At a recent writing workshop, one participant raised her hand. “You know”, she said, “I love all of these techniques. I’m sure my students could really excel with them. But, here’s the reality – after all the time we spend on reading, there’s just not enough left for adequately teaching writing.” A lot of heads nodded in agreement. This feeling of being overwhelmed at the range of writing skills expected in the latest state and national standards is almost universal. At a conference session of about one hundred teachers I asked how many of their districts provided a designated writing block built into the daily schedule. Maybe a quarter of them raised their hands. So, what to do? How can we possibly be expected to do so much in so little time?
This clearly illustrates the need to take better advantage of the inherent connections between reading and writing, using every reading experience as an opportunity to teach and reinforce core writing concepts, as opposed to isolating writing as a separate subject. Doing so not only limits the opportunities for teaching the foundational skills in writing that exist within every reading experience, but also fails to take advantage of writing instruction as a vehicle for teaching text structures, organization, genre, and purpose – all of which contribute to developing the close strategic reading skills expected in the 21st century classroom.
Imagine a classroom where students annotate and analyze a variety of texts in the reading block, social studies, science class and in any situation in which they are reading to learn (and learning to read!) They are taught to recognize the structure of the piece, organizational flow, salient features and purpose of each genre. Students routinely analyze main ideas or claims that support the validity of an argument. They explore point of view, the actions and motivations of characters, the importance of story critical settings and objects that reveal the central theme of the story. By teaching students to analyze in this way they learn to “read with author’s eyes”, recognizing these characteristics as they read and setting the stage to apply these same foundational skills and concepts as they write.
After deconstructing text in this way, the teacher then moves into modeling a specific skill in narrative, informative, or argument writing. Specific productive questions are asked in order to generate powerful detail. This too serves to build the reading/writing connection, as the productive questions represent the internal dialogue, reasoning, and thought processes of an author. The teacher elicits student input and charts a wide variety of responses. In this way students assimilate and internalize these questions that they will begin to apply independently during the composition process. It is, primarily, about teaching students how to think as authors. The teacher incorporates students’ input and extends their ideas with powerful language, creating an impressive sample of shared writing that, in turn, provides a solid model and impetus for student writing. Modeling for the students teaches them how to construct their thoughts for writing. The added benefit is that this process demystifies the ways that an author creates, and therefore increases the students’ ability to comprehend what the author intended.
Students practice the skill that has been modeled while the teacher circulates around the room, commenting out loud, praising strong elaboration, sentence structure or vocabulary. This is also a good time to help individual students by reinforcing the use of the productive questions and encouraging original, creative responses. The rest of the class also benefits from the feedback offered to individual students, making this a collaborative, community effort of shared learning. This methodology allows the teacher to mini-conference with their students each day instead of waiting sometimes two weeks or more for an individual writing conference. Time is managed in a much more productive way. (Consider this – in the traditional workshop model, in which teachers meet individually with each student for ten minutes or so – in a class of 25 students, 24 of them will wait an average of 240 minutes for the opportunity to conference with the teacher. This time could be better used building a community of readers and writers through the whole class model described here.)
This methodology is providing students with the experience necessary to make the kinds of rigorous connections between reading and writing that inspire higher order thinking skills across all subject areas. And, teaching students how to approach text in this way not only increases deep comprehension, but informs genre specific, effective, purpose-driven writing.
Click here for a sampling of annotation and analysis lessons that inform writing and improve close reading and comprehension. Nothing better than killing two birds with one stone!