Improving Writing by Improving Reading in First-Year Composition
Each semester, there are four major assignments required in the first-year writing (FYW) course that I teach: an opinion editorial, a rhetorical analysis, an argument-based research paper, and a multimodal argument (website, poster, brochure, etc.). During fall training for incoming graduate instructors, we were told by the program assistants and several returning graduate instructors that “for some reason” the four- to six-page rhetorical analysis (rather than the longer and more intensive ten-page research paper) challenges first-year students most strenuously. In this assignment, students analyze an article from a class reader, discussing how the writer utilizes rhetorical strategies to persuade a target audience.
As I began teaching the rhetorical analysis unit in my own class, I found that, while the assignment was indeed the most challenging for my students, there was no mystery as to why. Class discussions and individual conferences revealed that the students simply did not have the critical skills to read beyond simple synopses of the texts. This reading difficulty extended into the research paper unit, during which the students struggled to critically identify reliable sources and engage academic articles. I found myself becoming frustrated with my students’ inability to consider context or their own responses to the arguments that they encountered. A similar frustration with my inability to teach them how to engage with their readings emerged as I considered where such instruction would even fit into the course’s already packed curriculum.
Turns out, the answer is simple: we must create space for it. While many writing programs do make efforts to address critical reading in isolated assignments such as the rhetorical analysis, critical reading and writing should be taught throughout the semester using both individual and group assignments in order to maximize student literacy. Studies have shown that reading and writing are dialogic processes, conversations that are created as texts affect readers and they write in response. In fact, Marguerite Helmers argues that “any ‘gap’ between reading and writing is a construct” (x). In addition, student collaboration intensifies this dialogic process by challenging students to “develop stronger and more persuasive interpretations” of texts (Cornis-Pope and Woodlief 158). In this paper, I will show that reading instruction is an essential component of writing instruction that can be successfully incorporated into the FYW curriculum. First, I will discuss the theoretical connection between reading and writing, which justifies this integrated approach to teaching, followed by practical methodologies for incorporating critical reading instruction in a FYW course.
Part of the difficulty in addressing reading pedagogy is that institutional attitudes about student reading in the composition classroom tend to be negative, allowing instructors to justify giving reading short shrift in the curriculum. Not only do students regularly skip reading assignments, but when they do read, they often fail to understand what they are reading. Additionally, instructors resent the idea of teaching reading because they assume that students should have learned the skill in high school (Jolliffe 470). However, David Jolliffe argues that “it’s not reasonable to expect [students] have ‘mastered’ the process by the time they come to college, simply because the material they’re now reading demands that they modify, ratchet up, and rethink the ways they read the material they’re assigned” (473). In my own experience, reading assignments often fail because we, as instructors, have a tendency to simply say, “Read this chapter/article for next time, and be prepared to discuss it,” without giving any direction as to how the students should be reading, what they should read for, or why they are reading the text in the first place. As instructors, we should assume that we will need to teach our FYW students to transition from high school- to college-level reading; without explicit instruction, students will continue to read—and consequently write—at a high school level.
Further complicating the reading dynamic in composition is what Peter Elbow has called “the war between reading and writing” in academia, a debate about what kinds of texts should be privileged in the composition classroom (5).1 While these debates are interesting and important, I believe that we need to focus less on what texts are read and more on exactly how we “move readers from a level of reading in which they act upon texts in limited, personal ways to a more sophisticated level of reading in which they are able to distinguish between and articulate varying purposes for reading” (Helmers 9). Our goal should be to help students make sense of any text they encounter, whether literature, textbooks, reports, critical essays, or advertisements. Only when they learn that there are different methods of and reasons for reading will students be able to master the ways to approach any text—be it print, electronic, or visual—and then respond to that text in their own writing. Clearly, there is a need to counter negative attitudes toward reading and to reconceptualize reading instruction as teaching reading rather than teaching texts. Initiating such a shift requires a better understanding of the theoretical connection between reading and writing.
