Super Effective Means of Incorporating Reading in a Composition Classroom
Sometimes nearing the half-way mark of a composition course (and an ESL composition course goes by very quickly), I’ll slap myself on the forehead and say, “Oh, no! We’ve been so busy that I’ve forgotten to incorporate reading. We really need to do more reading in this class.”
But why read in the composition class at all when there’s so much else to teach (writing process, essay structure, essay development, grammar, mechanics, etc.)?
Reasons to Include Reading
By incorporating reading into the composition class, the teacher can
Provide models for student writing. One need look no further than E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” for example, for excellent descriptive writing and the power of the ending. The works of Mark Twain, such as “The Lowest Animal,” in which he argues persuasively that humans are the lowest, not highest, life form, is a strong model of satire and irony.
Provide topics for students to write about. It can be quite difficult for students to hear some bland definition and instructions and then, “Well, so, that’s what an exemplification essay is—now go write one.” However, if students read Bob Greene’s “How Unwritten Rules Circumscribe Our Lives,” about the unwritten rules in American culture (e.g., don’t take the tips left for wait staff), students have not only read an excellent model exemplification essay, but they also have a great topic from Mr. Greene on unwritten rules, and are now prepared, even eager, to discuss unwritten rules they know of and write about them. The teacher doesn’t even have to go on at length about what an exemplification essay is because Greene shows us so well in this essay. Also, a good topic and essay can create passion in the reader for writing.
Teach idioms and higher-level vocabulary. Students learn more higher-level vocabulary reading than they do watching TV or engaging in conversation, and if they read academic essays, vocabulary gains will be greater still. Just from reading the Greene essay, my students quickly picked up the term “unwritten rule,” not difficult linguistically but rather conceptually, and were using it in their own papers with ease and correctly.
So what are some good essays to use?
There are plenty of good ones anthologized or on the web for little to no cost. Some titles follow.
Suggested Readings for Students
“Unwritten Rules Circumscribe Our Lives” by Bob Greene
Greene discusses the various unwritten rules (don’t yell in restaurants) that define us.
“My Mother’s English” by Amy Tan
Tan shows how her immigrant mother’s “broken” English affect both mother and daughter.
“Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White
White describes the family’s annual trip to the lake and how it marks the passage of time.
“Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts” by Bruce Catton
Catton contrasts these two very different leaders representing two very different value systems.
“A Homemade Education” by Malcolm X
Malcolm X tells the story of learning to read while imprisoned
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King
His classic letter gives a rebuttal to the charges leveled against him by the addressees
“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell
In this story about power, Orwell tells the story of being forced to shoot an elephant against his will, although he was the person in authority.
“What is Intelligence, Anyway?” by Isaac Asimov
Asimov discusses the nature of intelligence and different kinds of intelligence.
“Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain
In this humorous speech, Twain gives some practical advice, such as “Be careful with those unloaded weapons—they kill” which seems remarkably timely.
“Why Don’t We Complain?” by William F. Buckley, Jr.
In this essay, Buckley describes various incidents when people should have complained yet didn’t and discusses what motivates people to remain silent in these cases.
Above are some essays and writings that have all proven successful with ESL students, which may be found on the web in most cases at little or no cost. These days instructors also can have their own custom reader designed by places like Pearson Publishing or University Readers.
Methods for Including Reading In the Composition Class
Pre-discussion, the reading, more discussion, writing
This is the most common way to incorporate reading in the composition classroom, and for good reason: the success in having students discuss first what an “unwritten rule” might be, then doing the reading to find out, then follow up with discussion of our thoughts on the reading, and finally the students get the composition topics.
Writing, based on a quote drawn from the reading
A variation to the above process would be to start the pre-discussion on a quote drawn from the reading: “When you are eating among other people, you do not raise your voice; it is just an example of the unwritten rules we live by.”
Discuss what might be meant by this followed by the reading, discussion, and writing.
Many teachers like to work the less formal journal in before the more formal essay response.
Reading, discussion, then have students develop their own writing topics
This is for more advanced writers, farther along in the composition class, who might be more comfortable with the process.
Extensive instruction on quoting, paraphrasing, and citing text
Students often lack this skill of incorporating another author’s work in their own. I’ve had graduate students who claimed not to have written a formal research paper before. Give your students the advantage of this academic skill by explicitly showing them how to locate material in the reading to support their main points, and how to quote and paraphrase it, and how to cite. I often give my students, as an exercise, a handout with some thesis, such as: A lot of society is based on a set of shared assumptions, rather than actual law. Then I’ll ask them to go to the Greene text on unwritten rules and find a sentence to support this, then quote, paraphrase, and cite the sentence.
Have students write a summary of everything they read in class: essay length works can be summarized in a paragraph. Model this important skill of selecting most important ideas, changing the words, and connecting them into a coherent paragraph.
Various journals—instead of freewriting, set some parameters
Students may not just summarize—you, after all, have done the reading and know what it’s about. Tell them they must tell you what they think of the piece and focus on that—the writing itself, the ideas, and so forth. Tell them they must include at least three, or five, new words from the reading in the journal. Or pull a quote from the reading and tell them to respond to that.
Have students rewrite the ending of “Shooting an Elephant.” What would they have Orwell do differently?
Write a letter to the author (Or email the author)
Respond to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as if you were one of the addressees of his letter, the coalition of clergymen critical of his actions. What do you have to say to King’s rebuttal in his letter? Or what would you, as yourself, say to King if you had been alive at the time the letter was written?
Write an interview with one of the characters
What would you really like to ask Malcolm X, the icon of the Civil Rights Movement? How do you think he’d respond?
Reading at times gets neglected in the composition classroom because there is so much to teach in writing.
However, teaching reading pays off big dividends and can save time and explicit instruction by providing an effective model.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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