When Reading Comprehension Work is Hard, Close the Book and Pick Up a Pen

By M.Colleen Cruz, 2020 CCIRA Conference Featured Speaker

Because I am a book nerd, I was one of the first of my friends to read the first Harry Potter book. I frequented a bookstore that regularly carried imports, and the first Harry Potter I read was the British version. I dressed up as Harry for Halloween that year, complete with lightning bolt scar and broom, and no one at the part, a party filled with teachers, knew who I was dressed as. This is laughable now because Harry Potter is a character who has become so much a part of the literary culture. But I had to wait months until most of my friends had read that first book and we could all talk about it. (Spoiler alert: skip the next couple paragraphs if you haven’t yet read the Harry Potter books.)

When we finally did talk about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I said something that angered my friends more than almost anything I had ever said: “I really liked the book. But the real bummer is that my favorite character is Dumbledore, and his going to have to die before the series ends.”

My friends were aghast and disgusted: “Why would you say that?”

“Dumbledore is the best wizard in the world. He can’t die.”

“He’s the most powerful!”

I shook my head. “I know. But I also know that Harry is clearly the main character and the hero. He will need to take on Voldemort on his own in order to have his own story arc. That means Dumbledore will need to be out of the picture. Because he’s so powerful, it’s unlikely he can be put aside or captured. And I also know that names matter. J.K. Rowling named him Dumbledore for a reason. I know I name all my characters for vert specific reasons. And because Dumbledore’s name is an Old English term that means bumblebee, and we know bumblebees will die to defend…”

My friends glared. They argued. I felt bad that they were annoyed. But I knew, as someone who writes narratives, that I was right. So convinced was I that I wrote down my prediction on a piece of paper and placed it in a sealed envelope for all of us to open when the last book came out. The vindication was bittersweet; although I was chuffed to be right, I did miss the beloved character.

The point of this story is not to brag about a moment (because, quite frankly, as I type this I realize what a self-satisfied jerk I sound like). Instead, I want to unpack how I was able to make a long-term prediction about a character. It was not because I was a voracious reader, although I am, because all of the friends I was speaking with are also voracious readers, if not more so. No, the reason I was able to make that prediction, as well as other predictions, inferences and interpretations in the stories I read, is because I am also a frequent writer of narrative, both personal and fictional.

Screen Shot 2019-07-09 at 7.54.24 AM.png
Photo courtesy of Simson Petrol at Unsplash

When one writes, one build stories from the inside out. And in the building, we know, because we have done it ourselves, how writers choose which characters to include, names to bestow, settings to describe, and plots to embellish or tamp down. Much like the archetypical hero of many a sci-fi movie, the creator of the bode or the builder of the reactor who knows its flaws and strengths better than anyone, narrative writers are uniquely positioned to be stronger readers than others.

If you teach your students both reading and writing, chances are good you are familiar with leaning on reading to support your writing work. You have likely read aloud or asked students to read examples of genres you’d like them to read. You live by the adage: “The more you read, the better you write.” You point out beautiful sentences and word choices in books and encourage students to try similar work in their own writing. And all of these things are vital and valuable. My life and teaching were forever changed the first time I picked up Katie Wood Ray’s seminal text Wondrous Words, which describes the power and independence writers are given when we teach them to mentor themselves to other writers.

That said, the notion that sometimes there are certain reading skills that not only might be more accessible if taught from a writing entry point first, let alone perhaps even better taught, is not yet as widespread as one would think.

When we choose to teach anything, but especially literacy skills, it’s important for us to think about how kids will most successfully access the skills and strategies we’re targeting. Many literacy skills have reciprocal relationship that can be put to powerful use. Some are best taught from the reading side of the desk. Topics such as genre characteristics, retelling and intertextuality often seem easier to teaching in reading before writing. But other topics, in my experiences some of the trickiest to teach, can be more readily accessed if we explore them first in writing. Teaching students to infer is notoriously challenging, for example. But when I first taught it from the other side of the desk, that as writers we “show don’t tell,” suddenly the reading-between-the-lines-work needed for inference became so much more accessible. 

Examples of this sort of side-door teaching are many – and backed by research.

One of the most influential studies to my thinking was “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” a goose-bump inducing report by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert (2010). In this report, Graham and Hebert look to answer the question of how writing can support reading and vice versa. The first is that students benefit from writing about their texts, which comes as a surprise to no one. The second is that “Students’ reading skills and comprehension are improved by learning the skills and processes that go into creating text…” The third recommendation is to “Increase how much students write. Students’ reading comprehension is improved by having them increase how often they produce their own texts.”

If this sort of thinking about the connections between writing and reading feels new to you, but you are intrigued by it, I encourage you to try it. Some steps you might want to take:

  1. Choose a reading skill that flummoxes you or your students.
  2. Figure out the reciprocal writing skill 
  3. Try out that writing move in a piece of writing – this can be simple notebook exploration or full on drafting and revision work
  4. Annotate the work you did with comment boxes or in the margin
  5. Visit a place in a text that calls you to try the tricky reading work
  6. With your annotated writing by your side, try applying what you know as a writer to understanding what the author of the text you’re reading is doing
  7. Demonstrate your work to students

Adapted from Writers Read Better: Narrative

M. Colleen Cruz  is the author of WRITERS READ BETTER: NONFICTION, THE UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER, INDEPENDENT WRITING and A QUICK GUIDE TO REACHING STRUGGLING WRITERS, as well as the author of the young adult novel BORDER CROSSING, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist.  Cruz was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Cruz currently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant. Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/colleen_cruz



Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: