Using Writing to Foster Critical Reading Skills
Reading for Content
First and foremost, we want to be aware of the content: the actual information that the text provides. Higher-stakes writing assignments that encourage students to read for content might include formal papers or projects. But aside from requiring synopses and summaries, there are any number of low-stakes writing activities that work to help students draw content from texts. (For more examples of low-stakes writing activities that you can use to teach reading in your FYS class, please visit our page on Teaching Writing in Your Classroom.)
You might provide assignments where students read for content by:
- Identifying an article’s thesis.
- Reverse-outlining a text’s structure.
- Answering questions about the content of a text.
- Providing a short blog post or tweet that summarizes a text (You may want to create a special hashtag for your course to encourage students to tweet about their reading.)
- Creating a map of a text that provides visual examples of the relationship between ideas.
Reading for Conventions
You might also explain to students that critical reading requires an awareness of disciplinary and genre conventions: the way that the author has chosen to structure the text, the tone with which the ideas are conveyed, and the degree to which ideas are situated within contexts.
It can often be difficult for students to recognize the conventions of writing, particularly discipline-specific conventions, on their own. Your class may be the first time some of your students are encountering rigorous academic writing. To that end, it can be useful to address the question of disciplinary conventions directly, and have a conversation about what makes scientific articles different from historical ones, or what makes articles in the social sciences different from those in the humanities.
You might ask, for example:
- Why do authors of articles in English use “I,” when scientific writers use “we”?
- Why does MLA citation call for author and page number and APA for author and date? How much context do the authors of your texts give when they refer to other writers or thinkers? Why?
- Do the authors you’re reading tend to quote a lot, or paraphrase, or cite information? Why?
- How do the texts you’re reading begin and end? What might be considered a “good” or “bad” opening or closing for your field? Why?
- What type of information counts as “evidence” in the texts you’re reading? Why?
- It’s also useful to model for students how articles are assembled by breaking down the different steps of a piece of writing into its unspoken conventions. You might ask students to identify how the author sets up key ideas before actually delivering the thesis, or how a section of the introduction will actually preview, or “signpost” the structure of the rest of the paper. You can find a model of one such breakdown here.
Reading for Critical Response
Finally, you might remind students that reading critically requires an awareness of our own critical response: the degree to which we are persuaded, moved, intrigued, or bored by a piece of writing and some reflection on why we’re responding in such a way.
A challenge of teaching writing in FYS is getting students to engage with texts in a way that’s more sophisticated than the work they have done in high school. One way to encourage engagement is to ask them to be aware of their own intellectual and emotional responses as they read.
Students might engage with their reading by:
- Creating a blog entry in which they pose one question raised by the reading and offering their own response.
- Keeping a list of evidence they encounter and deciding whether or not they find it convincing.
- Annotating an article as they read to keep track of where they’re confused, where they’re convinced, where they’re bored or interested and then discussing their annotations in class.
Each of these exercises asks students to take texts they are already reading for your class and to pay attention to what is being said and how it is being said. By asking students to focus on both the ideas and the way those ideas are presented, you’re not only encouraging closer reading; you’re using your course texts as models for the kind of writing you’d like them to try.