The Unseen Connection of Reading to Writing

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I am an English teacher by trade, and once in a while I make an observation about my students that could be the basis for a study about writing students everywhere.

In an article entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read Francine Prose posits that the reason that students have an aversion to reading or simply do not read in their spare time is because a teacher somewhere down the line either punished their behavior with a reading assignment or they forced them to read something entirely stodgy or boring.

What happens when a student does not read good writing or in some cases does not read in their spare time at all?  I am noticing a correlation between students who admit to not being regular readers or who express disdain for reading with writing ability that is sub-par at best.  These students write using a colloquial, slangy, and sometimes vulgar diction that resembles everyday speech rather than the formal diction that is required by academia.

How do we find a way to spark interest in reading among these students and thereby allow them access to a better model of writing?  These students need to see that academic writing is a much different and much more important skill to be practiced than colloquial, slangy diction.

I propose three tips to help the teacher better combat this issue:

  1. NEVER use writing/reading as punishment for behavior – I once heard of a teacher who was fed up with the behavior of the students so they told them to read a text while they sat at their desk and surfed the internet, telling the students that there would be a test over it the next day.  We have all seen Bart Simpson writing endless sentences on the chalk board.  When will teachers learn that using their discipline as punishment for bad behavior causes permanent scarring that many of us who desire our students to succeed cannot erase years later.  How will students find a love for reading or writing without our guidance to help them find what they love about it and then encourage that love?
  2. Find the Sweet Spot – When I take my students to the library to check out books to read (for enrichment and for vocabulary building) I always conference with each student one on one.  I give them a list of genres and ask them to circle three that they are interested in, making sure that some non-fiction genres are on that list.  They circle three, and then I find some texts within those genres for them to take from the library.  In this way, students find something to read that is to their liking, and many students who do not read become better readers in the process.
  3. Do Not Accept Lesser Work – I have a long talk (several days of it) about the fact that even though my students speak English, they speak a broken form of it, and that we are to write in the purest form.  I discuss the fact that it is still the number one business language, that college courses expect formal diction, that even policemen must write formally on police reports because they are writing court documents.  Once I explain formal diction to my students, I will only  accept written assignment that use either formal or informal diction,  written in third or first person (never second) and which is completely devoid of slang.  All papers can be re-written in my class, and any grade can be raised on any paper that they write for me.  I also encourage and praise the thought that went behind the work even if the diction is below the top two levels, as students need encouragement and need to know that they can always do better.

What types of experience have you, dear reader, had in school with reading and writing?  Did you have any experiences that burned you against it?  Post them below.

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4 thoughts on “The Unseen Connection of Reading to Writing

  1. This is quite a fascinating post, Roger! I never thought about it, but you are so wise in pointing out the damage that teachers can do by using writing as punishment.

    This wasn’t exactly direct punishment, but I had a teacher who gave her students cards with one-sentence instructions for writing a story (e.g., “Invent your own sport and write a 500-word story about it”). Good enough so far, but she was always pulling me aside and complaining that my stories were too dark, that she thought I should see the school psychologist, that I would be in trouble if I wouldn’t become… less creative. My tales were loopy and full of slapstick violence, but nothing harder than what you’d find in a cartoon or a Monty Python skit. Mind you, I was an A student who never got in trouble, talked back, or colored outside the lines. No fights, no stealing, no vandalism, good, stable home… But every time I turned something in, I’d get that same head shake and disappointed look. I’m not sure why a teacher would discourage the one student in her class who loved to write and, if I may be humble, was the best she had in that regard. But there it is.

    That was 30 years ago and she’s long since dead, yet I’m still annoyed about it. Thanks for bringing up such painful memories with your post!

    😉

  2. My personal experience involved several school teachers who made me a target of the other students because of my academic performance. Many teachers use bullying to keep their classes in line.

    Bullying in schools is a learned behavior, and most students learn it from their teachers, who let the class know who is an acceptable target. I have seen other students give up reading and anything else that makes them look like “a brain” because of teachers who encourage the other students to pick on the smart kid.

    Personally, I just left formal education as soon as I could. By the middle of high school I knew that if I was going to actually learn anything I would have to do it on my own.

    • I felt the same way in high school. I was reading Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant by my Jr year and didn’t see the point. I had teachers who sometimes bullied students, but tried to stay under the radar. Now, as a teacher, I make it my mission that all students can learn and all students have a stake in the education process. Otherwise, what is the point?

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