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Improving Student Writing through Reading Strategies

By Wendy Rider

In their MLA Style Center post “Reading Is Not One Thing,” Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara make some excellent points about student reading behaviors. They observe that reading a text carefully while marking key passages and making notes in the margins, while once traditional, is no longer required in every class or discipline. The cursory, nonlinear reading that many students do often yields the information they are looking for, especially online. Perhaps this should not surprise us. As Del Principe and Ihara note, experienced academic readers also read selectively to see if a text merits closer attention. (In fact, I skimmed Del Principe and Ihara’s article the first time through!) The authors argue that “[t]hese strategies are not shortcuts or signs of laziness; rather, they are skillful, smart approaches appropriate to our goals and purposes and to the genres we are reading.” I agree in many instances.

Why Deep Reading Is Valuable

That said, what Nicholas Carr characterizes as deep reading is still a valuable skill (97). For one thing, good writing is unlikely without deep reading. Composition courses emphasize documentation (as readers of The MLA Style Center know), but students also learn about essay content and structure from exposure to effective models. Instructors can teach students to notice and analyze authors’ rhetorical moves and to practice applying those techniques in their own writing.

In the classroom, writing instructors may focus on fewer texts so they can spend time helping students read more actively and deeply. In my classes, I demonstrate how I approach an article, a story, or a poem by “thinking aloud” to show the mental connections I make when I read (Schoenbach et al. 101). I read a few lines of the text (a paragraph or less) out loud slowly, verbalizing the thoughts, questions, and associations that come to my mind as I read. After I model the process, students take turns verbalizing their own reading thoughts in pairs or small groups. I also show various ways to annotate or mark the text and, again, give students time to experiment. As the semester progresses, students use these reading strategies and others to connect with assigned texts both in and outside class. Our group discussions are better, and many students seem more engaged as a result.

How Reading and Writing Intersect

In more than twenty years of experience teaching composition and working in a writing center, I have seen many ways that reading intersects with writing:

  • In all disciplines, reading is an important precursor to writing on a purely informational level. Students must understand a topic before they can write coherently about it. They must do the research before they can write a research paper.
  • Students who read widely (in any genre) usually have a greater command of vocabulary and the nuances of written expression. Many readers also absorb correct grammar and punctuation subconsciously, whether or not they know the rules behind when to use a comma. The poet Jane Kenyon’s advice to “have good sentences in your ears” is often quoted for a reason (qtd. in Popova) .
  • This relationship between reading and writing is not a new concept. Reflecting on his writing process, for instance, the popular author Stephen King notes the value of ineffective models as well as inspirational ones. “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose,” he says. In contrast, “[g]ood writing . . . teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth telling” (211). While fiction writing is less emphasized in academia, the principle holds true.
  • Finally, college writers need a deeper knowledge of their subject to think—and write—critically about it. Whether it be anthropology, economics, or literature, that knowledge often comes from scholarly articles and books, whether in print or online.

In our digital society, we have become accustomed to easy access to information; however, the metacognitive work of active reading is still necessary for effective writing. Google and YouTube are useful, but there are things they cannot provide.

Using Reading Strategies in the Writing Center

Learning assistance benefits from cross-pollination with reading as well. Some training and practice with reading strategies is a valuable addition to the skills of any tutor, especially in the writing center. Writing tutors focus primarily on the process of developing an essay, but they can also demonstrate and encourage reading strategies on multiple levels:  

  • The text that tutors and students look at together most frequently is the writing prompt assigned by the teacher. Tutors should model how to break the prompt into manageable parts; point out questions, key terms, and other significant features; and help tutees interpret unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Tutors can read both writing prompts and student papers aloud and verbalize their thoughts. This gives tutees some “reader response” feedback and often helps them feel more comfortable sharing their own thoughts and questions.
  • Embedded tutors who work with students in a specific class have even more opportunity to coach students in reading skills because they are familiar with the teacher’s expectations and the assigned texts as well as the required writing.

Ultimately, tutors are ideally situated to support metacognitive development by helping students recognize, evaluate, and adapt the ways they approach both reading and writing in college courses.

Modeling Literacy Expectations

Reading—in all its variety—is a key method of accessing information and understanding concepts in every academic field and in the world at large. Students have limited experience, so college instructors who want their students to engage effectively with the course material must take responsibility for explaining and modeling the literacy expectations of their disciplines. Tutors can help, but teachers need to “make the invisible visible” by showing students the cognitive moves that seem natural to them after years of study and specialization (Schoenbach et al. 23). To quote Del Principe and Ihara again, we must “slow down our instructional pace to make space to model and enact the types of reading we think are valuable and will work best in our classes for our students.” Then we must scaffold assignments that facilitate their learning. This takes time and effort, but the results are worth it for both students and instructors.

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited by Samuel Cohen, 5th ed., Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 87–97.

Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “Reading Is Not One Thing.” The MLA Style Center, 27 Aug. 2019, style.mla.org/variability-of-reading-practices/.

King, Stephen. “Reading to Write.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited by Samuel Cohen, 5th ed., Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 210–14.

Popova, Maria. “Poet Jane Kenyon’s Advice on Writing: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By.” Brain Pickings, 15 Sept. 2015, www.brainpickings.org/2015/09/15/jane-kenyon-advice-on-writing/.

Schoenbach, Ruth, et al. Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms. 2nd ed., Jossey Bass, 2012.

Published 2 March 2020

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