Reading and Writing

Today I gave my students an in-class writing assignment. They handled it well, at their small desks and tables.  I watched them managing their textbooks and their notebooks at the same time, reading a little and writing a little, switching back and forth between one task and the other.

Then it struck me.  They all read and write at the same time.

By which I mean, all of my students don’t read a writing assignment first, and then write about it.  They do both tasks simultaneously.  I’ve been teaching for fifteen years, since 1996, and I don’t think I’d ever seen more than a few kids doing this simultaneously before.  I’d always seen kids reading, and then writing, never trying to do both at the same time.

I think at some point, I shifted away from this as my homework strategy.  I did the reading first, and then I did the writing.  I never did both at the same time. Reading was one activity, and writing another.  I don’t recall — admittedly now 28 or 29 years later —  how I learned to separate the two activities for maximum effectiveness.

I declare myself absolutely gobsmacked.  Why hadn’t I ever noticed this before?  And what effect does it have on learning? How does one separate the tasks of reading and writing, and is it beneficial to do so?  Is it beneficial for the development of their minds to do this?  Or is it an obstacle to be overcome?

I confess I don’t know the answer.  At all.

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  1. I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days.I am tempted to come down strongly on the side that this is “normal,” but I don’t have real grounds for that. I know that I take notes while reading stuff I want to retain, but I would classify that as annotating, not drafting/ writing. That said, if the task is to write three paragraphs in half an hour on cold readings…I don’t see how I could do that without picking up my pen as soon as I start reading. But then: were they taking initial notes, and then turning that into the paragraphs later? Or were they writing writing?

    • Dear Lyra,

      I’m pretty much in agreement with you that it’s normal, but a) I don’t have evidence for it being normal, as you also lack, and b) lots of others say that they do it, and it’s normal for a fast-track assignment like this.

      It does make me wonder if I should assign different kinds of assignments where students have to read the materials, then formulate their plan for the writing assignment, then do the writing. Is there value in separating out the work? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll have to try it and see.

    • Or.. what if you had them write an essay on the topic first, from their heads. Then collect the writings. Then have them read the doc/take notes. Then collect the doc. Then have them write the essay again.

      Don’t give away the plan before you begin. A progressive approach.

    • I like this idea. I may have to experiment with it.

      Actually, what I ought to require is for them to make a drawing or doodle explaining a set of notes, on one day. Then hand that doodle back on another day, and ask them to create a functional essay from the doodle.

  2. I do this when I’m working on a book, as I am now. I split my screen and have my research doc, or my notes, on one side and the thing I am writing ont eh other side.

    • RJ, welcome!

      I’m sure you did. I’m sure that there were times when you were assigned in-class activities when I might have noticed you doing this, too, or even when a whole class did it and I didn’t notice. It was just the first time that I’d ever noticed a whole classroom doing it, all at the same time: book open in one place, notebook in another, eyes scanning one page, then eyes confirming what the hand wrote on another… It was a little mind blowing and I wondered why I’d never noted it before.

      In other news, are you planning on taking advantage of Apple’s new software for doing ePub publishing to iBookstore, directly?

  3. I need a little more context. What was the reading? Had they (supposedly) read it before, or were they reading it cold? And what was the specific writing task?

    • Dear Lyra,

      Welcome the the commenters! Nice to see you here.

      They were doing a cold reading and writing three paragraphs in a half-hour. I agree with their strategy, actually, in context. It had just never occurred to me before that it might be an undesirable strategy for them to adopt… I’d also never seen an entire class do it, all at the same time, so it was particularly startling.

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