The Reading/Writing Connection
The intrinsic connection between reading and writing has been theorized since the classical period when the Roman educator Quintilian, influenced by Greek rhetoricians, declared reading, writing, and speaking “intimately and inseparably connected” (qtd. in Christiansen 71– 72). In discussing the ways that classical models of teaching are still applicable today, Nancy Christiansen outlines what is at stake when readers are untrained or irresponsible:
Readers are writers: the interpretation and judgment a reader constructs is a response to the author and a model of behavior for others to emulate. Because it’s an act with social and psychological consequences, a reader’s interpretation and judgment of a text/author is by nature a moral act. . . . If the reader misses the speaker’s intentions, the reader misreads, and misreading causes damage, just as fallacious arguments do. (94)
Because the process of interpreting a text makes the reader a writer, it follows that writers are also readers responding to texts (Christiansen 94). Viewed in this light, it is impossible to teach effective writing without simultaneously teaching effective reading; similarly, awareness that all writing is at some level a response to other texts can fundamentally change the ways that our students approach their own reading and writing. Rather than viewing each reading assignment as an isolated piece of writing with a single “correct” interpretation, students will begin to look for context, engage the writer’s ideas, and reflect on the effectiveness of the writing on its audience. As a result, their own writing will exhibit a sophistication that reflects this deeper engagement with texts.
Studies have shown that teaching students to engage with their reading strengthens writing.2 David Foster found that exposure to varied and difficult texts broadened his students’ abilities to understand the possibilities and technicalities of writing. Using three nonliterature essays of drastically different writing styles, Foster measured changes in the attitudes and writing practices of his students after exposure to the texts. In written reflections throughout the semester, students “were provoked, angered, awed and amused in ways which, they repeatedly made clear, strengthened their sense of what texts and writers could do” (535). Foster’s findings support the need for students to understand how different approaches to reading and subsequent writing can affect themselves and others. Building this level of reading sophistication in the composition classroom is an essential step in helping students to produce more effective writing.
In fact, Mariolina Salvatori warns that in the absence of teaching reflexive and critical reading skills, students enact “a particularly enervated, atrophied kind of reading” for main idea, point of view, or message that leads to “‘canned’ or ‘theme’ writing” (“Conversations” 442). I have found that this is the case in my own classroom, in which in-class “rushwrite” activities reflective of reading assignments tend to regurgitate exactly what was read rather than exhibit any real analysis or questioning of the text. This is true whether the assigned reading is out of a textbook, from our course reader of critical essays, or even from a website or video advertisement. In order to avoid this, Salvatori argues that we need to conceptualize reading as a “context” rather than a “pretext” for writing by teaching our students “to think of reading . . . as an analogue for thinking about one’s own and other’s thinking, about how one’s thinking ignites and is ignited by the thoughts of others” (“Conversations” 446). Framing reading as dialectic, an exchange between reader and writer, allows students to make the move beyond simple consumption and summary to analysis and response. This approach allows students to read ideas and respond critically with their own ideas in writing.
A theory for implementing such critical engagement with ideas in a text is posited by Christina Haas and Linda Flowers. In a 1988 study, they found that more sophisticated readers tend to use a “rhetorical reading” approach to a text, assessing context, authorial intent, persuasive approaches, and their own experience in order to construct a nuanced interpretation that includes their personal response (181). Haas and Flowers observed the ways that beginning and advanced readers made sense of a text by asking them to verbalize their thought process as they read. While all of the readers were able to construct a basic meaning for the text, beginning readers “[failed] to . . . move beyond content and convention and [constructed] representations of texts as purposeful actions, arising from contexts, and with intended side effects” (170). These readers did not understand that texts are written in response to a situation, for a specific purpose, which influenced the way the readers wrote their own responses. In contrast, advanced readers demonstrated their understanding that “sophisticated, difficult texts often require the reader to build an equally sophisticated, complex representation of meaning” (170). These readers recognized that in order to understand and effectively respond to a text, the reader must understand the context in which it is written and its possible effects on an audience. This study suggests once again that reading and constructing meaning are inherently interconnected acts, and the more sophisticated the reader, the more sophisticated the response. Further, teaching rhetoric as a means to engage with texts can help students to identify ways to approach and respond to the various texts that they encounter.
