On Reading and Writing in the English Classroom
Why do you ask your students to read?
Well, first of all, I’m teaching an English course, and the traditional mission of English programs is to help students learn to improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities. But beyond that, I’m convinced that reading is fundamental to whatever it is that the students will wind up doing in high school, college, and beyond. In almost any academic discipline, the way you learn is by reading. Whether you’re on your way to becoming a banker, a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor, an architect, a policeman, or a historian, there is a body of work in your discipline which you are going to need to be able to read and to master in order to be effective in your line of work.
But what’s the connection between the reading students do in sophomore English and the reading they may have to do later on?
Well, we could use an analogy. It’s like playing a guitar. You don’t just pick up a guitar and start to play. You teach yourself, through attention and careful practice, what you need in order to be able to improve. If you stop practicing, your skills deteriorate. When you pick up the instrument again, it takes a while to get your mind and your fingers up to speed. There is also no “end” to the process. You don’t simply arrive at a point where you are now an officially certified guitar player with nothing else to learn. There are always new challenges, new levels of craft. What you learn this week is what makes it possible for you to learn even more challenging stuff next week. It’s always possible to get better.
Like playing a guitar, reading is an acquired skill. Students already know how to read, but they bring to their reading a wide range of skills and abilities. They are all capable of learning to read with greater sophistication. Some students are good at one aspect of reading - getting the main idea, for example - and not so good at others. Some students can read one kind of text well—say, a particular kind of short story—well, but find poetry (or analytical essays, or postmodern novels) baffling and frustrating to read. I tell my students that one of the goals of the course is to prepare them to be able to read anything they might encounter capably and with some degree of pleasure.
What about students who don’t like to read?
The question seems to imply that liking to read or not liking to read is an inherent and unchangeable trait. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a matter of choice. I frequently ask students to rate what we are reading on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being utter disdain and 7 being enthusiastic acceptance. Typically, in a room of 20 students there will be at least one student at each of the seven stations, and a cluster of students between 3 and 5. The point which I make with the students is that the range of responses—and there is always a range of responses—highlights the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the texts we read. (In fact, pretty much any text a student is likely to read in class has already been screened multiple times before it even hits the students’ desk: it was selected by the author from among all the things s/he might have written to be published in the first place, it was later selected by the editors of whatever text they are reading, and it has been chosen by the teacher for their consideration.) A good reader, should be able to read such a text, get something out of it, and, ideally, derive at least some enjoyment out of the process of doing so. In my experience, many students do. And the fact is that all the way through high school and college students are going to have to read texts which are challenging and which may not at first glance be the kind of thing they would have chosen to read— if in fact they chose to read at all. I ask my students, “Given a choice, would you rather be the kind of student who can read works like this with appreciation and enjoyment, or would you rather be the kind of student who has to struggle through this, and who will hate every minute of it.” Because—and this is the key point—you do have that choice. Whether or not you enjoy what you are reading has a great deal to do with how you are reading it.
Students often find it easier to simply blame the text. They say things like “This book is boring,” or “This author can’t write.” But as I've already pointed out, there are of course other readers, including other student readers, who find value and enjoyment in the process of reading the very same book. So a student who wanted to learn how to read better might be well advised to ask, “What are those readers doing that I’m not doing?” Or, to pose the question another way, “How might I change the way I am reading this text that would allow me to derive more value and enjoyment from the process of reading it?”
We are none of us doomed to remain the kind of readers we already are. We can change, we can learn, we can get better. The bonus benefit is that there is a satisfaction that can be taken in that as well. The apprentice guitar player who finally masters his instrument has something he can DO that gives him pleasure. The same might be said of the apprentice reader.
Can you give an example of a change in the reading process that might result in a more pleasurable reading experience?
Sure. A couple of years ago we had a book-in-common reading program at my school. Everyone on campus— students, staff, admin, and teachers— had agreed (in theory) to read the same book over the summer. For many years previously the books were chosen had been mostly novels or other English-teacherly kinds of books. Someone made the suggestion that the books in common should rotate among departments, and the first department that was chosen was the science department, which selected Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. The book was met with almost universal disdain by the students. The reaction was universal and antagonistic: the kids hated the book. Most of them read a few pages and simply gave up.
I remembered Microbe Hunters as a book I had read and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. But when I picked it up during the summer I read a couple of pages and said to myself “Uh, oh.” I felt two things right away: 1) that the kids were going to have trouble reading this book, and 2) that I myself was going to have trouble reading this book. There was something about the book that was deeply troubling to me. At this point, I had a couple of choices. One would have been to toss the book aside, as in fact most of the students did. The other option, the one we’re discussing, was to change my approach to the reading process. What I decided, very self-consciously, was to go back to the text and try to figure out exactly what it was about the writing that was getting under my skin and making it hard for me to read this text with enjoyment. I was looking to identify specific passages that bothered me: “See, here it is, right here! This what I object to.” Once I started reading this way, several things began to happen. First of all, the reading went more smoothly. I now had a different purpose for reading, and it became a sort of detective hunt, looking for clues, and that had a kind of inherent interest, and a satisfaction that arose as I was able to figure out exactly what stylistic features were presenting themselves. Secondly, because I now had a purpose for reading that was pulling me forward, other features of the text that I had previously not noticed began to come to my attention. I began to see that in addition to the (relatively few) things that were bothering me, there were a lot of other qualities which were worthwhile and admirable, not the least of which was that I was (re)learning a lot about science and history. Dr Kruif’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject and his admiration for the scientists he was writing about began to draw me in more. In the end, I was glad I had read the book, and looking back on it I can say that although I did not enjoy it when I started, I was able to change my reading process in such a way as to result in a more pleasurable reading experience.
