When Writing Problems are Reading Problems

Peter Wayne Moe
January 2018

Last fall in WRI 2930 (a course on writing center pedagogy), the SPU Writing Center tutors kept returning, again and again, to how we might better teach reading.   At first, this surprised me.   After all, aren’t we a writing center?   Yes, but as we all know, writing entails more than just writing: it’s writing, it’s research, it’s reading, and these occur rarely, if ever, in a linear process.   Toward the end of the term, one of the tutors mentioned that often a writing problem is really a reading problem.   (This reminded me of something I’ve heard Dr. Bo Lim say, that whenever he has troubles with his writing, it’s always because he hasn’t read enough.)   This tutor’s observation prompts two questions: first, how might we discern when a writing problem is actually a reading problem, and second, how might we address it?

These are good questions, and they’re not limited to the Writing Center.   All of us who teach writing here at SPU teach reading too.   The Writing Center staff quickly identified a few signs of a reading problem: when a student paper entirely dismisses an author’s argument, when a student paper does not quote an author (or when a paper quotes selectively, ignoring large parts of the author’s argument), when a student paper’s claims concerning an author are underdeveloped.

How we might teach reading, however, becomes a bit more problematic.   There is a stigma around reading poorly, a sense that reading is child’s play, something we learn in elementary school.   If students are sheepish about being a poor writer, they’re even more sheepish about their reading skills.

And yet, there are strategies we can teach for reading better.   In “Assessing Students’ Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies”—an article librarian Carrie Fry found for the Writing Center staff—Kouider Mokhtari and Carla Reichard offer 30 of them:

I preview the text to see what it’s about before reading it.
When text becomes difficult, I read aloud to help me understand what I’m reading.
I write summaries to reflect on key ideas in the text.
I skim the text first by noting characteristics like length and organization.
I adjust my reading speed according to what I’m reading.
I decide what to read closely and what to ignore.
I stop from time to time to think about what I’m reading.
I have a purpose in mind when I read.
I take notes while reading to help me understand what I’m reading.
I think about what I know to help me understand what I’m reading.
I think about whether the content of the text fits my purpose.
I read slowly but carefully to be sure I understand what I’m reading.
I discuss my reading with others to check my understanding.
I try to get back on track when I lose concentration.
I underline or circle information in the text to help me remember it.
I use reference materials such as dictionaries to help me understand what I’m reading.
I use tables, figures, and pictures in text to increase my understanding.
I use context clues to help me better understand what I’m reading.
I paraphrase (restate ideas in my own words) to better understand what I’m reading.
I try to picture or visualize information to help me remember what I’m reading.
I use typographical aids like boldface type and italics to identify key information.
I critically analyze and evaluate the information presented in the text.
I go back and forth in the text to find relationships among ideas in it.
I check my understanding when I come across conflicting information.
I try to guess what the text is about when reading.
I ask myself questions I like to have answered in the text.
I check to see if my guesses about the text are right or wrong.
I try to guess the meaning of unknown words or phrases.   (Mokhtari and Reichard 253)

Mokhtari and Reichard conclude, “Increasing students’ awareness of their comprehension processes while reading is an important first step toward their becoming constructively responsive, strategic, and thoughtful readers” (256).   In our writing classrooms (and our office hours, and at the Writing Center conference table too), we would do well to spend more time on reading, discussing various strategies students might use to work through difficult texts, for when students are aware of what they are doing as they read, they read better—and write better too.

Works Cited

Mokhtari, Kouider, and Carla A. Reichard. “Assessing Students’ Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 94, no. 2, 2002, pp. 249-59.