Connecting Reading to Writing

When students struggle to integrate course readings into their writing, it may say more about their reading skills than their writing skills. We need to address both reading and writing when we teach.

Here are some resources that could help improve student reading:

  • Blog Talk Radio's feature "The Connection Between Reading and Writing," in which Larry Jacobs of Education Talk Radio interviews composition scholars Sheridan Blau and Howard Tinberg about the interplay between reading and writing, engaging students with difficult texts, and promoting "deep reading" effectively in the classroom.

The Center for Writing is here to support you as you teach reading in your classrooms. Director Laurie Britt-Smith is available to consult at any stage of the teaching process. Email to book an appointment.

Strategies for Teaching Reading When You Assign Writing

  • Teach reading — do not just assign it.

Too often, we assume that students will complete course readings just because they are on the syllabus. Many have good intentions but lack the time or skills to read all assigned texts for all of their courses deeply. Consider assigning less reading and then talking through strategies for reading the assignment before students dive into the text. Explain when the text was written, who the intended audience is, and what you hope they will get out of it. Provide 2-3 questions you hope students will be able to answer by the time they finish the reading. This practice will help students focus as they read. As Chris Tovani writes in I Read It, But I Don’t Get It (Stenhouse Publishers, 2000), students may not know which portions of the text are important or unimportant.

  • Offer the SQ3R Method.

Th SQ3R method has five steps: surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing. First introduced in 1946 by Francis P. Robinson, it is an older method, but a good one. Talking through these steps with a student can be an effective and useful technique as you introduce course readings. Surveying involves first skimming a text to understand it better in just a few minutes. Questioning involves coming up with a dozen questions that can guide reading. Turning headings into questions can be helpful. Reading involves using the surveying and questioning steps to facilitate active reading. Reciting involves free-writing after the reading is done to quickly sum up what the text said—and answering the questions produced in the questioning phase. Reviewing involves explaining what the point of the reading was—from memory.

  • Model your reading habits in class.

Students rarely see people read. They often assume it is an isolating and challenging process. If students struggle, they might give up because it does not seem like it is worth the effort, or because it feels like the effort is not worth it if they still will not understand the content of the text by the time they finish reading. In I Read It but I Don't Get It, Tovani recommends selecting a few tricky paragraphs and reading them together. Read the title out loud, and ponder its meaning—and what you expect from the text as a result. Read a few lines and pause to explain what associations you make with them. Stumble over a tough word and model looking it up. Share the key phrases that jump out to you. Show them how long it takes to read deeply and thoroughly. Invite them to share thoughts as you read together. Use this moment to invite students to share their reading practices.

  • Teach students how to mark up texts.

Too often, students highlight every word in a paragraph or leave their pages pristine. Try handing out a page of reading that you have marked up, one where you have only underlined key phrases and made notes in the margins about associations and ideas you have. Then discuss the reading together. Tovani suggests offering a class code for annotation. For example, you could encourage students to write “?” every time they encounter something they do not understand and then to fill in the blank: “I wonder…” Or they could write “I” when they make an inference and fill in the blank: “I think…” Depending on the type of reading and the purpose it serves in the class, you can develop different codes.

  • Assign writing that facilitates reading.

Encourage students to keep a journal where they record their impressions of their readings. Use writing to facilitate reading comprehension. You may need to incentivize this by grading it on a check, check plus, or check minus basis to show that you value this work. Try assigning the double journal entry. Or have students draft 20 questions, as Kelly Gallagher recommends, as a form of note-taking. Better yet, assign this brief chapter from Ellen Carillo’s 2017 book, A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading and invite students to try out the strategies in the chapter with different course readings. Gallagher also provides a range of other strategies he outlines in Deeper Reading (Stenhouse, 2004) that you could assign. And as Carillo suggests, having students use writing to facilitate their reading strengthens both skills—and shows students how deeply they are connected. In the middle of the semester, ask students to reflect on the range of strategies they’ve used. Push them to journal about what has worked best for them and why. These conversations about reading need not take long, but they must happen if students are to become stronger readers.

  • Take the temperature of the room before beginning to discuss a reading.

Before you start class discussion, consider engaging students by asking them what three words they would use to describe the reading they did to prepare for class. Ban the word “interesting.” Give students a minute to think, and then go around the room—giving everyone a chance to talk—and see what emerges. You may find patterns of understanding or confusion, and it’s a great way to involve both students who struggled with the reading and students who understood it fully in class discussion. Reflect out loud on the words and launch into a discussion on the text.

Additional Resources

A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading, by Ellen Carillo (University Press of Colorado, 2017), guides students through college reading strategies, is available for free on the WAC Clearinghouse website (title link).

What is College Reading?, edited by Alice S. Horning, Deborah-Lee Gollnitz, and Cynthia R. Haller (University Press of Colorado, 2017), offers a range of essays of interest to college instructors who teach reading across the curriculum. It is available for free on the WAC Clearinghouse website.

Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom, edited by Patrick Sullivan, Sheridan Blau, and Howard Tinberg (NCTE, 2017), is a winner of the Conference on College Composition & Communication's (CCCC) outstanding book award. It argues that college-level reading must be theorized as foundationally linked to any understanding of college-level writing. Contributors to this collection define the challenges to integrating reading into the classroom, develop a theory of reading as a specific type of inquiry and meaning-making activity, and offer practical approaches to teaching deep reading.

Securing a Place for Reading in College Composition, by Ellen Carillo (Utah State University Press, 2015), investigates the reasons that students struggle with reading in college. It also guides faculty through strategies for teaching reading in the writing classroom.

I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, by Chris Tovani (Stenhouse Publishers, 2000), is a book aimed at middle and high school teachers but has some fantastic tips for teaching students who are struggling with reading.

Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, by Kelly Gallagher (Stenhouse Publishers, 2004), is aimed at high school teachers but has dozens of lesson plans and activities for reading in the classroom and at home that can easily be adapted to the college classroom.