But you’re an adult, and a skilled reader. Do you really think teenagers would have the patience and self-discipline?
It comes back to choices. I don’t think age matters. We all have choices. If there is work to be done (and there is always work to be done) wouldn’t it be better to figure out a way to enjoy doing it? I can’t imagine anyone saying, “No, I’d rather be miserable. I’d rather fail. I’d rather quit.” My working hypothesis is that it is always possible to change. The question is whether we are willing to try. Perhaps some teenagers do lack patience and self-discipline, but I would certainly hope that as teachers we would be in the business of trying to help them develop those qualities.
How do you do that?
First of all, by modeling them. To cite Gandhi's famous dictum: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I think it’s important for kids to see us working though problems: reading problems, writing problems, problems of articulation or of execution. It’s not easy to read well, write well, think well. It requires time; it requires patience and flexibility and sustained attention. And I’ve become more and more convinced, both in my own life and in the classroom, that in the key to developing those habits of mind is writing. Writing is perhaps the most powerful instrument for self-teaching that we possess.
What is so important about writing?
Most of the time our thoughts at any given moment are in a greater or lesser degree of disarray: a complex jumble of ideas, feelings, beliefs, intuitions, hunches, desires, and moods. Writing is a kind of funnel, it channels thought, develops a line of thought, and allows the thinking to hold still long enough to be reconsidered. The act of writing forces you to stop and find words for what you actually do think. The process of articulating thoughts is clarifying. I often find that once I have written something I begin then to see it differently. In other words, the process of articulating your first thoughts makes it possible to begin having second thoughts. Writing about something you know allows you to consolidate and verify your knowledge. Writing about something you don’t know allows you to figure out what your questions are, what you have to find out. In either case, the process of writing produces thinking which is more structured, more disciplined, and more easily evaluated than thinking which “just happens” in the brain.
Writing is also a craft, a set of skills. Like most crafts, it can be done well or poorly, with a greater or lesser degree of artistry and sophistication. And the essential element in gaining mastery of the craft is regular practice. I ask my students to write so that they will learn to think better, and read better—and write better.
Are you assuming that writing is self-correcting? That all students have to do is write and they will automatically get better at writing?
No, not really. Although I would argue that such a thing might be possible. A kid who spends hours and hours on a basketball court may not become a good player unless he has mentors or models or coaches who help him learn the dynamics of the game. But in all likelihood, even without the feedback he’s going to wind up being a better player than the kid who only plays once in a while. Yes, it’s important for students to write often if they want to grow as writers and thinkers. But it’s also important that they get feedback and guidance from other readers: peers, teachers, significant others.
There’s another factor that has to be considered as well. “Careaboutability” is a term coined by one of my colleagues that gestures at the issue of significance. It has been my experience throughout my career that students tend to write much better when they are writing about something that is of central importance in their lives. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “No significance for the writer; no significance for the reader.” How well we write, and how carefully we think, has a lot to do with how much is at stake. The single most important element in thoughtfulness is quality of attention that we pay to what we are doing. Many students write as if they are just getting it over with so that they can go on and do something they consider more important. Which is in fact probably the case. We need to find ways to create with students the opportunity to think about and articulate things that are essential, that make a real difference, that are “careaboutable.”
One way is by turning over the choice of form and topic to the students and allowing them to conduct their own explorations. I make a distinction in my classes between directed assignments and open-ended assignments. A directed assignment is one in which I tell the students what I would like them to do. For example, I might ask them to read a poem, frame a significant question about the poem, and then write two plausible answers to the question. That's a writing task of a fairly familiar sort that asks them to develop a line of thought about what they have been assigned to read. It's not unlike what students have been asked to do in English classes from time immemorial.
An open-ended assignment, on the other hand, is more like, "I'd like you to hand in a piece of writing on Friday. It can be in any form, on any subject you like. The only requirement is that you spend at least half an hour on it." That's an assignment that is in essence a gesture at a territory: "Go find a place to play. Come back when you're done and tell me how it went." I have been giving these kinds of open-ended assignments for 40 years and more, and I'm here to tell you that the writing that students do when you give them the chance to make their own choices is superior, by several orders of magnitude, to what they typically do in response to directed assignments. I'm not arguing for a steady diet of one or the other. But I do think students need both, and in most classrooms they get very little of the latter.
Finally, to return to the connection between reading and writing: my own personal experience has been that I understand and remember much more about what I have read when I make myself write about what I have been reading. Again, writing is a way of channeling a somewhat fuzzy conglomeration of impressions and hunches and perceptions and reactions to a text into something more structured and more deliberate. Writing about a text allows you to see very clearly what you do understand, what you don't understand, and what you have questions about. I find that students who have written about what they have read before they discuss the text in class get a lot further than students who come to class and "wing it" without having experienced the deliberate, thoughtful processing that writing provides us with the chance to do. Furthermore, writing about what you are reading while you are reading it allows you to go back to the text with a clearer purpose, a clearer sense of what you are trying to figure out as you read.