by Vince Puzick
I’ve been fascinated several years now with what is somewhat formally called “the read-write connection.” We’ve heard about the importance of this connection for so long – “reading is the inhale, writing the exhale” – that, just like breathing, we may take it for granted. I recently had the chance to teach a course at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs that gave me another deep dive into studying this relationship. Just like yoga forces us to be more aware of our breathing, prepping for the course allowed me to become more mindful of my reading-writing connected practices.
In recent years, several reports have been released about the ways in which reading and writing reinforce each other. Judith Langer’s lengthy analysis, “Writing and Reading Relationships: Constructive Tasks,” offers a broad historical and theoretical exploration into the relationship between these two literacies. In it, she analyzes the processes inherent in both of these literacies that are more similar than we may first acknowledge. The act of composing texts draws on many of the same ways of thinking as comprehending the texts we read while we make sense of the world around us.
Another important report, now nearly ten years old, is Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Readingfrom the Carnegie Foundation. The practices detailed under the section entitled “Have Students Write About the Texts They Read” detail the ways that students may deepen their understanding of a text by writing about it:
- Respond to a Text in Writing (Writing Personal Reactions, Analyzing and Interpreting the Text). Newer and better understandings of textual material are likely to occur when students write about text in extended ways involving analysis, interpretation, or personalization (Langer and Applebee, 1987).
- Write Summaries of a Text. Summary writing practices studied ranged from writing a synopsis with little to no guidance (e.g., writing a one-sentence summary) to the use of a variety of different guided summarizing strategies: writing a summary using a set of rules or steps; developing a written outline of text and converting it to a summary; locating the main idea in each paragraph and summarizing it; creating a written/graphic organizer of important information and converting it to a summary.
- Write Notes About a Text. Taking notes about text ranged from a prompt to take notes with little or no direction to the use of a wide variety of structured note-taking procedures, such as developing a written outline of text; designing a written chart showing the relationship between key ideas, details, concepts, and vocabulary in text; and taking notes about text and separating these notes into different columns related to main ideas, details, and questions.
- Answer Questions About a Text in Writing, or Create and Answer Written Questions About a Text. Writing answers to text-based questions makes the text more memorable because writing an answer provides a second form of rehearsal. This practice should further enhance the quality of students’ responses, as written answers are available for review, reevaluation, and reconstruction (Emig, 1977).
Reading Horizons published “Writing for Comprehension” that describes four instructional activities using writing to deepen understanding of a text. “The writing strategies—About/Point, Cubing, Four Square Graphic Organizer, and Read, Respond, Revisit, Discuss—reinforce reading comprehension by helping students strengthen their skills at summarizing, thinking in-depth from multiple perspectives, activating and organizing numerous thoughts, and creating interest through meaningful social interactions.”
What quickly becomes evident through all of the research is that reading and writing are similar, related composing processes rather than isolated skills and behaviors. Both are social tasks. Both are efforts to compose meaning, and that learning, itself, is the process of making meaning.
New(ish) Thinking: Writing First!
In prepping for the UCCS course, I discovered Peter Elbow’s article called “Writing First.” In it, Elbow argues that we too often privilege reading over writing. He argues that we need to shift our thinking: “When we make writing as important as reading … we help students break out of their characteristically passive stance in school and in learning.”
Elbow’s concluding statement, though, stimulated my thinking about literacy learning:
“Students will put more care and attention into reading when they have had more of a chance to write what’s on their mindsand when they have been given more opportunities to assume the role of writer” (emphasis mine).
His statement took me back to my late teens and early 20’s. I had dropped out of college and worked the swing shift in a factory that made convertible tops for Jeeps. After the shift ended at midnight, I went home and wrote: stories about the Vietnam veterans with whom I worked; poems about the whole idea of “work”; poems about loneliness and disconnection; a scene for a one-act play about father and son coal miners. After those thirteen months in the factory, my desire to write about the world (and my place in it) motivated my return to college as an English major. My passion for reading followed.
Consider this: what ifwe had students generate drafts at the initial point of studying a particular topic, theme, or issue and prior to moving into the reading? Elbow calls this “writing their hunches.” While we may begin to do this with quickwrites, here I mean going beyond merely capturing ideas to really getting down on paper their own thinking, beliefs, experiences, and perspectives as they compose drafts of narratives, arguments, and informational texts. Visual artists call these attempts “studies”; what if our students’ initial drafts became “studies” that they returned to over time as they researched, drafted, and contemplated, challenging others’ thinking and their own as they composed and revised?
Elbow argues that
“Starting with writing rather than reading highlights how learning and thinking work best: as a process of hypothesis making and hypothesis adjustment in which the mind is active rather than passive.”
I think of the fifth grade student in class who has a lot to say about inequality and inequity; about the high school student who wants to share a perspective on the #metoo movement; about the student who may want to offer a commentary on immigration and a wall; about the student who spends every weekend in the mountains and wants to write about conservation. I think of me at 19 years old, struggling to forge an identity as a college student from the raw material of a kid from a blue-collar family – and how writing was the tool that allowed me to do so.
Once they have gotten their thinking down on paper, students then read what others – professionals, experts, journalists — have said about that topic or theme. Students get to test their hypotheses (as Elbow states). They are able to enter into what Elbow calls “an intellectual relationship to the ideas in the text.” It is in this transactional reading — pushing against ideas they are reading and finding pushback to their own ideas – that they begin to make meaning of the world around them. It is moving from their own writing, to reading the ideas of others, and returning to their writing that deepens their own breathing.
In writer’s workshop, we often use mentor texts to show students the types of moves that writer’s make – craft moves – to construct an argument, to build a setting, to develop character, to deliver information. Elbow’s argument that “students will put more care and attention into reading” can take us deeper into the ideas of the text, the content, while also serving as mentor texts around the craft of writing. He advocates for both: reading for content and then “writing in the mode” to understand the forms that writing takes.
Students ultimately get to develop their voice as a member in a community of writers exploring a common topic. They witness whatpeople have to say and how others write about those ideas, and that exposure follows their initial thinking and writing. Elbow argues that by putting writing first, we force students out of their passivity by asking them what theythink before asking them to consider what others think.
Ultimately, Elbow builds a very compelling argument: “Students invariably read better if they write first” and that “weakness in reading often stems from neglect of writing.” In our current state of high accountability and high stakes standardized assessments, I am continually surprised and alarmed as many school leaders march to the battle cry of “improve reading scores” but fail to see the immense power in, and necessity for, writing.
It’s as if breathing has been reduced to one long inhale; we need to see that the exhale is vital to our literacy lives.
Vince Puzick is a literacy consultant and adjunct lecturer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In the course of his 32 years in public education, he has taught in a variety of institutions and environments: college composition at Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; IB English, journalism, and school-to-work courses at William J. Palmer High School; teacher prep classes in the Pikes Peak BOCES alternative license program. Vince does yoga at home in Colorado Springs to learn to breathe and fly fishes when he can because it takes his breath away.