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Vicki Jacobs

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Reading and writing for understanding
HGSE Lecturer Vicki Jacobs

Secondary school students can benefit enormously when teachers of all subjects integrate reading and writing strategies into their instruction – so argues Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Vicki A. Jacobs. These strategies, typical of "reading and writing to learn" and "reading and writing across the curriculum," are problem-solving activities designed to help students move from simply knowing a fact to understanding a fact's significance. Helping students make that leap – from knowing to understanding – represents the very heart of the educational enterprise.

This summary is based on Jacobs' article, "Reading, Writing, and Understanding," which appeared in the November 2002 edition of Educational Leadership.

Reading to Learn

Jacobs explains that students learn and practice beginning reading skills through about the third grade, building their knowledge about language and letter-sound relationships and developing fluency in their reading. Around fourth grade, students must begin to use these developing reading skills to learn – to make meaning, solve problems, and understanding something new. They need to comprehend what they read through a three-stage meaning-making process.

Stage One: Prereading

It's not uncommon for a struggling secondary reader to declare, "I read last night's homework, but I don't remember anything about it (let alone understand it)!" According to Jacobs, "How successfully students remember or understand the text depends, in part, on how explicitly teachers have prepared them to read it for clearly defined purposes."

During the prereading stage, teachers prepare students for their encounter with the text. They help students organize the background knowledge and experience they will use to solve the mystery of the text. To do so, they must understand the cultural and language-based contexts students bring to their reading, their previous successes or failures with the content, and general ability to read a particular kind of text. Based on this assessment, teachers can choose strategies that will serve as effective scaffolds between the students' "given" and the "new" of the text.

Asking such questions as, "What do I already know and what do I need to know before reading?" or "What do I think this passage will be about, given the headings, graphs, or pictures?" helps students anticipate the text, make personal connections with the text, and help to promote engagement and motivation. Brainstorming and graphic organizers also serve to strengthen students' vocabulary knowledge and study skills.

Stage Two: Guided Reading

Students move on to guided reading, during which they familiarize themselves with the surface meaning of the text and then probe it for deeper meaning. Effective guided-reading activities allow students to apply their background knowledge and experience to the "new." They provide students with means to revise predictions; search for tentative answers; gather, organize, analyze, and synthesize evidence; and begin to make assertions about their new understanding. Common guided-reading activities include response journals and collaborative work on open-ended problems. During guided reading, Jacobs recommends that teachers transform the factual questions that typically appear at the end of a chapter into questions that ask how or why the facts are important.

The ability to monitor one's own reading often distinguishes effective and struggling readers. Thus, guided-reading activities should provide students with the opportunity to reflect on the reading process itself – recording in a log how their background knowledge and experience influenced their understanding of text, identifying where they may have gotten lost during reading and why, and asking any questions they have about the text. As with prereading, guided-reading activities not only enhance comprehension but also promote vocabulary knowledge and study skills.

Stage Three: Postreading

During postreading, students test their understanding of the text by comparing it with that of their classmates. In doing so, they help one another revise and strengthen their arguments while reflecting and improving on their own.

Writing to Learn

Writing is often used as a means of evaluating students' understanding of a certain topic, but it is also a powerful tool for engaging students in the act of learning itself. Writing allows students to organize their thoughts and provides a means by which students can form and extend their thinking, thus deepening understanding. Like reading-to-learn, writing can be a meaning-making process.

Research suggests that the most effective way to improve students' writing is a process called inquiry. This process allows students to define and test what they would like to write before drafting. To help students prepare their arguments, teachers guide them through the three stages of writing-based inquiry: 1) stating specific, relevant details from personal experience; 2) proposing observations or interpretations of the text; and 3) testing these assertions by predicting and countering potential opposing arguments. Through inquiry, students discover and refine something worth writing about.

Writing-to-learn activities can include freewriting (writing, without editing, what comes to mind), narrative writing (drawing on personal experience), response writing (writing thoughts on a specific issue); loop writing (writing on one idea from different perspectives) and dialogue writing (for example, with an author or a character.) "Not surprisingly," writes Jacobs, "writing-to learn activities are also known as 'writing-to-read' strategies – means by which students can engage with text in order to understand it."

Reading, writing, and understanding

The relationship among reading, writing, and understanding is clear. Students engaged in reading-to-learn will also be prepared to write well. In turn, students who are engaged in writing-to-learn will become more effective readers. Through both approaches, students will gain a better understanding of material and a greater ability to demonstrate that understanding.

Staff Development

Jacobs recommends that teachers who are considering whether to implement reading-to-learn and writing-to-learn strategies into their classroom first define their own instructional goals. If teachers decide that their goals for students' learning include "understanding," then they might ask themselves such questions as, "What strategies do I use to prepare my students to read a text?" or "How explicitly do I share with students the purpose of an assignment?" As Jacobs sees it, "Only after teachers have examined whether teaching for understanding suits their instructional goals and after they have defined their role in facilitating understanding can they consider how the principles and practices of reading-to-learn and writing-to-learn might support their instruction."

For those teachers who decide that teaching for understanding does indeed suit their instructional goals, the framework offered in Jacobs' article can help them skillfully integrate reading-to-learn and writing-to-learn strategies across their instruction.

By Sarah O'Brien Mackey.

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College