Teaching Reading through Writing

You hear this a lot around MU: our students don’t read.

Or, our students don’t read enough.

Or, our students don’t understand what they read.

Or, our students don’t like to read.

Like it or not, we often find ourselves teachers–or at least cheerleaders–of reading.  Reading?!  Didn’t they learn that in first grade?

You hear this around MU, too: how can I teach them to write when they can’t even read?

Obviously reading and writing are the yin and yan of literacy.  Students need both.

K-12 educators talk about this more than college professors.  David Pearson, dean of the UC-Berkeley graduate school of education, told the National Writing Project that writing “slows thing down so you can examine them.” Writing about a text produces a more critical reader.

Pearson is also a fan of peer workshops because readers there ask their peers the kinds of questions that they should be asking the authors of assigned texts.  “Questions like, ‘Okay, what was it you really wanted to say?'” get at a writer’s “intentions and motives.”

Reading specialist Mark Pennington points out the importance of prior knowledge in both reading and writing. Journals and other informal writing exercises can help students make connections between new material and what they know from experience or previous classes.

A well-sourced 2010 Carnegie Corporation report–“Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert, of Vanderbilt–parades some sad statistics (p. 7) proving what you already know: many students graduate from high school unprepared for college work.

• Forty percent of high school graduates lack the literacy skills employers seek (National Governors Association, 2005).
• Lack of basic skills costs universities and businesses as much as $16 billion annually (Greene, 2000).
• Poor writing skills cost businesses $3.1 billion annually (National Commission on Writing, 2004).
• Only one out of three students is a proficient reader (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue, 2007).
• Only one out of four twelfth-grade students is a proficient writer (Salahu-Din, Persky, and Miller, 2008).
• One out of every five college freshman must take a remedial reading course (SREB, 2006).
• Nearly one third of high school graduates are not ready for college-level English composition courses (ACT, 2005).

Graham and Hebert conclude that students need more instruction in reading, but writing is an essential component for improvement.  They make three recommendations for boosting students’ reading skills (p. 5):

  1. “Have students write about the texts they read.”  These responses might take the form of summaries, journals, answers to questions, etc.
  2. Teach the building blocks of writing, from spelling words to to constructing paragraphs to organizing arguments.
  3. “Increase how much students write.”

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