Every semester as I prepare my classes, I ponder the same questions: Why does our academic English as a second language (ESL) program require so many reading and writing classes before students can enter transfer-level English classes? As reading instructors, why are we forced to choose from textbooks that often seem to exclude fiction and focus mainly on reading strategies and skills that include countless lists of vocabulary words which students have difficulty retaining? As writing instructors, why don’t we integrate more reading, both fiction and nonfiction, to teach writing skills and improve reading comprehension skills simultaneously? I believe many teachers have concluded that they can make students become better writers by helping them find their own voices and by teaching them critical thinking strategies; likewise, they believe they can turn students into better readers by developing their patterns of comprehension and helping them identify a text’s central purpose or concern, along with the strategies that develop those concerns. It is our underlying beliefs about how reading and writing should be taught and learned that dictate our pedagogies and textbook selection, which in turn define the courses we teach, our goals, our outcomes, and our instruction. In the process of maintaining these discrete skill strands in many ESL curricular programs, we have prevented students from moving forward in programs in a reasonable amount of time while simultaneously perpetuating the myth that reading and writing are separate and discrete skills that should be taught as such. Although the link between reading and writing seems obvious, reading has not always had a significant place in writing classes. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that Harvard and other universities decided that reading literature was essential to learning to write (Brereton, 1995).
Many professors who teach writing are concerned about the amount of time that may be needed for discussing readings as opposed to the amount of time that should be devoted to teaching writing. However, reading and writing need not be distinct course activities.
There are numerous academic benefits to the integration of reading and writing. Consider how reading can inform writing. Reading introduces students to a variety of texts, genres, and writing styles, expanding their knowledge of language. Reading also exposes students to much more content knowledge, inspiring new ideas and perspectives. Students are often faced with writer’s block or comment on how they have little to say about a topic, and exposure to texts shows them how to elaborate ideas. It allows them to think critically and analytically, and even more so if the questions posed are designed to get at the higher-order cognitive level (Halpern, 2002). For example, critical thinking can be taught explicitly through reading activities. This could involve teaching students how to identify direct or implied main ideas and supporting points, distinguish fact from opinion, identify propaganda techniques, identify the author’s tone, recognize the relationship between ideas, and recognize bias.
Reading also allows for the development of analytical skills, which results in a deeper, more mindful reading. These can include activities such as examining the evidence or arguments presented in a text, the effectiveness and reliability of the evidence itself, the interpretations made, the hidden agendas of the writer if any, and whether the evidence and argument support the conclusions. Finally, reading illustrates models of excellent writing, offering students writing instruction in organization, evidence, syntax, vocabulary, purpose, tone, voice, audience, rhetorical appeals, and language.
The question we now need to ask is, what can we do in our classrooms to ensure that reading and writing are working together effectively? Here are some suggestions.
- Introduce reading materials that pair well with writing assignments to teach a particular writing form. For example, if you were teaching students how to write a summary, you might first introduce students to a specific article and read it together. Summary writing strategies including main idea recognition, implied main idea recognition, reporting verbs, language frames, and academic summary conventions would be taught. Finally, a sample summary of the article can be provided to students so they see an effective model in terms of content and form. One of my class activities involves dividing students into groups and assigning a portion of the reading to summarize. We then write all of their sentences on the board and turn this into an academic summary by using appropriate language, transitions, and summary conventions. Collaboratively creating written texts together emphasizes the qualities of good writing in your discipline.
- Draw attention to text-specific features. For example, examine various rhetorical modes such as argument texts, but limit time on content of the text and focus on the features of the text, identifying and evaluating the claims that are made, how an argument is constructed, how appeals are used, what the writer does effectively, and so forth.
- Provide students with mentor or exemplar texts that are well-written pieces, and take time in class to talk about what makes them strong or effective pieces of writing. The same can be done with models of bad writing so students learn what not to do. I like to do this both as a whole-class activity and as small-group work. Giving students an opportunity to talk about texts enhances their understanding of content, structure, and language.
- Incorporate literature and tailor writing assignments around it, such as literary analysis that involves constructing an argument about an issue or theme in the text and supporting that with evidence from within the text and outside research. Be sure to teach effective researching skills and documentation of sources.
- Use sentence starters to help students better understand the author’s or text’s purpose. For example, use sentences such as “The main message I’m getting from the first paragraph is ” or “The author is trying to teach us that ” and so on.
- Have students work in groups, and provide them with rubrics to evaluate written texts and ask them to discuss their thoughts according to rubric standards. Rubrics also give students the language they need to analyze texts of varying quality so they learn to distinguish what makes a text exemplary.
- Encourage students to write in the margins or ask questions when reading materials, as this is a much more active process and students engage with the text, which helps them to make meaning at a deeper level. This also serves as a reminder that texts are part of ongoing discussion and are not the last word on a given subject. Model this practice so they become familiar with how to interact with text effectively, which in turn also enhances their metacognitive skills.
- Incorporate close-reading activities based on a text, asking questions about each paragraph as they work through the text. The questions can be designed to enhance comprehension; using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide can be highly effective so that students have the opportunity to move beyond basic comprehension and are also required to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create in some way by what they are being asked. Questions can also focus on form and style so that students see why the author chose to express or write in a specific way.
- Ask students to keep written journals that can be shared in class. Journaling about readings allows students to express in writing their own personal interests and insights and build on the skills they already intuitively possess: the ability to observe, to listen, to take notes, to reflect on their notes, and to ask questions that are born out of a sense of genuine curiosity. It can be an effective way to deepen understanding of course materials.
- Encourage students to write short response papers to readings. Sometimes a prompt can be provided to emphasize attention to specific aspects. This can serve as the basis for class discussions and can enhance meaning and understanding of texts.
By integrating reading and writing, students are participating in their learning to a greater degree. They learn that academic writing must be structured, meticulous, and concise. They understand that they must provide a context for an audience that exists apart from the writer. In other words, their own writing must have purpose, have clarity, and fully engage the reader. The reading and writing activities working in tandem are intimately intertwined; reading stimulates writing just as much as writing stimulates reading. Finally, instruction in which reading and writing are explicitly interconnected develops the academic and literacy skills needed to succeed across disciplines. ESL programs must take an active role in transforming the way in which most curricular offerings are structured to ways that are more thoroughly grounded in theories of learning and literacy and the articulated assumptions about the teaching of reading and writing.
Brereton, J. C. (ed.). (1995). The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875–1925: A Documentary History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Halpern, D. (2002). “Teaching for Critical Thinking: Helping college students develop the skills and dispositions of a critical thinker.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1999(80), 69–74.
Meena Singhal, PhD ([email protected]) is a professor in the Department of ESL, Linguistics, and American Sign Language at Long Beach City College, California. She has authored several publications including the book Teaching Reading to Adult Second Language Learners: Theoretical Foundations, Pedagogical Applications, and Current Issues (Reading Matrix Inc., 2004), used in many ESL teaching methods courses.