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Writing Across the Curriculum

Using Writing to Promote Critical Reading

Perhaps the best way to encourage students to read carefully and critically is to ask them to respond to their reading with low-stakes writing. There are a number of ways to structure and respond to this type of writing. What follows are a few writing activities that can be used to encourage students to grapple with important questions in a given text. Please note, in this type of writing, surface error is less important than evidence that the student is critically engaged with the reading assigned.

Dialectical notebooks

Have your students keep a dialectical notebook (or double-entry journal) to keep track of their thinking as they read. There are a number of ways to structure this notebook. You might have students note their observations in one column and their responses to those observations in another. Some professors ask students to copy a textual passage into one column and write about that passage in the other. The particular notebook tasks can be designed to support different pedagogical objectives: responding to and documenting sources in the course of research; identifying central ideas in complex readings; or synthesizing ideas from reading and course lectures. Feel free to add columns, such as one for students to list questions, or one where students can respond to each other. For more information on dialectical notebooks, see Anne Berthoff.

Response logs or journals

You may want to have your students keep a response log or journals in which they document their responses to assigned reading. You could give students specific prompts or questions about the text; or, you could offer students more leeway to respond on a personal level. The following list of “sentence-starters” can be helpful for students as they begin writing about their reading. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs.

"Believing and Doubting"

Peter Elbow developed this activity as a means of encouraging students to engage author’s ideas with greater depth. As an in-class writing exercise, ask your students to imagine that they are in agreement with the author’s position and to find other examples to support his/her argument. Then ask them to play the devil’s advocate and identify all of the things that are wrong with the author’s argument.

Rhetorical analysis

Asking your students to create “what it says” and “what it does” statements for each of the paragraphs in a text can encourage more careful reading and awareness of the structure of texts. The “what it says” statement summarizes the paragraph. The “what it does” statement explains how this paragraph fits into the text’s larger argument. John Bean’s Engaging Ideas explains this strategy in more detail.

Guided annotation

Ask your students to write in the margins of their texts by including summarizing notes, questions for the author, areas of disagreement, interesting connections of their own, and notes on the structure of the reading.

Responding to low-stakes writing

Including opportunities to write in response to reading will support your students’ development of good study and research skills. It will also produce far more writing than you can comfortably respond to in a semester. You don’t have to provide written responses to every piece of low-stakes writing. Some professors ask students to keep all of their low-stakes writing exercises in a journal and they look at these journals periodically to assess student progress. Low-stakes writing can also be immediately “used” as the basis for in-class discussion, group work, or a followup assignment. Do provide written feedback on low-stakes assignments early in the semester to encourage students to take the work seriously. Some faculty make the completion of low-stakes writing a component of final grades.

Suggestions for further reading

  • John Bean, “Chapter 8: Helping Students Read Difficult Texts” in Engaging Ideas
  • Ann Berthoff, “Dialectical Notebooks and the Audit of Meaning”
  • Christina Haas, “Learning to Read Biology: One Student’s Rhetorical Development in College”
  • Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop

Please visit our Readings page to see the full citations.