“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”
The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).
“Writing. Hands down.”
From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.
Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.
Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?
It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).
When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:
I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.
Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:
How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?
So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.
This question has two answers:
When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.
I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.
Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.
Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners
In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.
As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:
- to add detail to their writing
- to structure their writing
- to put voice into their writing
- to write powerful leads and endings.
Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:
- punctuate their writing
- use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.
In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.
The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:
We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.
When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.
And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.
Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.
Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading
In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.
|– No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”
– You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester
– Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)
– The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)
|– In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)
– In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing
– In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)
– If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading
– If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…
Devote a few days a week to each subject
In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
|– No more decision fatigue!
– Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day
– Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day
– You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year
– If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject
|– If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it
– If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again
– Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting
– One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)
– Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study
Alternate full writing and reading cycles
When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.
|· No more decision fatigue!
· You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time
· Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm
· You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end
|· During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)
· During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing
No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:
In a reading day/semester/cycle:
In a writing day/semester/cycle:
|· Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas
· Invite students to work in their notebook for homework
· Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read
· Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading
|· Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s
· Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night
· Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion
In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.
While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.