You Can’t Learn to Write Without Reading
Professional educators at times doggedly avoid the obvious. The U.S. Department of Education has tested tens of thousands of children on their writing ability and invariably found that, to quote one emblematic report, “many at each grade level continue to have serious difficulty in producing effective writing,” and that students who read more write better.
“[To] become good writers,” a “Writing Report Card” from the National Assessment of Educational Progress said in 1992, “students need expert instruction, frequent practice, and constructive feedback.” No doubt. But that report, like others before and since, left out the prime importance of reading. Can anyone learn to write at all without also knowing how to read?
Simply, literacy includes capacity to read.
Teachers, from the 1st grade through professional school, do not agree on what good writing or intelligent reading is, or on how to recognize, evaluate, and, perhaps more arguably, effectively teach either. Some often teach writing in a vacuum empty of reading. They mainly use multiple-choice tests to find out what details in a novel, play, or poem students recall or which misspellings they recognize, not whether they have grasped nuances of character or plot, among other complexities.
Widely used standardized tests of composition commonly fail to agree on writing standards. In Maryland’s Montgomery County, for example, one of the country’s wealthiest, where most high school graduates go on to college, English honors students have regularly failed state writing tests. One such student had been turning out “poetry” since she was 7 years old, according to her family.
English teachers commonly define “good” writing in extremes. They drill students in spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing, or urge them “to express themselves” without the constraint of “elitist” niceties like spelling and punctuation. In my decades of teaching freshman composition and technical writing, I’ve found only a handful of students alert to subtleties of vocabulary or rhetoric.
As a reader of College Board and SAT exams, I found writing samples to range from mechanically “correct” and boring to alarmingly anarchic and wildly self-indulgent, when legible. Periodically, the supervisors would duplicate and distribute problematical essays for everyone to discuss and score, to keep grading comparable. I recall one such session when loud mutterings broke out in response to a brilliant but disturbingly personal, half-mad essay. One faction wanted to fail it for its absence of amenities; the other, to give it the highest score for its emotional power.
The confusion is widespread in the profession and deeply rooted. I used to teach a summer seminar for junior and senior high school English teachers. Few cared about the meaning, shaping, and aesthetic quality of a text. Their custom was to note rhyme or lack of it, name the meter (if they could determine it), the dates of the author, details of his or her life, and any influences he or she had absorbed or displayed. In responding to Robert Frost’s “Birches,” for example, they preferred talking about differences among tree species. Most expressed themselves in hackneyed praise. One defiant seminar member wondered why they had to read poetry “in the original” at all, rather than in “easier” summaries.
What was most striking was the failure of the majority to understand that a common purpose of studying literature is to integrate validly responsive reading with effective writing. They thought of writing and reading as separate, independent chores. One summed up, “You are not supposed to enjoy English.”
An irreducible American Puritanism makes us keep forgetting that fun is exactly what reading legitimately provides. Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Dickens, Twain, Hemingway generated pleasures that today many get from movies or television.
But we can also justify reading for its purely utilitarian results. As students discover the fun of serious reading, they become aware of the satisfaction of effectively putting into their own words their own thoughts and experiences.
Of course, we have always had teachers at every level who understood that reading underpins writing. In Virginia’s Fairfax County, comparable in its wealth and educational concern to Montgomery County, elementary schools are “revolutionizing” their teaching of writing, The Washington Post has reported, by emphatically linking it with reading. The Post article cited another 7-year-old girl, one who it said “made the leap into literacy” in one year, and declared to the interviewer, “I always read.” The child loved to show off “pages of crisp, correctly written sentences” that also expressed a valid appreciation of her reading.
We keep reinventing the wheel. Government investigators might invest their resources more profitably simply by themselves reading the classics on their library shelves. These will provide all the evidence and argument needed to prove that reading enhances writing. One reason so many education researchers keep repeating findings may be that so few read very much very profitably.
Vol. 26, Issue 12, Page 32Published in Print: November 15, 2006, as You Can’t Learn to Write Without Reading