What are some best practices for working with reading in the basic writing classroom?
By: A. Colleen Doyle and Leah Straschewski
Within the discipline of English, there are those who teach composition and those who teach literature. However, this does not mean that literature students do not write essays and that composition students do not read literature. It seems that integrating reading into the composition classroom is once again gaining increasing popularity within college writing programs, and in the past twenty years, teachers and scholars have begun again to think of ways to reconcile reading and writing and to make reading a large part of the composition class. In particular, it seems basic reading and basic writing have been taught separately for years, and yet studies have shown that when taught together, students show more success in future college classes and graduation rates are higher. In 1992, at Quinnipac College in Connecticut and more recently, at San Francisco State University in 2002, English Departments combined basic reading courses with basic writing courses. In both of these programs, reading and writing were combined in such a way that reading strategies and the reading process are given special attention and viewed as an integral part of the writing process. Students coming out of both of these programs achieved test scores higher than students in previous years when reading and writing had been taught separately. In addition, reading comprehension has been shown to be as or more important to the continued college success of basic writers than knowing how to write well (Agnew, McLaughlin).
Why not teach reading and writing together? As many teachers and scholars argue, reading and writing have a lot in common. The acts of reading and writing are complementary and both reading and writing are “dynamic, constructive processes” (Goodman 2). Robert Tierney and P. David Pearson assert that both readers and writers go through the following stages: planning, drafting, aligning, revising, and monitoring. These stages are outlined in their article “Toward a Composing Model of Reading,” as well as by Mary Deming in “Reading and Writing: Making the Connection for Basic Writers”. Just as students create meaning from a text as they read it, so do they also create meaning as they write and “use writing as a way to make sense of the world” (Goen and Gillotte-Tropp). Just as re-reading is natural to a reader’s work, so re-writing and revising are essential to the writer’s work.
There are those, however, who debate the appropriateness of teaching reading in the college classroom. Shouldn’t students be able to read by the time they reach college? The answer to this question may depend on how reading is defined and by whom. Is reading merely an act of decoding or should reading also be an act of understanding and engaging with a text? Arguably, reading involves both decoding and creating meaning from text, but, as Mary Deming writes “a great number of students when asked to read out loud have trouble decoding, much less understanding the words they are asked to read. In addition, many college instructors have had students enrolled in their classes who have had difficulty comprehending lengthy, complicated college content reading materials” (par. 1). Seemingly placing basic writers at a disadvantage, Marcia Dickson argues that “the gap in the basic writer’s knowledge makes it difficult for them to be successful in college or in any field where critical thinking and applied knowledge is a prerequisite” (par. 1).
The research that we have gathered demonstrates that students benefit from reading instruction in the writing classroom and makes it clear that reading instruction should be a part of the composition course, with a focus here on the basic writing course. What then does this integration of reading into the writing classroom “look” like, and what are some best practices, at this time, for working with reading in the basic writing course? It seems that just as writing has been previously taught simply by its mechanics, so has reading. Texts that claim to teach “college level” reading skills often reduce reading to defining vocabulary words and topic sentences and asking students to make outlines. This type of skill-based instruction reduces the complexity of the reading process. Therefore, we are aiming to begin/take part in a conversation about more innovative ways to teach reading and to get students involved with texts.