These theories and corroborating studies make it clear that critical reading is an essential part of the writing process, and it is equally apparent that we simply do not invest enough time in teaching critical reading in first-year composition. While there are attempts to address difficulties with critical reading—assignments such as the rhetorical analysis are effective ways of introducing an analytical, contextual approach to reading—these assignments are usually structured as single isolated units, and students struggle with them because the connection between reading and writing is never made explicit. Similarly, these isolated assignments do not encourage engagement with every text students encounter, leading to the false assumption that only certain texts can or should be engaged with analytically. In the section that follows, I will advocate a program for implementing critical reading instruction that emphasizes the connection between reading and writing in the FYW classroom. This program advocates the use of classroom discourse, reading guides, class collaboration, and reflective reading and writing assignments that require only small changes to the overall structure of existing curricula.
The first basic change that must be made in the FYW classroom to improve reading instruction is our approach to it. Martin Nystrand maintains that classroom discourse can have a profound effect on the way students read. In particular, discourse in the form of student-led peer groups and classroom discussion of assigned texts results in higher reading comprehension and recall levels. Nystrand claims that this increase in literacy can be attributed to the way that classroom discourse shapes epistemology: “what counts as knowledge and understanding in any given classroom is largely shaped by the questions teachers ask, how they respond to their students, and how they structure small-group and other pedagogical activities” (400). We need to be willing to ask students difficult questions and demand adequate answers (and by adequate, I mean critical and reflective, not “correct”). The things that we say and the questions that we ask must frame our reading assignments and discussions to foster critical interaction with texts starting on the first day of class.
But what are the “right” questions? In the most effective classroom reading discussions, Nystrand found that not only should questions be open-ended but student responses should always be countered with follow-up questions (403). As instructors, we need to plan for and embrace dynamic responses to our questions, continually challenging those responses with counterarguments, requests for clarification or deeper analysis, and so on. Asking compelling, open-ended questions and follow-up questions requires students to read beyond a summary of the text in order to provide adequate responses. It also avoids the tendency of many instructors to “determine prior to a given class the sequence of questions they will ask and what answers they will accept . . . [responding] to correct student answers with a mere nod before moving on to the next question, often changing the topic of discourse” (Nystrand 400). Classroom discourse thus becomes a student-driven enterprise rather than one in which the instructor’s interpretation of a text is privileged. In this way, simply changing our approach to reading in the classroom pushes students to read and respond more critically and independently, avoiding a propensity to simply align themselves with what the teacher thinks.
Second, as part of implementing this approach in classroom discussion, I advocate the use of daily reading guides that pose open-ended follow-up questions to be addressed as students read. As instructors, we regularly hand out assignment sheets and rubrics for writing assignments; the same needs to be done for reading assignments. These guides can be as simple as five to seven questions, though care must be taken to ask questions that are not reductive or leading to a single interpretation or response to a text. It is also helpful to separate the questions into two categories—questions about the text and questions for the reader—to help students think about the texts in terms of context, audience, and their own personal responses.3 The advantages of this approach are threefold. First, reading guides mitigate frustration by specifically providing questions that push students beyond summary reading and into the realm of rhetorical reading that prepares them for more vigorous in-class discussion. Second, they encourage written responses, strengthening the connection between reading and writing. Finally, by using similar terms in both reading and writing guidelines, students will be able to make a more natural and organic connection between the two.
