Still Teaching Reading and Writing

Teaching students to read with strong comprehension and to write their ideas effectively is an ongoing challenge for teachers. In a world of sound bites and text-speak, we have to work to train our students to spend time with the written word and with their own writing. Reading and identifying what is important in a text takes concentration and attention. And then there is the hard work of identifying what they think about it and finding the words to put it down on the page. So often, the ideas are there, but when they try to write them out, they disappear or seem so much less important and disorganized on the page. I have been trying to find ways to help my students work through a reading and a writing process that allows them to show what they have learned with as much success as possible.

I needed to do an assessment in both reading and writing. I assigned them a chapter to read and annotate. They were to read it first to develop an overview of the material and then reread and annotate it, according to the strategies we had practiced. They were to identify significant facts to help them answer the question that I posed to them. In this case, it was “Why had the North won the Civil War?” When they finished that, I handed them a copy of the chapter and had them copy their annotations onto it, so that I could see their work, but they could have their textbooks. For homework, they reviewed the textbook and created a brainstorm to help them answer the question. They included the facts that they had identified as well as main ideas. Once they had recorded those, they organized them into categories and developed an initial idea for their argument.

I set up the hour long class in this way:

5 mins. – Review your brainstorm and the chapter

25 mins. – Write a rough draft of your paragraph. Make sure that the topic sentence contains your answer to the question and that you support your idea with 3-5 facts.

5 mins. – Read aloud and edit your work. (For some students, this is an important way for them to see if they have a clear argument. They often catch grammatical and spelling errors as well. For others, it isn’t all that helpful.)

5 mins. Peer edit another student’s work. (I collected the papers and randomly distributed them. They were supposed to make sure that there was a clear argument and supporting evidence, as well as check for any mistakes.)

15 mins. – Write the final draft (They did not need to take the advice that was offered. They could stick with their original writing, or they could develop it further.)

5 mins. – Read and make final edits.

I asked the students about the process at the end of the hour. When faced with an hour of writing, they usually get really nervous and concerned and are exhausted at the end of it. “I am just not a good writer,” being the usual refrain. And in truth, not many middle school students are great writers. They are still trying to put together their ideas and find words to express themselves. Finding strategies to help them practice these skills is important.

“I really liked it,” was the general response. They liked having time to plan outside of class, with less pressure. One student loved having the 5 minutes to look over her notes and the textbook before the writing time started, realizing that she had spent her homework time writing out facts and not thinking about them. One loved the reading aloud, saying that it really highlighted the mistakes; another thought it was a waste of time. They generally enjoyed the peer editing time, partly for the comments that they got and partly because it gave them a chance to see another person’s argument.

For me, I liked the variety of experiences, and I also liked the timing of each activity. Rather than giving them an hour to write with no structure, this supported a variety of different learning styles and allowed them to have intense times of concentration and times to talk and interact with each other. It took the strain out of the room that often comes with long periods of concentrated work. There was much more smiling and then focus. A good combination in a middle school classroom!

At a quick glance, the writing was also much smoother. More on that in the next post.

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