, where writing means joining a conversation of persons who are, in important ways, fundamentally disagreeing. In other words, they do not see that a thesis implies a counterthesis and that the presence of opposing voices implies a view of knowledge as dialogic, contingent, ambiguous, and tentative." (Bean, 18, original italics)

Here are some preliminary ideas about how the work of academic reading and writing happens, accompanied by practical suggestions for the work in your own classrooms.

I. Common Traits of an Academic Writing Process (as summarized in Bean)

  1. Usually begins with the perception of a question, an uncertainty, or problem.
  2. Exploration begins through gathering data and informally writing out ideas.
  3. Ideas are allowed to cook or stew - like an incubation period - often including a period of sharing with trusted peers/colleagues.
  4. Preparing a first draft, perhaps beginning with an outline, but with low expectations for perfection in order to produce something.
  5. Draft reformulated and revised, sometimes dismantling the entire first draft as ideas and structures become clearer.
  6. Creativity gives way to craft - editing begins. 

Academic writers are, therefore, usually driven by an engagement with the topic and with a sense that they are contributing to an ongoing conversation. Students who are new to this process are often afraid of it because their expectation is that in order to be good, their writing has to be good immediately. One of the things they need to learn is that writing as a process means work.

How Can We Help Students? (most suggestions drawn from Bean)

  1. Use a problem-driven approach to writing projects, perhaps using informal and exploratory writing during one part of the course to help students set up questions or problems for longer, research projects.
  2. Use more non-graded, exploratory writing.
  3. Build talk-time into the writing process.
  4. Provide several interventions into the process so you can respond to project proposals, thesis statements, or abstracts.
  5. Try peer review of drafts.
  6. Hold writing conferences, perhaps in small groups or individually.
  7. Ask students to hand in drafts and notes. This also helps curb plagiarism.
  8. Allow rewrites.
  9. Hold to high standards for finished products. 

II. Common Traits of an Academic Reading Process (again, Bean as a primary source)

  1. Reading strategies are adjusted for different purposes.
  2. Structures of arguments are noticed during reading.
  3. The unfamiliar is not unwelcomed.
  4. Rhetorical contexts are appreciated.
  5. Readers see themselves in conversation with authors.
  6. Readers often have access to the text's cultural codes - jargon and background.
  7. Complex syntax is accessible.

Academic readers, therefore, understand that reading is a process often requiring rereading or slow reading and that a difficult passage may become clearer as they continue reading. Good readers are not necessarily "speed" readers, though often students believe this is the case.

How Can We Help Students? (some suggestions drawn from Bean, Elbow)

  1. Assign important readings more than once.
  2. Require note-taking as part of a reading assignment, and ask students to use their notes during class discussion.
  3. Do a "what it says" and "what it does" exercise: using a specific passage, have students explain the content (what it says) and then its purpose or function (what it does), for example, that it provides evidence or summarizes, and so on.
  4. Make students responsible for texts that will not be covered in class. For example, I have placed some texts on reserve in the library, required that they be read on students' own time, and then required that students use references to such texts as they deem appropriate in some of their writing for the semester.
  5. Awaken interest in upcoming readings. For example, try an exploratory writing task during class that relates to some problem that students will encounter in the upcoming reading.
  6. Sequence your readings so that students begin to see that all texts represent a certain frame of reference, that no text can provide the "whole truth."
  7. Help students understand cultural codes necessary for reading certain texts through reading guides or direct instruction.
  8. Play the "believing and doubting" game: Peter Elbow (1973, 1986) suggests that we ask our students to be simultaneously open to and skeptical of texts as they read. We can thus ask our students to read empathically and join the author's view and as devil's advocates in order to raise objections to the author's view.

More on Note-taking While Reading

Additionally, students can practice the following tips for note taking while reading as a way of integrating reading and writing activities:

  1. mark relevant points during the first read of a text so that they can be returned to later: underline or make marginal notes if you own the book or use post-it notes if you do not.
  2. read actively and critically, that is: relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, find patterns and connections to other readings, ask questions, and consider alternative viewpoints in marginal comments or on post-it notes.
  3. use specific strategies while you read:
    survey: notice surface features to predict content (table of contents, chapter sub-headings, etc.)
    skim: get a quick overview
    identify main points: find and note main ideas
  4. read complex material more than once, perhaps over a day or two so that you have time to think about what you've read.
  5. read complex material using a dictionary and keep track of words that are difficult or new; keep a notebook of new words.
  6. try to put complex information into your own words.

References

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.