Every semester, as I prepare for my classes, I ponder the same questions: Why does our academic English as a Second Language (ESL) program require so many reading and writing lessons before students can enter transfer level English course? As teachers of reading, why are we forced to choose from textbooks that often seem to exclude fiction and focus primarily on reading strategies and skills that include countless lists of vocabulary words that students have hard to remember? As writing instructors, why don’t we incorporate more reading, both fiction and non-fiction, to teach writing skills and simultaneously improve reading comprehension skills? I believe many teachers have found that they can help students become better writers by helping them find their own voice and teaching them critical thinking strategies. likewise, they believe they can transform students into better readers by developing their comprehension patterns and helping them to identify the central purpose or concern of a text, as well as 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 education. In the process of maintaining these distinct skill strands in many ESL degree programs, we have prevented students from advancing through the programs in a reasonable amount of time while simultaneously perpetuating the myth that reading and writing are separate and distinct 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 lessons. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that Harvard and other universities decided that reading literature was essential for learning to write (Brereton, 1995).
Many teachers who teach writing are concerned about the time that may be needed to discuss readings as opposed to the time that should be spent teaching writing. However, reading and writing need not be separate course activities.
The integration of reading and writing has many academic benefits. Consider how reading can inform writing. Reading introduces students to a variety of texts, genres and writing styles, broadening their knowledge of the language. Reading also exposes students to much more content knowledge, inspiring new ideas and perspectives. Students often experience writer’s block or comment that they don’t have much to say about a topic, and exposure to texts shows them how to craft ideas. This allows them to think critically and analytically, and even more so if the questions asked are designed to reach the higher-order cognitive level (Halpern, 2002). For example, critical thinking can be taught explicitly through reading activities. This might involve teaching students how to identify direct or implied main ideas and supporting points, distinguish fact from opinion, identify propaganda techniques, identify authorship tone, recognize the relationship between ideas and recognize biases.
Reading also helps develop analytical skills, which results in deeper and more mindful reading. These may 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 author’s hidden agendas if any, and whether the evidence and arguments support the conclusions. Finally, the reading illustrates patterns of excellent writing, providing students with writing instruction on organization, evidence, syntax, vocabulary, purpose, tone, voice, audience, rhetorical appeals, and language.
The question we must now ask ourselves is: what can we do in our classrooms to ensure that reading and writing work together effectively? Here are some suggestions.
- Introduce reading material that pairs well with writing assignments to teach a particular form of writing. For example, if you were teaching students how to write a summary, you could first introduce them to a specific article and read it together. Summary writing strategies, including main idea recognition, implicit main idea recognition, reporting verbs, language frameworks, and academic summary conventions, would be taught. Finally, a sample article summary can be provided for students to see an effective template in terms of content and form. One of my class activities is to divide students into groups and assign them a portion of the reading to summarize. We then write all of their sentences on the board and turn them into an academic summary using appropriate language, transitions, and summary conventions. Collaborative creation of written texts emphasizes the qualities of good writing in your discipline.
- Draw attention to specific characteristics of the text. For example, examine various rhetorical modes such as argumentative texts, but limit time to text content and focus on text features, identifying and evaluating what claims are made, how an argument is constructed , how calls are used, what the writer does effectively, and so on.
- Provide students with mentor or exemplar texts that are well-written texts and take time in class to talk about what makes them strong or effective. The same can be done with bad handwriting patterns 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 the opportunity to talk about texts improves their understanding of content, structure and language.
- Incorporate literature and tailor writing assignments around it, such as literary analysis which involves constructing an argument about an issue or theme in the text and supporting it with evidence from the text and outside research . Be sure to teach effective research skills and source documentation.
- Use sentence entries to help students better understand the purpose of the author or text. For example, use phrases such as “The main message I get from the first paragraph is or “The author is trying to teach us that “etc.
- Have students work in groups and provide them with rubrics to assess 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 that they learn to distinguish what makes a text exemplary.
- Encourage students to write in the margins or ask questions when reading the material, as this is a much more active process and students engage with the text, which helps them make sense of it at a deeper level. It also serves as a reminder that the texts are part of an ongoing discussion and are not the final word on any given topic. Model this practice so that they become familiar with how to interact effectively with text, which in turn also improves their metacognitive skills.
- Incorporate text-based deep reading activities, asking questions about each paragraph as they go through the text. Questions can be designed to improve understanding; using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide can be very effective in ensuring that students have the opportunity to go beyond basic understanding and are also required to apply, analyze, evaluate and create in a one way or another depending on what is required of them. Questions can also focus on form and style so that students see why the author has chosen to express or write in a specific way.
- Have students keep written journals that can be shared in class. Keeping a journal of readings allows students to express their own personal interests and ideas in writing and to build on the skills they already intuitively possess: the ability to observe, listen, take notes, reflect on their notes, and ask questions that are born out of genuine curiosity. This can be an effective way to deepen understanding of the course materials.
- Encourage students to write short papers in response to the readings. Sometimes a prompt may be provided to emphasize attention to specific aspects. This can serve as a basis for class discussions and can enhance the meaning and understanding of texts.
By integrating reading and writing, students are more involved in their learning. They learn that academic writing should be structured, meticulous, and concise. They understand that they need to provide context to an audience that exists outside of the writer. In other words, their own writing should have a purpose, be clear, and fully engage the reader. Reading and writing activities operating in tandem are intimately linked; 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 necessary for success in all disciplines. ESL programs must take an active role in transforming the way most curricula are structured into ways that are more deeply grounded in learning and literacy theories and articulated assumptions on teaching reading and writing.
Brereton, JC (ed.). (1995). The Origins of Composition Studies at the American College, 1875–1925: A Documentary History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Halpern, D. (2002). “Teaching Critical Thinking: Helping Students Develop the Skills and Dispositions of a Critical Thinker.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1999(80), 69–74.
Meena Singhal, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a professor in the Department of ESL, Linguistics, and American Sign Language at Long Beach City College in California. She is the author of 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.