In my last few posts on Research Bites, I have focused on the integration of reading and writing. Few would probably argue against this. Writing based on reading is a vital skill, especially in EAP. However, I have heard concerns that this cannot be done at lower levels because students are still working with the basic language and mechanics of writing in English, academic or otherwise.
However, unless they are writing entirely based on their personal experiences and histories, they are likely already using reading to influence their writing. In other words, they are already doing research. The problem, however, is that this research often enters their writing either as plagiarism or as ideas without veracity. Let me explain:
Even at low levels where students are just learning to write paragraphs, students turn to the internet for ideas. While they could generate their own ideas through discussion and conversation, using the internet for research is a fundamental skill and is therefore not necessarily bad. However, it’s the type of sites they use that poses the problem.
A students who is writing about the advantages or disadvantages of social media may brainstorm their own ideas, but they are also just as likely to google it, finding pages from sites like loveetoknow.com, Quora, and even Yahoo! Answers. Without a framework for both generating their own ideas and evaluating ideas they find on the internet, students are treading dangerous territory. Even if they paraphrase the material, they are reinforcing poor habits of integrating reading with writing.
The good news is that there is at least a framework to start from, even if is not one of citation and attribution as is common in Western academia. This is the place to start, even at lower levels. Because they are already in the habit of doing this, it provides us an opportunity to instill a tradition of evaluating sources, paraphrasing, and eventually acknowledgment. The key, I think, to integrating reading, at any level, is scaffolding.
I have just begun to do this in my own classes and will continue to develop a method to ease students into the habit of properly using reading for writing. Below is a rough outline of what such a method could look like.
1. Choosing the topic
First, students need to choose a broad topic to write about. They might be chosen by a coursebook, the teacher, students, etc. For example, the 2016 Olympics might be an interesting topic to write about.
2. Doing basic research
There are a lot of places to find research, but for lower level students, I’d start with a source such as Newsela, which offers news articles and reports at multiple different levels, including very easily levels that are accessible to beginning learners. My search for “Olympics” turned up these articles related to the 2016 games:
Before reading, students can brainstorm a list of places to find information. Here, you can help students understand what is a good source and what is a poor source and why. It is a chance to teach the basics of source evaluation, which will hopefully help them avoid using sites like netessays.net and its ilk. In fact, I’d explicitly bring such websites up and explain why and how to avoid them.
3. Reading and discussion
Students should read the articles (here’s an opportunity to teach summary writing if you’d like). and discuss their articles with a partner or group. In this way, they can talk about their topic and set their sights on something interesting within their topic.
Have students write questions about their topic. The readings should have already influenced their thinking and their questions will likely reflect both the topic and the readings. Here, you can help students write questions and draw the connections between the questions and the organization of their writing (and even the language required for each question). For example, I might want to focus on the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games. I could ask: “What are the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games?” This type of question calls for a cause-effect focus, which will require words such as “cause,” “effect,” “As a result,” and so on – language related to that particular rhetorical function.
5. Brainstorming and outlining
Have students put their readings away. This is very important because you do not their readings to be the main influence on their writing. If they focus too much on the readings, their writing will become a summary instead of a well-thought out cause-effect argument. With their articles away, students should start brainstorming any ideas related to the topic. You should stress that they do not have to focus on the articles but instead make their own ideas. Once they have enough ideas, you can help them outline their writing. This can be done however you usually do it. You could read a model and outline that, or you could write one together as a class – however you see fit.
This is where scaffolding and feedback will be very important. You will have to help students determine the best places to integrate the ideas they read about. It will be important for them to understand right away that the ideas they read are not the main ideas of their writing but rather support. This will be easier if students already understand the basic organizational structure of writing (e.g. topic sentence, major support, minor support for a paragraph – evidence often appears as minor support, but works well as major support in an essay or longer writing). This is a good time to teach phrases like “for example” or “for instance”. The point here is students should see where and where not to use their readings in the outline, before writing.
7. Scaffolding citation
It should be made clear that all writing should be students’ own words. Simple paraphrasing activities could help them avoid copy and pasting phrases or sentences into the article. Quoting can also be taught. Because students are still learning basic English writing skills, the idea of citation should be scaffolded so as to not overburden students with work. The way I would start is to have students simply supply the links for any ideas used for the articles. They can do so on those parts using the comment feature in Word or Google Docs or make a simple not of it on paper. After students are used to providing links and paraphrasing, you can teach attribution phrases like “According to person” or “In ‘Article Title’, Author says…”. Phrases that help link using evidence to their sources. As students’ writing abilities progress and as their work becomes longer, more advanced citation skills can be taught.
Method to Practice
In this example, I had students in a high-beginner/lower-intermediate writing course do readings first before picking a topic. I asked students to search Newsela for an article that showed cause, effect, or both. They had to read the article, summarize it, and then discuss it with a partner in class. One student read about the causes of an epidemic of star fish deaths on the West coast. Another student read about invasive rats in Australia. I had students think about their topic in a broader way: the death of coral reefs, invasive species. Students came up with their own ideas about their topics. Others did more research on Newsela to find articles that could help them generate ideas. Students outlined their essays and wrote about their topics. When they outlined their essays, I helped them see (through whole-class modeling and one on one feedback) where and how they could use evidence. The student writing about coral reefs discussed the effects of dying coral on tourism, sea life, and the world. She was able to use the star fish article to add examples of the negative effects on sea life. The student writing about invasive species used the article on rats both in the introduction to provide an example of invasive species and in a paragraph about invasive animals, using rats as one example. These essays turned out quite well, especially being one of the first times integrating reading with their writing. In fact, it was the first time I experimented with the method above.
The method outlined above can be changed and modified in many ways. The goal of this method is simply to find an easy way to scaffold the proper use of sources and help students learn the vital skill of integrating reading with writing. It will definitely help if you model this process with them, reading, brainstorming, outlining, and writing an example together. This way, your expectations are clear. At any step along the way, there are numerous different linguistic, mechanical, and rhetorical skills that can be taught, so there are a lot of ways to expand on the basic method I have outlined.
I hope it is clear that integrating writing with reading at lower levels is not only a good idea, but is feasible. As I continue to work with my lower-level writing classes, I will apply, tweak, and refine the method. Students are already wanting to use the internet to help them write their essays. I want to make sure that they do so in a way that is conducive to good writing and helps them avoid engendering bad habits. In this way, I hope to make their through the complex world of EAP writing a little bit easier.