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Yes, We Should Teach Reading in Writing Courses

posted: 4.28.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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Since my second day of teaching college writing (as a masters student), I have been astonished at students’ poor reading abilities. (The first day there wasn’t a reading assignment.) When students were assigned a reading, it was difficult to determine if they had actually read it. They read informationally, not critically, and even then could not often convey what a text had said, much less what it meant. I believe this is a widespread phenomena, and one that is still with us, if studies such as Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s citation project are any indicator.

And yet I was told, “Your students are very good readers, and your job is to teach them to write, not read.” That was backward: my students could write decently; what they would not and even could not do was read.

So, I started researching reading. I found that most reading research was irrelevant to college students because it primarily drew from grade-school reading principles. (Reading as a physical/cognitive act is taught in American schools only up until the sixth grade). Grade-school instruction (and thus most research, even today) cares about information and comprehension, about how students answer the question, “what does a text say?” High school tends to treat reading as a hermeneutic problem related to literature: how should an aesthetic text be interpreted? Here students learn to answer (mostly by accepting, by rote, the mysteriously “correct” answers of their assessment-driven teachers), “what does a text mean?”

Missing from those conversations is rhetorical reading.  That term is courtesy of Christina Haas and Linda Flower in their 1988 CCC article “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning.” Rhetorical reading is, essentially, understanding that texts “mean” only in relation to the context and situations in which they are written and used (not just “read”). It answers the question, “what does a text do?”  It’s a radically different way of understanding reading, and college will be students’ first chance to encounter it—if they do at all. This question flummoxed my students every semester: “what was the writer trying to accomplish, and did they?” The concept of using a text to do something is extremely difficult for new college students because their previous schooling teaches that texts contain information that must be divined (usually with difficulty). In contrast, rhetorical reading acknowledges that meaning must be constructed.

Working on that problem, I smacked into a second. I was teaching in a comp program that wanted students to use scholarly sources. But no one was actually teaching how to read scholarship: we were just assigning it, and then watching as students pretended to use Journal of X but mostly used Time.

That was part of what got me thinking about writing about writing—and why Haas and Flower’s rhetorical-reading article is now in Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Students needed in-classroom teaching in what a scholarly article is to begin with, what it’s meant to accomplish, and how to read it. This instruction is key to fulfilling the composition course’s promise of enculturating new students to the academy and its practices—something I didn’t see most other composition pedagogies teaching.

Even now, many comp scholars work mostly on “critical” reading—analyzing arguments. For example, Alice Horning is working in this area. But as I suggest in “Teaching First-Year Writers to Use Texts” in the Fall 2010 issue of Reader, writing about writing crucially gives students a way to think beyond critical reading to contributive reading. My article walks through some of the pedagogy of making scholarly reading accessible to first-year college students, and making sure they do actually read it. (It’s not available electronically yet, but feel free to e-mail me for the PDF if you’re interested.)

Our students, after all, are better writers than they are readers, and writing about writing is made specifically to work on that.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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