After my semester-long professional development adventure as an assistant teacher, I had some thoughts about writing classes.
From the sidelines, I noticed that one element of struggle that the students faced in the writing class came from their reading.
They were by and large not fast readers. They were not effective at scanning for specific information and were not efficient at skimming for the main idea. They didn’t seem able to recognize citations at a glance.
I know I sound like I’m just repeating a generic reading textbook, but I observed that these skills seemed to really hinder some students’ efforts toward writing and citing an argumentative essay.
The Role of Reading in Writing an Essay
The lead teacher (rather brilliantly, I thought) gave the students two online articles to use in crafting their essays. They needed to use two quotes from the articles and do both in-text citations and a works cited page.
First, I observed some of the students shy away from the reading. I don’t know why.
I have three theories:
- They thought the reading would be quick and easy.
- They thought the reading would be incredibly difficult.
- They didn’t understand that the reading was fundamental to this writing assignment.
I’m leaning toward Theory #3, with a dash of Theory #2. I think the dependence of the writing on the reading was lost on them. I could be wrong here, it’s just a theory. I wasn’t in class yet when the teacher introduced the assignment. And I don’t know what kind of information literacy instruction or research assignments they’ve had.
Anyway, for whatever reason, several students skipped the reading and went ahead and wrote a thesis and got into their body paragraphs.
Eventually, several discovered that the two articles they had to use did not directly support any of their points. They essentially had to start over.
Ineffective Mining for Quotes
They eventually started looking through the articles for quotes. But several seemed to be confused about what was reported speech and what the author was saying, and so got confused when the article appeared to contradict itself. Others were stumped by vocabulary from a .org article.
In a similar vein, certain tag words that strongly tinged the tone of the whole paragraph (i.e. “allegedly”) escaped their notice. They didn’t seem to have the article’s title in mind to help them interpret any of the above. And they didn’t appear to be using the section titles strategically.
I ended up helping with a fair amount of reading comprehension in that class session.
Utter Confusion Over Citations
Once the students I was working with identified quotes and managed to integrate them into a body paragraph, an amazing number of questions came up about how to cite them. The teacher had gone over the format with them several times, and examples were on the board and on a handout.
Even after all of this, one student asked me to re-explain it to her from the beginning. Twice. I think it was one of those situations where she understood all our words but just didn’t get what we were saying.
I think that some students’ confusion over citations came in part from a deficiency in scanning. They didn’t seem to take in the tell-tale shapes of the in-text citations the way my practiced eye does. And if they don’t see that, it’s hard to see the purpose in having such a strict format, which makes it hard to internalize it.
And speaking of purpose, we have to realize that we’re asking them to produce academic writing before they’ve really read or used academic writing. I think that because of this, we really ought to go back to the purpose of the citations.
I’m not against running classes that work primarily on one skill. Yes, it’s an unnatural distinction, but by definition you can’t focus on everything at once.
That said, I think that the students didn’t understand that this reading was fundamental to this writing assignment. And I think that the simple fact of it being a “writing class” was a big factor in that confusion.
On the teacherly side of the coin, I think that when we’re focused on teaching writing, it’s easy to just assume that their other skills are at least as well developed as their writing. It’s easy to take it for granted that they can accurately and quickly read our instructions, identify parts of a news article at a glance, or appreciate the shape of a citation. I certainly took those skills for granted, and from my observations, I was wrong to do so.
Let’s keep our separate classes for now. They serve our purposes well enough. But let’s not let ourselves or our students get complacent. They’re artificial separations we use for our convenience – they don’t change the interconnected nature of learning.