Just how mighty is the pen?
If there’s one thing that breaks my heart, it’s watching the way students’ faces fall when they read aloud and stumble over unfamiliar words or the wording in a sentence. There’s something darkly unique about the embarrassment from a lack of confidence as a reader. It is like they are announcing to the world just how smart they aren’t. Nobody wants to look foolish or ignorant in front of their peers, but it happens all the same.
What if there were an easy way to instill confidence and improve reading comprehension without taking a dry run at reading something we know little about? What if that solution were already something we do in school? There’s no reason we shouldn’t take the path that results in more confident, well-read students.
“But, Mike,” you ask, “what is this magical, mystical-sounding solution?” Actually, it is simply writing, but not in the tradition of treating kids like authors and hoping for the best or teaching them directly. Instead, the mystery is in “writing to explain what you have recently read.”
This is the first truth I learned on the Writing to Win team: reading and writing must remain inseparable during literacy instruction. When you are reading, have your pencil or keyboard at the ready. When you are writing, keep the reading text in plain view. That’s true integration, but is the interaction between the two really equal, though? Do reading and writing contribute equally to students becoming more proficient learners? Research suggests that the answer is ‘no,’ that writing in particular has the stronger link to student improvement than reading. The editor of Writing Next, Steve Graham, states it clearly:
When students write about a text they are reading, whether that be responding to questions, taking notes, or summarizing the material, this helps them to better understand and retain the material they are reading.
This strikes a chord in me; you see, this is precisely how I learned my lines as an active theater member in high school and beyond. Until I joined the Writing to Win team, however, I had not consciously connected writing and reading in this way. I memorized all my lines by copying them down by hand. Never once was I the guy calling out, “Line, please!” on opening night.
This describes the Writing to Win paradigm, inserting writing throughout instruction across all subjects. Using writing to learn and explain social studies, science, and math terms is just as important as learning to write in ELA. When it comes to teaching reading and writing, it takes reading and writing activities.
Applied Grammar tasks students to analyze two or more sentences, then compose a sentence by combining the sentences to build new sentences with more mature grammatical patterns.
Writing on Demand employs critical-thinking writing strategies that prompt short writing to learn the vocabulary of course standards in any subject – ELA, math, science, or social studies.
In Paired Texts Packets, students write throughout the reading process, but continually refer to and cite evidence from the reading texts through each step of the writing process.
Again, it is Steve Graham who sums up writing’s importance to reading.
Reading and writing are both acts of communication. As students become skilled readers, they notice more than just the content of the text. Readers potentially observe sentence and paragraph structures, variations in pacing, and recurring themes. These observations cause the reader to employ metacognitive skills and try to get inside the writer’s head. Similarly, to write effectively, a writer must consider the perspective and needs of the reader.
Writing ensures that students form an opinion about what they are learning and in so doing, reveal why they are writing. Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about why we read anything. If we have the time, we think, “At last, time to read.” And yet when it comes to writing? We write to find out what we are thinking and to understand more about what we recently read or were taught. Writing naturally leads to more reading and curiosity for learning more. Small wonder that fully integrating writing into each literacy lesson is the key to helping students become the confident readers that we know they can be. The door to confident reading opens for anyone with a little bit of intentional writing to oil the hinges.
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