An important part of implementing reading guides successfully is to make students accountable for responding to them before coming to class. I propose that the most effective way to accomplish this is to have students respond to questions on an online class forum such as Blackboard, Facebook, or Digital Dialog. This not only makes students accountable for actually utilizing the reading guide but also allows them to begin a conversation with the text and each other in writing before class even starts.4 In addition, exposure to varied responses to a text supports Marcel Cornis-Pope and Ann Woodlief’s argument that “without hearing multiple voices pointing out different passages, different questions, and different readings, students have difficulty unearthing their own voices, or seeing what sort of agendas may be governing—and limiting—their own readings” (158). Such collective reading and writing activities help students to challenge the interpretations of their own and their peers’ writing in order to strengthen both. This integration of reading and writing into daily “reading-to-write” assignments may be initially challenging for students “programmed . . . to come to class and wait to ‘see what it means’” (Cornis-Pope and Wooklief 161), but as they continue to participate, students “begin to ‘stretch’ to match the more articulate responses” of their peers (164). This approach also has the added benefit of allowing students to think through the ideas and implications of a text prior to class, resulting in more nuanced and complex in-class discussions.
So what does it look like to actually use reading guides in the FYW classroom? Because they are flexible, reading guide questions can be used on any reading assigned throughout the semester either as collaborative online discussions or as assignments students complete individually. For example, during the opinion editorial unit, during which emphasis is placed on learning the concepts of logos, ethos, and pathos, I focus reading guide questions collaboratively around the rhetorical situation: Is the author qualified to write on this subject? Who is the author writing to? Why did the author write this article? Are you persuaded? Why or why not? Can you identify any specific use of logos, ethos, or pathos in this article? These questions force students to read beyond a simple synopsis of the text, providing specific direction that helps them to identify interactions among the different parts of an argument—the issue, the writer, and the audience—as they craft their own opinion editorials.
During the rhetorical analysis unit, reading questions are still collaborative, focusing more on how specific strategies create logical, ethical, or emotional appeals for a particular audience: Why is the author writing to this particular audience about this issue? What does the author want the audience to think, feel, or do after reading this text? How does the author get them to think, feel, or trust this? What assumptions do you think this text made about you as a reader? Can you think of any counterarguments? This guides students to think about the effects of rhetorical strategies in terms of a particular audience (see fig. 1).
Lesuma_Fig1 (Fig. 1. Screenshot of an online reading guide discussion assignment on BYU’s Digital Dialog forum [BYU Learning Suite, 1 Feb 2012. Web. 22 Feb 2012].)
Finally, during the issues paper unit, when students must evaluate and incorporate sources in order to write an argument-based research paper, I assign reading guide questions individually to help students assess the reliability of the sources they are researching: What qualifies the author to write about this topic? In what kind of publication does this source appear? Is it a reputable publication? Does the argument seem balanced? Is the author careful to address both sides of the issue or does it seem highly opinionated? Are there parts of this article that challenge your own argument? Because students often struggle to identify reliable sources (particularly on the Internet), this forces them to evaluate where they are getting their information, not just whether or not it supports the argument they are trying to make in their own papers.
My final suggestion for improving student writing through reading assignments takes a more individual and reflective tack. Salvatori suggests focusing on the difficulties students have when reading by requiring reflective “difficulties papers” that accompany reading assignments. She has found that “as students are taught to engage (rather than move away from) their reading difficulties, the writing that records the various phases of their investigation often displays observations, perceptions, considerations similar . . . to those that enable fluent readers to come to terms with difficult texts” (“Reading Matters” 200). In this assignment, students write a short (half- to one-page) response to a reading assignment in which they first identify aspects of the text that they don’t understand and then reflect on possible reasons why these difficulties might be occurring (“Reading Matters” 202). This assignment should be attached to several reading assignments throughout the semester in lieu of reading guides in order to track individual progress in approaching and responding to texts. In addition to providing insight into each student’s engagement of texts, it allows them once again to take ownership of their reading process as they work through identifying and addressing the difficulties that they encounter in texts.
Understanding the connection between reading and writing and implementing read-to- write assignments in the FYW curriculum “encourages us as teachers to move from merely teaching texts to teaching readers” (Haas and Flowers 169). Part of this entails crafting assignments that integrate reading and writing into inseparable elements that reduce the privileging of one over the other; all reading assignments should have a writing element to them, and reading guides can help teach students how to engage with a text beyond simple summary. Making these assignments explicitly collaborative through online forums or peer discussion groups intensifies the dialogic nature of reading and writing, helping students to point out the strengths and weaknesses of their peers’ interpretations. At the same time, it is important to monitor students’ individual progress by assigning reflective writing assignments that engage their difficulties in understanding a given text. As we begin to invest more effort into helping our students understand that there are different ways of reading and writing, we can help them to take responsibility for their interpretive processes and responses as readers and writers as they navigate both academia and the world outside it.
