A fourth grade student wrote this his journal when asked: “How does writing about reading help you comprehend?“
You can look back at what you wrote and think about it. Writing helps you remember more about your book and it makes you think hard about it [the book]. Sometimes it [writing] makes you reread to get the story straight. It also helps anyone who reads what you wrote because they get ideas from you.
If we teachers want our students to take writing about reading seriously, it’s important to ask students to self-evaluate the process. When students self-evaluate, look back and reflect on their writing-about-reading-experiences, they come to understand how writing can boost comprehension.
A Deeper Look at Comprehension
Comprehension is a word that teachers use all the time: Jake’s comprehension is weak; Talia can’t comprehend nonfiction; David comprehends everything he reads. It’s helpful to dig into the meaning of comprehension, a concept that’s as complex and multifaceted as a gemstone.
Basic Comprehension: Recall. When our students recall in great detail the information they read, they are in the literal level of understanding. Recall implies that the learner was able to decode the text and remember information. This is a literal level of comprehension that provides readers with the details they need to move deeper into the text.
Using Recalled information to Think and Analyze
The ability to use details, facts to think and analyze a text is easier for students who love to read because amassing reading mileage has taught them how diverse genres work. On the other hand, reluctant and developing readers who lack an independent reading life and can’t read grade-level material often have difficulty moving beyond recall of details.
Writing about reading can support both groups as long as students read where they are instructionally and can self-select books for independent reading. Talking, then writing about reading, and sharing responses shows all students a range of interpretations while developing and strengthening their ability to think about texts using the five strategies that follow:
- Determining Importance. This skill applies to fiction and informational texts. With fiction, it can be deciding which events, problems, and decisions are significant or pivotal and explain why. With informational texts, readers have to separate nonessential information from details essential to understanding their purposes for reading. As learners figure out which information and vocabulary are fundamental and important, they must be selective and make choices.
- Making Logical Inferences. To infer students first have to understand that an inference is and unstated or implied meaning. The term logical, added by the Common Core, requires that students use details in informational texts and literary elements in fiction to infer.
Inferring is a skill that should be modeled many times during the year because it is difficult for students to grasp, absorb, and apply automatically. Most adult readers infer while reading. From my experience I have observed that students benefit from practicing inferring and somewhere between eighth and tenth grade, the process becomes automatic.
3. Making Connections. Thoughtful readers are able to make connections between themes, ideas, text structure, and word choice within one text and among two or more texts. Connections from one text to other texts include print and e-books, magazine and newspaper articles, movies, videos, and Internet information. When readers link ideas from one text to other reading materials and media, they use what they know (prior knowledge), their emotions, and mental pictures to pinpoint similar ideas, problems, conflicts, and themes in other texts. The ability to connect ideas across texts can raise students’ awareness of the relevance of an idea as they see it played out in diverse formats.
4. Identifying Themes. Themes are tough for readers because, like inferences, they are unstated. Add to that the fact that readers state themes in general terms. They use informational text details and literary elements to create a statement that applies to their text but can also apply to other texts.
5. Teaching Cause/Effect and Compare/Contrast. Two high order thinking strategies that can be applied to one text and two or more texts. When students work with multi-genre and multi-media text sets, they not only identify cause/effect or compare/contrast but they also can find common threads among texts.
6. Teaching Text Structure and Author’s Purpose. With either strategy it’s important to have students connect what they know to a text’s themes and big ideas. Such connections raise the level of response from simply stating information to thinking with it and showing relationships between structure or author’s purpose.
What Research Says About Writing About Reading
A landmarks study completed in 2010 by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert called Writing to Read points to an important concept: students learn more and improve their reading comprehension when they write about a text. According to the research of Graham and Hebert, writing can enhance reading in three ways:
- Improve the comprehension of text.
- Strengthen students’ reading skills and strategies.
- Boost students’ ability to analyze literature.
