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Reading – The Missing Element In Writing

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photo_12As part of our ongoing discussion on addressing the concerns of students with remedial needs, Antonia Lewandowski (Communications, Seminole) sheds light on the important connection between writing and reading:

Composition I, the course that students fear taking, forms the bedrock or foundation for all their future academic writing. I know this, but the students don’t. What they see is a long slog through assignments that have little to do with what they want to write about or where they want to go academically.

“Why are you here?” I ask, almost mischievously at the start of the semester.
“To get a grade,” they say, almost in unison.

In every iteration of this course, I direct them through the basic steps in exposition. When we come to the persuasive essay, however, both mood and intention change. For this genre, students must imagine audience even more than for their previous writing assignments. Here they must visualize a reader who must be not only addressed, but convinced to accept a position; there must be something to set one’s teeth on edge.

This assignment, of course, lends itself well to developing voice, that quality in writing that best identifies the singular, individual character of each student’s relationship with words, ideas, and passions. The sum of these traits is style.

To argue well, obviously, the writer needs to have some “skin in the game,” to care about the topic. And here’s the catch. Except for the obvious topics that get the most media attention (guns, marijuana, abortion), many students can’t find much to say because they don’t have the raw material for developing an argument.

Many students don’t read. Of course, they read what is absolutely necessary for the course or the quiz. Yet, any number of them will admit that they haven’t read a book since middle school. And reading is critical to the development of writers.

There are some trends that look promising. The genre of young adult fiction has come into its own, with practitioners mining the real-world problems of adolescence for many novels’ conflicts and characters. Writers such as James Patterson write thrillers for children as well as adults. Suzanne CollinsHunger Games series captured the attention of millions. And Harry Potter became a household name because all ages, from elementary school students to grandparents, read and talked about the books.

Currently, The Hobbit, once a quiet, little book assigned in the past to freshmen high schoolers has now morphed into two inflated movies, with a third in development. The question is, however, whether or not readers still want the core story that serves as an introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe what these viewers want, even if they don’t know it, is the skeleton of a real story to showcase blockbuster graphic effects. And if students don’t reach for “stories,” they typically won’t head for nonfiction either.

For writers in Composition I, as well as for myself and other writers, reading needs to take first place. Reading anything from cereal boxes to newspaper editorials to classics, and pulp fiction in between, means an openness to fresh language, sentence variety and the controlling idea that should barrel through any text. (Even the words on the cereal box make an implicit argument). Writing implies an audience, the writer-reader in collaboration. I keep telling my students: if you read, you’ll be able to write. And if you read enough, you’ll have a reservoir of ideas to select or align with an argument.”

Excellent point, Antonia! So to encourage our students and share our love of reading, what is your favorite book? What is the one book that you’ve read over and over and still reach for again and why?

Amy Kelly (Learning Support Commons, Gibbs) – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read it so many times that I’ve lost count. I love the depth of Tolstoy’s characters, even those like Stiva who possess more superficial personalities. One of the main characters, Levin, struggles with an existential angst that I think many of us can relate to. Anna’s story is tragically compelling and masterfully woven into the novel, set in a 19th century Russia that Tolstoy has rendered exquisitely beautiful.

Kathy Bryson (Communications, Seminole) – I’d have to say Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. For the past 30 years, he’s written funny satiric send-ups of everything from politics to news to literature in a fantasy world of irreverent dwarves and elves and dragons that Tolkien would never invite to tea or even a drink at the pub! I have a standing order for Pratchett’s books when they come out in hardback.48690

Jennifer Haber (Communications, Tarpon Springs) – That is a really hard question. I am not sure I have a favorite book, and my philosophy is that there are so many books and so little time that I tend to read books only once or twice.

Albert Farr (Communications, Seminole) – I can read Invisible Man over and over again. Ellison’s ingenious incorporation of the socio-political unrest for the 20th century African American male, coupled with the fantastic encounters of our unnamed protagonist, helps to address that question of authentic citizenship for Black men. I LOVE the way he explains the stressors of Black men always running and seeking that “something” that could validate their very existence and ultimately help to form their self-esteem. Thanks Ralphie!!

Ursula Ryan (Communications, Gibbs) – Cutting for Stone written by Abraham Verghese is the most recent book that I did not want to finish. I learned some of the culture and socio-economic issues that demand so much of an African Country and its British influence. It is written by a surgeon, born and raised in Ethiopia, who struggles with these conflicts and who struggles with familial connections while trying to become the best surgeon, so he can “one-up” his British father. Honestly, I tried to stall the book because I knew I would not read anything so deep and intriguing about conflicting cultures while trying to be the best person one can be.

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your favorite book. For all our readers, what book do you think your students need? What book it is that sparked you reading, that triggered that particular joy that comes from losing yourself in another time and place?

1 comment

  1. Thanks, Antonia and Kathy! We assign novels in our ESL/EAP courses for this same reason, i.e., if not assigned, they don’t read. In a second language we are also working on building fluency and confidence as readers as much as looking for ideas to think, talk and write about. What do you think about online reading? There’s a great book by Maryanne Wolf called Proust and Squid that looks at this phenomenon from a neurolinguistic viewpoint. She’s quoted in this recent Washington Post article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html?hpid=z4 Take a skim!

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