There have been a number of scholars who have not only called on pursuing a more connected relationship between reading and writing, but facilitating this through reading with a purpose. If you assign reading, especially if you teach classes that focus on reading (I teach reading-only classes, you may have noticed that often the only purpose of reading is to read, maybe answer a few questions (multiple choice, true false), and maybe use the text as a springboard for related discussion or writing.
The problem here is that this approach neither represents academic reading nor serious or critical engagement with the text. Academic reading rarely approaches reading from a comprehension-check point of vue. Instead, it requires serious engagement with the text in order to learn knowledge, apply knowledge, or critically evaluate related content. In addition, academic reading is often intimately connected with writing.
Even if you do not teach English for academic purposes, our everyday purposes for reading are typically are also not represented by the coursebook. Rarely do we read to check our comprehension. We always read for a purpose: learn something new, support or refute and opinion, apply something we read to a new situation or solve a problem, and even write a blog post about what we read.
Therefore, I’ve made a more focused goal of giving as much purpose as possible to the readings we do in class. For this post, I’m going to focus on an intermediate and advanced reading classes to exemplify some of the assignments I have given and the purposes they fulfill.
Summary – Prove your understanding
Have you ever read an interesting article and then told your friend about it? Have you ever read an anger-inducing article and then wrote about it, but had to boil down the main ideas before you could pick them apart? That is summary at work. It is a very basic writing (and speaking) skill that is applicable in all sorts of situations, especially academic ones.
I make it an effort to stress summary writing for many of our readings. I tell students the purpose of their reading is to explain the article or arguments to another person using their own words and through writing. Summary writing is a very general assignment and, while it may seem like a very didactic and teacher-focused assignment (which, to a large extent it is) it is still a base skill that is needed for many other types of writing. And, it is a gentle way to introduce students to reading with a purpose.
I like to teach summarizing by having students take notes on what they are reading, and reconfigure those notes into bullet-point summaries. Once they have bullet-point summaries down, I show how they can transform those summaries into paragraph summaries. This can further be trimmed to three sentence, one sentence, and Twitter summaries!
Evaluation – Prove your point
Getting students to read and then state their opinion is nice, but it really is not making them responsible for the text. It is simply using the text as an inspiration, or what Leki and Carson (1997) call “non-text responsible writing” – something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”.
Instead of offering their opinion of a text, idea, or argument, what students can do is critically evaluate that text, or the idea from another text. For example, students in my intermediate reading class read a bland article about fast food that you could find in pretty much any coursebook. One of the paragraphs focused on the negative health effects of fast food and contained a single sentence that stated fast food restaurants are trying to address these effects by introducing healthier food. My students also read this LA Times article (from Newsela, at a slightly lower level) that presented research which claimed “that the location where foods are obtained may not be as important as the nutritional quality of the foods consumed;” in other words, overall diet played a more important role than fast food restaurants, and in fact, often influenced a person’s choice about eating fast food.
I didn’t assign any questions or quizzes about this article. I simply told students we are going to use this research-based argue to evaluate whether fast food restaurants offering healthy choices would be effective for reducing obesity. Students had to write a paragraph explaining their evaluation of this move, and support their evaluation with evidence from the reading. Some students struggled because they did not know how to use an article as support (another crucial skill). Others simply wanted to give their opinion unrelated to the article. But, after working with students, there were many successful assignments completed.
Almost all the customers tend to choose meals that are include a lot of fats, sugar, and salt if the restaurants offer fruits, salad, and yogurt. In addition, we don’t gain weight or become obese just because we eat fast-food. According to the research, people who eat non-fast food are also overweight or obese. Therefore, fast-food restaurants that offer healthy meals would not be effective for avoiding overweight and obese. Because not only fast-foods but also other high calorie foods are the reason why we become overweight or obese.
Comparison – Show the connection
Being able to compare and contrast two arguments, two ideas, or two texts gives student great practice in summary, evaluation, and explanation. However, trying to find a text that is similar to the generic ones in most coursebooks is often difficult, but not impossible. In one of my advanced reading classes, the coursebook an excerpt from two books: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman and The Struggle to Be an All-American Girl by Elizabeth Wong. These excerpts focused on students adapting to different cultures and gave my readers a great chance to explore comparison and contrast. They read both articles with the purpose of comparing the authors’ experiences. Not only did this give them a realistic purpose for reading, but it also helped them focus their reading skills, making them pay attention to things they could compare and contrast.
Eva Hoffman and Elizabeth Wong have two similar and two different experiences with each other. The first similarity between them is adapting to a new language and culture. For example, just as Eva became cold in her language and more careful in speaking, such as trying not to be direct and loud or using gestures closely as Canadians, so did Elizabeth. Chinese was embarrassing for her and “[her] favorite heroine never spoke Chinese”, so she probably did not like any Chinese heroines. The second similarity between Eva and Elizabeth is the loss of their mother’s authority over their children. In the same way that Eva’s mother lost her sureness of controlling her children and did not know the new rules to know what they were are doing, Elizabeth’s mother failed at in controlling her children to be Chinese and they felt more American and multicultural.
Students can also compare ideas within a text. Newsela offers a great number of PRO/CON articles that offer two expert perspectives on an issue. For an upcoming reading test in an advanced class, students will read this article about the $15 minimum wage controversy. Their purpose for reading this is to understand the two authors’ arguments and choose one to support based on which argument is presented the most persuasively. Their writing assignment requires them to summarize the main arguments by comparing and contrasting them, and then based on the arguments, explain which position they support.
Application – Apply your understanding
These are often my most creative assignments in terms of academic writing. They ask students to take what they have read and learned and apply it to a new situation, often offering suggestions or recommendations. This works especially well for articles that discuss research. For example, intermediate level students just read an article on the different effects of music. Instead of simply answering questions about the article (which we did do for intensive reading practice), students also had to take the research in the books and apply it to our institute. I asked students to suggest how we could use music to improve student experiences. It was made explicit that they needed to use the article to support their suggestion. This require them to read the article with a view on what is practical and could potentially apply to their (student) lives. Here is a writing that I got:
I think ELI could use music to improve students experiences. According to the reading passage, music can affect humans in different ways. Also, it can help students when they study and have to relieve stress. If students have problem about memorizing, music can help them. Because music has strong influence on memory. For example, if ELI teachers make songs that relate with English words, students who have hard time to remember English words can memorize that more easily. Also, listening to music is good way for releasing stress and relaxing body. Research in the article The Power of Music shows that lots of doctors utilize music to reduce stress. So it is useful to ELI students who are stressful because of studying or preparing exam. And if we find songs that make us relax and feel better, it will be good for students or teachers too.
These are but a few examples of the different ways we can transform generic readings, ones which often have a reading-only focus, into purpose-driven writing assignments that ask students to engage with the text. This approach to reading/writing gives students crucial practice in important skills and makes reading more authentic, and in my opinion, more enjoyable.
Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). “Completely different worlds”: EAP and the writing experiences of ESL students in university courses. TESOL quarterly,31(1), 39-69.