We love teaching writing—the opportunities that we can share with students to bring their ideas and voices into the world provide an internal sustenance for us. What we did not realize when we started out is that we would need to be teachers of reading to be effective teachers of writing. We have found that this is nowhere more evident than with students enrolled in basic writing.
To teach reading, we begin by asking our students questions about what they read and how they read: What do you enjoy reading? Are you a fast reader? When we asked our students some of these questions and created assignments that required us to teach reading—and not just assign it—we realized there are many reading-writing disconnects our students are required to muddle through in isolation.
Our quest to support our students led us to use versions of Marolina Salvatori’s difficulty paper, which asks students to discuss reading difficulties in writing to prepare them for more advanced discussions about the texts or more advanced writing about the text.
Using the difficulty paper allows us to help students avoid getting “stuck” on difficulties and failing to engage with texts. In our research using the difficulty paper assignments, we found that our students identified a wide range of difficulties with the texts we assigned:
- length (e.g. reading the complete article)
- understanding unfamiliar vocabulary
- identifying the thesis/purpose
- finding relevance for detail/development
- understanding norms of different genres
- engaging with assigned texts
What has emerged from our research more than anything else is that students see a distinct mismatch between what we ask them to write and what we ask them to read. Our research also highlighted how some of our students were using assigned readings in ways that we didn’t always intend, such as using a text intended to create a more informed context as a model for an assignment (“Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between their Reading and Writing.” CCC, vol. 66, no. 4, June 2015).
Some of the great benefits of asking students to identify reading difficulties are the discussions the difficulties open up, such as how to shift from reading like a writer to reading like a critic to reading like a peer reviewer. Essentially, the difficulty papers made the reading process visible in our classrooms and since then have inspired us to create the following additional assignments that do the same:
Ideal College Reader Reflections
We use informal assignments to have students discuss what they think ideal college readers (and sometimes readers and writers) do and what their processes are, which can be very enlightening in terms of understanding how our basic writing students identify with the tasks we are asking them to complete. It helps students discuss dis/connections with their own reader-writer identities and lets instructors open up discussions about some of those myths/misconceptions.
Disciplinary Representations of Reading
After introducing students to the concept of disciplinary literacy, we invite advanced students from other disciplines to assign a genre that is common in their discipline. The advanced student then teaches the class for a day, discussing the questions they commonly ask, the perspective they strive to maintain, and the practices they employ when reading. Students ask these advanced students questions about their reading, then reflect on the experience. This process helps students realize that their reading processes and approaches may change after they leave the basic writing classroom.
In the end, what this means for teachers of basic writing is that we need to be more intentional about teaching our students how to read and what to read for. Students have often had many experiences with teachers modeling writing process, but they lack similar experiences of having instructors model reading processes for difficult texts that vary in genre and purpose. We may have achieved making the writing process more visible to students, but somewhere we stopped modeling how to approach texts; we just fell into patterns of assigning readings and then wondering why our students were not engaged readers.
Our take-aways for other teachers of basic writing:
- Scaffold reading expectations, specifically purpose
- Require reading process assignments
- Provide class time for discussions of reading
- Avoid summarizing the text for students during class discussion
- Be more intentional about text choices
- Create time and context for discussions of difficulties
- Leverage difficulties to promote connections between reading and writing
- Make a place for reading instruction in our composition classrooms.
Our hope is that our identities have shifted from writing teachers to reading-writing teachers and that our shift will support students to see themselves as reader-writers or to at least see the connectedness.