The study calls for students to write about texts in science, social studies, and language arts because learners can only write what they have a mental model of and understand. In addition, the study calls for students to:
- Respond to a text in writing (personal reactions and analyzing and interpreting the text)
- Write summaries of a text
- Write notes about a text
- Answer questions about a text in writing or create and answer questions about a text in writing
Besides lobbying for more writing time because of it’s affect on reading comprehension, Graham and Hebert stress the importance of teaching writing process—finding topics, brainstorming, planning, drafting, revising, editing– for paragraphs and essays. The emphasis should be on process and learning to write well and not on assigning tasks where students don’t use the process to write well. You can download a free copy of this important report by going to: www.carnegie.org/literacy
Talk Opens the Door for Writing About Reading
In classes where students talk and discuss to interpret and analyze texts, to clarify understandings, and to test hunches, they gain the understanding that fosters writing about reading. Student talk, not teacher talk (lecturing and telling) should dominate a class period. The teacher models using a think-aloud, how he infers, connects ideas, etc. in a short mini-lesson. Here’s what students can do:
Turn-Talk-Write. Have students turn to the person on their left or right and talk about a question, theme, genre, and then write. Turn-talk-write is effective with teacher read alouds and with students’ instructional and independent reading.
Interpretive Discussions. Organize students into groups of three to five and have them discuss a common text or different texts in the same genre and theme. Groups choose a moderator who keeps the discussions moving forward with questions such as: Can you add anything? Does someone have a different idea? Can someone add more text support? Does someone want to comment on that interpretation?
Teach students to ask interpretive questions while discussing. Interpretive questions have two or more answers. Groups can prepare questions prior to discussing them. The teacher can model interpretive discussions with the entire class using a completed read aloud text. Student-centered interpretive discussions replace teacher-controlled recitation. One-response, right-or-wrong answers characterize teacher-led recitation and do not develop students’ analytical and critical thinking.
Talk is a dress rehearsal for learning to have in-the-head conversations while reading different texts, and it’s also a prerequisite for clarifying thinking in order to write about texts. Talk can enlarge vocabulary, reveal process, clarify ideas, and showcase what a peer thinks. Our students’ oral language is excellent and talk makes learning social, and students find the social aspect of learning motivating.
Suggestions for Writing About Reading
Here are ten ideas for initiating talk that leads to writing about reading:
- Link a theme such as survival to your text.
- Discuss then write about the genre of your text.
- Show an event that changed a character.
- Describe a pivotal or significant event and explain why it’s pivotal.
- Discuss and write about two to three of the protagonist’s personality traits.
- Find figurative language. Share and discuss it’s meaning and how it connects to a theme or big idea.
- Explain the term “logical inference.” Make an inference about a character, conflict, decisions, or details in informational text.
- Find words that create a mood and explain the mood.
- Study two decisions a character made and explain what these decisions show you about the character’s personality.
As you engage students in writing about reading, you’ll find multiple ways to engage students with interpreting texts. Share with colleagues and learn more about how they engage students in talk-to-writing about reading.
I recommend that students use a readers’ notebook for their responses to texts. Notebooks can be marble covered composition books or composition paper stapled between colored construction paper. Keep them at school so students always have them. Have students pass out notebooks at the start of class, write their name and date on a clean page so they are always available to receive ideas and hunches.
For writing-about-reading homework, give students a piece of composition paper and have them paste their work into the notebook. The notebook is a record of their thinking about texts, and students can use entries to write paragraphs and plan essays. You can also have students revisit specific entries and revise them or add more text evidence.
The Principal’s Corner
Help teachers understand that meaningful student-talk can lead to analytical writing about texts by having them read professional articles and study professional books. A great starting place is to have groups read and discuss Writing to Read by Graham and Hebert. My recommendation is that teachers focus on writing about reading for one unit of study so that students’ develop fluency with talking, thinking, and writing about their reading. In addition, students can debrief the benefits and pitfalls of writing about reading.
Invite one to two teachers from science, social studies, or language arts to share what’s working in their classes. Ask them to bring sample lessons and students work so teachers learn from each other. Encourage teachers who are reluctant o turn more of the talk and learning over to students to observe teachers whose classes are rich in interpretive talk and active-learning.
Focus your walkthroughs on observing the kinds of talk students engage in as well as the writing that follows. Offer teachers choice when studying a professional book which means that you might have three to four book study groups running at the same time. Teachers should read a book that meets their individual needs. If possible, I urge you to join a study group and model ongoing learning.
Here is a list of professional books that can support your teachers:
- Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking, 2nd edition, by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2010.
- Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Should Know by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2010.
- SMART WRITING: Practical Units for Teaching Middle School Writers by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2012.
- Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston, Stenhouse, 2004.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.