The First Thing: Writers are Readers.

thefirstthingOn Moving Writers and in Writing With Mentors, you get a taste of my classroom and a peek behind the curtain of my planning process.

But what you see is only half the story.

While I am passionate about writing instruction, it’s only one half of my instruction. I also teach literature — through whole class novels, in literature circles, through independent reading. Even if I were only a writing teacher, I would teach many close and critical reading skills just through mentor text instruction alone. But I became an English major once-upon-a-time because I was in love with literature, and I became a teacher because I wanted to impart that to students. And so, while my professional writing zooms in on writing instruction, reading is equally taught and equally important to me.

I’m like you – I want to make learning as sticky as possible for my students, and I want to try to make my life easier in the process. Explicitly linking our literature study and our writing study to the greatest degree possible can help us accomplish this. And so, the first thing that I want my student writers to know about writing is that our reading lives and writing lives are more than two discrete activities we do in English class. They are more than two sides of a coin. Our reading life and our writing life feed off of each other — they each survive and thrive when they are meaningfully joined together. Put more simply, I want my students to immediately know this : Writers are readers. Readers are writers.

What does this look like in the first two weeks of school? Here are three foundational understandings I want to communicate to students from the get-go as  I connect students’ reading and writing lives:

Writers are readers.

  • Writers read for guidance & inspiration for their own writing.

Studying mentor texts, a staple of my writing curriculum, does so much  for my reading curriculum throughout the year. In any given writing study, students read each mentor text at least 10-15 times.This close-close reading and engagement with the text are what Kylene Beers & Bob Probst call  the hallmarks of a rigorous reading curriculum. When I look at the Common Core standards for Reading: Informational Texts, mentor text study accomplishes every single one. Read that again: every. single. standard.  What other instructional method do you know that can single-handedly do so much for you? Much less while you’re teaching writing!

(I’ve made a chart for you showing each Common Core standard for informational reading and whether or not it can be met through mentor text study. Spoiler: it can. Mentor Texts + CCS Reading)

My first week of school is spent introducing my students to mentor texts – a tool that will guide and inspire their writing for the rest of their lives. On the very first day, I handed my students a set of mentor texts and encouraged them: “Read these. They will show us what to do.”  (Here is what my students were working on. You can find three more first-week-of-school mentor text activities on pages 67-68 of Writing With Mentors!)  

Later, I will go back and teach them the nuances of reading like a reader and reading like a writer, but establishing this connection the very first day– our reading shows us how to write —  makes students see reading in a brand new (and, often, more productive) way.

  • Writers read for pleasure in the genre they are writing.

A writer diving into a new memoir project is probably a lover of memoirs. She has likely read hundreds over the years — not just as conscious mentor texts but as a fan of the genre.  Ditto for poets and investigative journalists and novelists and film critics. We read the genres that we eventually write.

In a few weeks, my students will begin their first big writing study — free-verse poetry. But before I even mention that they will soon write poetry (Can you imagine the panic? The widespread horror?), my students will be secretly getting ready by reading free-verse poetry. More specifically, they will read novels in verse in literature circles, which will bridge the fiction they are more comfortable reading with the poetry they will be writing.  On the first day of school I book-talked four novels in verse and let my students choose what they will read. We will read and talk as we get to know some new characters and poetry and one another.

When my writers begin drafting in a few weeks, poetry will be in their ears, line and stanza breaks will already look familiar to their eyes, figurative language and concrete nouns will be second-hand. Without realizing it, these writers will be primed to draft. We will continue this pattern all year — reading memoirs before we write them, consuming news as we write op-eds, diving deep into authentic analysis as we find our own topics to analyze.

  • Writers read about their passions as fuel for their writing.

You and I read for pleasure all the time — novels and magazines and newspapers and blogs and Tweets. We read around those topics around which we are passionate. (For me, it’s mostly education, food, and pop culture.) And, more often than not, those passions work their way into our writing. This passion-centered reading is the fuel on which our writing feeds. It inspires us and provokes us to join the global conversation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 2.57.07 PM
From WHY NOT ME by Mindy Kaling

For our very first notebook time of the year, I offered up the back cover of Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me, a collection of comedy essays. In the place of a typical author’s bio, Kaling illustrates “About the Author’s Heart” — filling a large image of a human heart with those things that are near and dear to her. A grown-up heart map, my students studied Kaling’s example and then created their own “About the Author’s Heart” in their notebooks.

When we begin to select independent reading (both print and digital) in the coming weeks, this is where we will start. We will find reading that corresponds to the passions of each student’s heart — yes, reading that they will enjoy, but also reading that will then fuel their writing.


The more I connect my students reading and writing lives, the better both will be. Students will have an extra layer of investment and focus in their reading, whether whole-class or independent. And their writing will come from a place of inspiration and information, fed by a constant stream of words.

How do you make the connection between reading and writing explicit for your students? Leave an idea below, join the conversation on Facebook, or Tweet me @rebekahodell1.

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