Early Reading & Writing Skills
Whatever else you may have planned to teach today, your children will be practising their literacy skills all day long. They will be speaking or listening, and maybe reading and writing as part of every activity that they do.
Combining aspects from different parts of the curriculum is recognised as good practice. You might be talking (CL) about the size (Ma) of the giant’s boots as you work together (PSED) to make a model (EAD). Combining activities makes sense for you and your planning as it’s an efficient use of your time and resources. More importantly, it helps children make sense of their learning.
Teaching literacy as part of other curriculum areas ensures that the skills children are practising will be set in a context, and have importance. Writing a letter to Father Christmas or replying “Yes, please” to a birthday party invitation brings its own rewards beyond the initial sense of pride in successfully putting words down on paper. Giving children a purpose for writing helps to build their confidence in themselves as writers.
Making learning as interactive as possible creates a sense of fun and involvement which will carry the children’s interest and enthusiasm in productive ways. It becomes part of children’s play, and it’s as they play that children challenge themselves and attempt more.
Writing is not a skill that students learn separate from other processes. It combines many complex activities, including categorizing, building key terms and concepts for a subject, measuring one’s reaction to a subject, making new connections, abstracting, figuring out significance, and developing arguments—to name a few. Our highest cognitive functions are developed and supported through active and interconnected use of language—speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
In practice, this means that reading (and speaking and listening) can be used as a springboard for writing projects, and writing can be used as a way to understand reading. A variety of informal, often ungraded, writing activities may be used, for instance, to help students understand that critical reading can be practiced through writing about reading and that writing projects can be strengthened through careful, critical reading. Classroom practices can be designed so that students use writing to read and reading to write. Writing courses consistently provide such integrated activities for students; however, in First Year Seminars and content-area courses, reading and writing can also be practiced together and sequenced effectively to support the learning experience.
Helping Students Develop Critical Reading and Writing Skills
“What our beginning college writers do not understand . . . is the view of academic life implied by writing across the curriculum, where writing means joining a conversation of persons who are, in important ways, fundamentally disagreeing. In other words, they do not see that a thesis implies a counterthesis and that the presence of opposing voices implies a view of knowledge as dialogic, contingent, ambiguous, and tentative.” (Bean, 18, original italics)
I. Common Traits of an Academic Writing Process (as summarized in Bean)
Academic writers are, therefore, usually driven by an engagement with the topic and with a sense that they are contributing to an ongoing conversation. Students who are new to this process are often afraid of it because their expectation is that in order to be good, their writing has to be good immediately. One of the things they need to learn is that writing as a process means work.
How Can We Help Students? (most suggestions drawn from Bean)
II. Common Traits of an Academic Reading Process (again, Bean as a primary source)
Academic readers, therefore, understand that reading is a process often requiring rereading or slow reading and that a difficult passage may become clearer as they continue reading. Good readers are not necessarily “speed” readers, though often students believe this is the case.
How Can We Help Students? (some suggestions drawn from Bean, Elbow)
- Assign important readings more than once.
- Require note-taking as part of a reading assignment, and ask students to use their notes during class discussion.
- Do a “what it says” and “what it does” exercise: using a specific passage, have students explain the content (what it says) and then its purpose or function (what it does), for example, that it provides evidence or summarizes, and so on.
- Make students responsible for texts that will not be covered in class. For example, I have placed some texts on reserve in the library, required that they be read on students’ own time, and then required that students use references to such texts as they deem appropriate in some of their writing for the semester.
- Awaken interest in upcoming readings. For example, try an exploratory writing task during class that relates to some problem that students will encounter in the upcoming reading.
- Sequence your readings so that students begin to see that all texts represent a certain frame of reference, that no text can provide the “whole truth.”
- Help students understand cultural codes necessary for reading certain texts through reading guides or direct instruction.
- Play the “believing and doubting” game: Peter Elbow (1973, 1986) suggests that we ask our students to be simultaneously open to and skeptical of texts as they read. We can thus ask our students to read empathically and join the author’s view and as devil’s advocates in order to raise objections to the author’s view.
More on Note-taking While Reading
- mark relevant points during the first read of a text so that they can be returned to later: underline or make marginal notes if you own the book or use post-it notes if you do not.
- read actively and critically, that is: relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, find patterns and connections to other readings, ask questions, and consider alternative viewpoints in marginal comments or on post-it notes.
- use specific strategies while you read:
survey: notice surface features to predict content (table of contents, chapter sub-headings, etc.)
skim: get a quick overview
identify main points: find and note main ideas
- read complex material more than once, perhaps over a day or two so that you have time to think about what you’ve read.
- read complex material using a dictionary and keep track of words that are difficult or new; keep a notebook of new words.
- try to put complex information into your own words.
The ability to self-regulate plays a big role in writing. When you set a goal for how many words a paper should be and then check the word count as you write, that’s self-regulation. If you get to the end of a sentence, realize it doesn’t make sense, and decide to rewrite it, that’s self-regulation.
Here’s another example. When kids get frustrated, they might give up on writing. But if they remind themselves that they’re making progress and can do it, that’s also self-regulation. Experienced writers do this naturally.
What can help: There are lots of strategies to teach self-regulated writing. You can teach kids to check each sentence of a paragraph once they’ve finished the paragraph. You can also encourage them to take breaks after writing a certain number of words.
Kids can also be taught to use positive self-talk to help with motivation. When writing, they could say to themselves, “It’s OK that this is hard because I know my effort will pay off.” The key to all these strategies is repetition and practice.