Increasing Reading Comprehension Through Better Writing Assignments
Teaching writing is a complicated task that requires students to read, cognitively process information, and then synthesize information in relatable ways. Helping students learn to make connections to text that inform writing is vital to the writing process. One frame teachers use to teach these connections was identified by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman in Mosaic of Thought (1997). They concluded that students comprehend better when they make different kinds of connections:
To effectively use this strategy, teachers should spend time modeling for students how to make meaningful connections text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world. These frames create deeper understanding of texts and improved comprehension. Improved comprehension leads to improved writing.
National Writing Project teacher consultants and high school teacher participants in the Assignment Matters Grant initiative used LDC tools and teacher collaboration to create writing tasks that utilized these reading specific strategies in response to prompts. Through a series of iterations teacher consultants collaborated around these writing tasks and discussed phrasing, purpose, and other aspects that would improve their efficacy. Below are three of the assignments created using these tools and this text relationship frame as well as rational behind why these writing tasks are exemplary tasks for students.
Task #1: After reading “Ain’t I A Woman?” and Antony’s eulogy for Caesar from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, write an essay in which you compare the use of rhetorical appeals and argue the usefulness of those appeals to change the perspective of the intended audience. Support your position with evidence from both texts and notes on rhetorical appeals.
Sometimes when reading, readers are reminded of other things that they have read, other books by the same author, stories from a similar genre, or perhaps on the same topic. These types of connections are text-to-text connections. Readers gain insight during reading by thinking about how the information they are reading connects to other familiar text. “This character has the same problem that I read about in a story earlier in the unit,” would be an example of a text-to-text connection.This assignment is an exemplary example of assessing student understanding relating one text to another while informing an analysis. The teacher situates the reading, outlines the texts to be studied, and makes a deliberate point of accenting the intersection of the two texts. This assignment culminates in a clearly defined product allowing students to write to the text relationship and inform a culminating argument.
Task:2: After researching cell phone data plans offered by AT&T, write an essay in which you conduct a cost analysis. Discuss each plan and evaluate which better accommodates your needs and interests. Support your position with evidence from the texts.
Text-to-self connections are highly personal connections that a reader makes between a piece of reading material and the reader’s own experiences or life. An example of a text-to-self connection might be, “This story reminds me of my father’s struggles as an immigrant farmer.” In the assignment the student is given a clearly outlined text to focus on. This passage informs the student of factors that affect their personal self. The student is then asked to apply those factors from the reading to their own viewpoint and give support. The assignment requires both introspection and decision making to highlight an aspect of the text. This is an effective way to assess the text-to-self tool.
Task #3: In the book Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli describes Jeffrey Magee’s challenges as a homeless child living on the streets of Two Mills, Pennsylvania. However, his story is fiction. How would it compare to the stories of real children in the US? After reading Maniac Magee and viewing the short video “Hard Times Generation Update” on YouTube, write an explanatory essay comparing and contrasting Jeffrey’s fictional experience to those of homeless children in the US. Cite a minimum of three examples from each text as you show similarities and differences.
Text-to-world connections are the larger relationships readers use to inform their reading. We all have ideas about how the world works that goes far beyond our own personal experiences. We learn about things through television, movies, magazines, and newspapers. Often it is the text-to-world connections that teachers are trying to enhance when they teach lessons in science, social studies, and literature. An example of a text-to-world connection would be when a reader says, “I saw a program on television that talked about things described in this article.” In task three the teacher outlines the context that is set up in the reading and then informs the student with a video that showcases real world examples of the fictional experiences. This helps students complete the task of comparing the fictional passage and real life examples. The text relationship between the greater world of the student and the fictional world of the original text becomes highlighted and creates a measure of the comprehension of the text by the student which is then synthesized in a specific writing product.
Utilizing both the Literacy Design Collaborative tools and the text relationship approach writing assignments are strengthened and better prepared to guide instruction. The National Writing Project facilitated the discussion around these and other tasks by teachers and teacher leaders to open dialogue about what we find important in writing assignments. How do we work together within our conversations (globaly/locally) to continue refining the intersection of reading and writing instruction? These assignments and the process used to create them inform discussions and add to the critical knowledge teachers can bring to rigorous instruction.