1. Should it primarily be student writing, as Hairston recommends (186), or should it be literature’s imaginative exposure to “culture” and “good writing” as argued by Tate (317)? Lindemann posits that freshman writing courses should not be literature based because imaginative texts will not prepare diversely interdisciplinary FYW students for work outside the English Department (311). Still others advocate the study of cultural texts as artifacts meant to reveal and undermine structural issues in dominant culture (Fulkerson 660).
2. For a study on this at the middle/high school level, see Crowhurst.
3. These questions can focus on prereading, the text, the reader, awareness of rhetorical situation, or a combination of these. Some examples of reading guide questions include the follwing. About the text: What sort of argument do you expect, based on the title? What assumptions do you have about the author of the text? Do you feel that he or she is qualified to write on this subject? Who is the author writing to specifically? Why is the author writing to this particular audience about this issue? What does he or she want the audience to think, feel, or do after reading this text? What seems to be unclear? Are there any gaps in the argument? Can you think of any counterarguments? For the reader: What are your personal feelings on this issue? What words, images, or phrases stand out to you? Why? Do you feel any connection to the author? What kind? What do you identify with most? What assumptions do you think this text made about you as a reader? Are there any parts of the text that you can’t decipher? Why do you think they are difficult for you to understand? Do you agree or disagree with the text’s argument? If you had to write a response essay, what would your main points be? What impact has this piece had on you as a writer? Would you attempt to use any of this writer’s techniques in your own writing? See Foster and Cornis-Pope and Woodlief.
4. Requiring student collaboration and interaction on an online forum will necessitate policies such as posting deadlines (so that students have sufficient time to respond to classmates’ ideas) and posting requirements (i.e., individual responses to one to two reading guide questions in addition to commenting on two to three peer ideas). I would also suggest that students be instructed to articulate their online posts in language that adheres strictly to rules of grammar and mechanics, avoiding common digital abbreviations and slang.
Christiansen, Nancy L. “The Master Double Frame and Other Lessons from Classical Education.” Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing. Ed. Marguerite H. Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. 71–100. Print.
Cornis-Pope, Marcel and Ann Woodlief. “The Rereading/Rewriting Process: Theory and Collaborative, Online Pedagogy.” Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing. Ed. Marguerite H. Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. 173–94. Print.
Crowhurst, Marion. “Interrelationships between Reading and Writing Persuasive Discourse.” Research in the Teaching of English 25.3 (1991): 314–38. Print.
Elbow, Peter. “The War between Reading and Writing: And How to End it.” Rhetoric Review 12.1 (1993): 5–24. Print.
Foster, David. “Reading(s) in the Writing Classroom.” College Compositions and Communication 48.4 (1997): 518–39. Print
Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 654–87. Print.
Haas, Christina, and Linda Flower. “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning.” College Composition and Communication 39.2 (1988): 167–83. Print.
Hairston, Maxine. “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing.” College Composition and Communication 43.2 (1992): 179–93. Print.
Helmers, Marguerite H., ed. Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. Print.
Jolliffe, David A. “Learning to Read as Continuing Education.” College Composition and Communication 58.3 (2007): 470. Print.
Lindemann, Erika. “Freshman Composition: No Place for Literature.” College English 55.3 (1993): 311–16. Print.
Nystrand, Martin. “Research on the Role of Classroom Discourse as It Affects Reading Comprehension.” Research in the Teaching of English 40.4 (2006): 392–412. Print.
Salvatori, Mariolina. “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition.” College English 58.4 (1996): 440–454. Print.
———. “Reading Matters For Writing.” Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing. Ed. Marguerite H. Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. 195–218. Print.
Tate, Gary. “A Place for Literature in Freshman Composition.” College English 55.3 (1993): 317–321. Print.