Research Bites: Integrating Reading and Writing

Kroll, B. (1993). Teaching writing IS teaching reading: Training the new teacher of ESL composition. In J.G Carson & I. Leki, Reading in the composition classroom: Second language perspectives, 61-81. Heinle: MA.

Kroll’s article discusses a number of important issues, including the problems with a skill separation model in which reading, writing, speaking, and listening are taught as separate skills – a common approach at many language institutions. She also writes about the professional backgrounds writing teachers come from (TESL, composition, or remedial writing) and how most teachers are underprepared to teach either writing or reading. While these are interesting and worthy of focus, the crux of her article is in reaction to the read-discuss-write sequence that was common in ESL composition classrooms in 1993 (and is still common today in 2016).

First, she describes a hypothetical teacher who selects an interesting reading; gives it to students for homework; asks comprehension questions on the following day; focuses on vocabulary, transition phrases, topic sentences, citations, and similar devices; and then asks students to write based on this reading. This process continues with the reading being mostly forgotten during writing, and the writing being forgotten during the next reading, which likely bears no relation to the first reading.

Kroll points out that such a common sequence does not represent a good integration of reading and writing, nor good reading or writing instruction in general. What is wrong with this sequence, according to Kroll?

  • There was no introduction to the reading. Focus should be placed on previewing its content, style, potential for writing, etc., which Kroll considers critical. This also includes schema building.
  • Most importantly, there was no purpose for the reading other than writing a paper to get a grade. Purpose shapes how a reader interacts with a text. Kroll argues that teachers must convince students that reading and writing serve a greater, real-world purpose whether that is writing for an audience or writing to learn.
  • The focus on comprehension questions makes reading an exercise in translation and decoding, which is rather limiting.
  • The reading was selected for its perceived ability to interest the learners. This has the danger of turning a writing course into a low-level content course in which writing skills get lost.

Kroll does not think the read-discuss-write sequence is itself impoverished, but argues that a “purposeful context” needs to be provided for it (p. 71). What she recommends is, rather than picking articles through happenstance, teachers work backwards from what they want to final product to be. By starting with the goal, teachers can then articulate a clear purpose and gather materials that fit the goal. Kroll states that framing reading with a clear purpose or goal can prevent turning reading into translation. She then says that the readings can be focused on from a writers point of view, looking at the structure and the ways the writer accomplished their goals.

Thus, Kroll sets up some important guidelines for reading like a writer. Reading like a writer promotes reading not only to learn content but to learn what choices a writer makes when constructing their text. This is often learned incidentally by L1 writers, but clearly needs to be made salient for second language writers. One activity can be to ask students to stop reading after a certain point and get them to predict what will come next, not as a reading strategy in predicting content but as a way to see how the writer sets up (or fails to set up) where they are going. This can then transfer to the students’ own writing (probably through explicit instruction) and how they think about the structure of their own text. Looking at things such as authority and audience are also aspects of learning to read as a writer. Likewise, Kroll suggests learning to write as a reader. This includes the ability to revise one’s writing based on an understanding of a reader’s (real or imagined) needs. This also includes avoiding the problem of writer-based prose, which is writing that only the writer can understand. (She cites the article “The Writing-Reading Connection: Taking off the Handcuffs” for example lessons.)

I enjoyed Kroll’s article because it reminded me that integrating reading and writing does not solely mean writing based on reading but that reading should be undertaken as an activity that facilitates not just writing (as in the act of putting words on the page) but composition (i.e. the thoughtful arrangement of ideas to meet a goal).

Kroll also alluded to a need for consistency between readings and writings; that is, a possible thematic focus for the course. She cites Shuster (1991)as saying these types of classes create a “pinball style classroom that careens madly from one clanging thematic focus to another so that no sustained intellectual engagement is possible” (p. 62). The typical EAP coursebook includes articles from numerous disciplines in hopes to engage various types of students. However, perhaps a more focused theme would be better. After all, focused intellectual engagement is another skill that needs to be practiced.