Teaching adult learners to write well means first teaching them to read well. “Reading to Write” is the first of two posts on how I’ve attempted to get students reading well in order that they might identify what they need to do to write well.
I have learned one thing again and again from my work as a Senior Writing Assistant at McMaster’s Student Success Centre: in order to be a strong writer, one needs first to feel the shape of the field and genres in which one wants to write.
This means that when I’m teaching writing, I often find myself teaching reading instead of writing per se. I find myself teaching students how to practice critical reading, and how to do so in such a way that they will be able to translate their critical reading practices into critical writing skills.
In this post and the next, I would like to share with you two such practices. You might assign them to your students, or ask them to complete segmented portions of these practices in class. Many teachers think themselves good writers. At the very least, we like to think of ourselves as good communicators. But often teachers–and this is especially true of teachers in higher ed in Canada–have little to no formal training in writing. When I lead workshops on how to teach writing, I ask participants, “How did you learn to write well?” After some thinking, they usually come up with two answers. First, participants will often cite one professor or teacher that took the time to give them strong feedback on their papers. Second, participants will shrug their shoulders and explain that they somehow picked it up along the roadside of their studies.
Strong and repeated feedback is imperative for effective learning in any area. But let’s put that aside for the moment and consider the shoulder-shrug response: the chorus of “I taught myself,” “I figured it out over time,” and “I read a lot.”
We learn to write well by reading a lot. Reading a lot allows us the luxury of slowly picking up the conventions of particular types of writing over long periods of time, without much conscious thought or effort. However, we also learn to write well by reading well. For most semi-accomplished writers, writing well arises out of their critical reading skills, which, again, are usually developed un-self-consciously over a long period of time.
For students who have not read a lot in their lives, the luxury of a slow, almost effortless learning curve is not an option. In fact, it’s not an option even for those learners who are dedicated readers or for those writers who are proficient in their field when either are faced with unfamiliar writing assignments.
So what do you do when you’re asked to write in a genre that you’re unfamiliar with, like grant proposals, or business letters? What do you do when you ask your students to write an argumentative essay, but they don’t know what an argumentative essay is?
Writing Effective Research Notes
We have established that writing well requires lots of reading, and, on top of that, lots of reading well. In order to get students reading well, or critically, assign research notes (or reader’s notes) as part of term papers, as lead-up assignments to term papers, or as response assignments to required, weekly readings.
Research Notes: The Bare Bones
There are two firm & fast rules to writing research notes:
1. Research notes must not exceed 2 pages.
2. Research notes must always be written in the reader’s own words.
These rules are SERIOUS BUSINESS because they help ensure that students achieve the first component of critical reading, which is to understand a text on its own terms. Northrop Frye writes that “Ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words.” Let me say it this way: we write not just to communicate knowledge, but to come to that knowledge in the first place. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought I’ve understood something until I’ve attempted to put it into words. Writing research notes in one’s own words, and in under two pages, instigates comprehension; summarizing and condensing, despite the affinity these two words sometimes share with surface learning and superficiality in university education, encourage deep learning. Shun Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.