As an educator and language faculty, my work involves observing classes, talking to teachers, interviewing candidates and facilitating capacity-building sessions. In order to understand beliefs underlying class room practices I often observe teacher strategies and reflect upon them and examine them carefully. These beliefs are based upon traditional practices of taking reading and writing as discrete skills, to be developed separately with drill and practice. The cognitive aspects of reading and writing as meaning making are often ignored. Here are two examples of teachers I observed:
Ritu is a dedicated teacher. She divides her language classes into writing classes and reading classes, with more classes dedicated to writing than to reading. In the reading classes, children read aloud to understand the sound-letter relationships and to improve diction. In the writing classes, children do copy writing, free writing and creative writing.
Selva Raj time-manages his classes, he keeps ten minutes for reading and twenty minutes for writing in each class. First, he reads the lesson and then makes the children read it. This is followed by a discussion on what the author is trying to say. The last ten minutes are used for writing downin their own words what they have discussed. The children recollect the discussion and write it down, either in the form of questions and answers or in the form of an essay. Sometimes, Selva Raj asks them to write their opinions on the ideas expressed in the text.When asked why he uses this strategy, he replied that children need dedicated time to practice each skill separately. Moreover, writing is harder than reading as it requires thinking, creating and expressing.
These two examples reveal some common myths that prevail among teachers regarding the relationship between reading and writing. Firstly, most teachers see reading and writing as discrete skills. The second myth is that reading is a receptive skill and writing is a productive skill. So learning to read is easier because we receive information and store it in our brain, while writing requires retrieval of information and organizing it to produce words, sentences and discourses.
When we think about reading and writing as a product, we tend to think of them as distinct skills. We need to understand that reading and writing are processes which are so intertwined and interrelated that they cannot be separated. According to Paulo Friere, reading is a process of writing in the mind. “Reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and rewriting of what is read” (Friere, 1987, p. 24).
Both reading and writing are processes of creation. When we read and write, we do not simply encode or decode words, we also create meaning. Words on a page are mere marks, lifeless and empty, unless we breathe meaning into them.
Recently, our understanding of reading has undergone a paradigm shift as we no longer think of reading as the process of abstracting the author’s meaning from the text. Two sets of theories have contributed to this understanding. The schema theory of reading and the socio-cultural and socio-critical understanding of reading and writing as processes of understanding, representing and critiquing the world.
Lev Vygotsky posits in Thought and Language, “meaning-making follows two simultaneous processes which work in opposite directions” (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 218-219).They include the process of decoding, which builds from sounds and letters to meaningful wholes; and the process of meaning-making which begins with the contextual, cultural, and previous discourse knowledge that offers choices to match the textual matter. Reading and writing are therefore ways of thinking. They are social processes facilitated by the presence of people with whom we participate in activities.
The Conceptual Basis of Reading and Writing as Ways of Thinking
One of the most influential developments in language research has been the view that readers and writers are engaged in creating or composing a textual world in the process of meaning-making (Kucer, 1987, pp. 10-27). Kucer debunks the myth that reading is a process of linear progression of sound, word and meaning-making, while writing is a process of meaning construction. He affirms that both processes—reading and writing draw from the same pool of cognitive and linguistic resources. Researchers argue that fluent reading involves several processes that are characteristics of good writing (Flood & Lapps, 1987, pp. 9-26). What could these processes be?
Processes Underlying Reading and Writing
Figure 1. Cognitive processes underlying reading and writing.
When we read, we choose what we want to read and we try to predict the content from the title and contents. When we read a story, we try to predict the plot, the characters or the next action, the next argument, its logic, the conclusion, etc. At the level of words, we replace almost all words with our own versions except for the key words. When we write, we plan and choose what we want to write; in a story, we create the content and the title. As we continue to write, we predict (articulate) the plot, the characters, the action, the argument and its logic and conclusion. We are constantly refining, ideas, words, sentences, syntax.
Linguistic Processes Underlying Reading and Writing
At the most rudimentary level, when kids read whole words or small sentences even at a very early age, two things happen—they develop phonemic awareness and sound-letter relationships, they select words, phrases and sentences to recreate their experience. If this is done only through reading, it becomes a drill but when they write down their own words and thoughts, even with invented spelling it is a much more incidental, less laborious, and more natural process. Moreover, this process is achieved in the service of another functional task, that of trying to communicate something with someone.Learner-created texts have the advantage of engaging learners with their own writing as well as developing the meta-linguistic strategies common to reading and writing.
Readers and writers therefore share procedural knowledge, which includes sounds, words, morphology, syntax, and discourse strategies of cohesion and coherence.
The term discourse can be described as a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, and includes the social boundaries that define what can be said about a particular topic. A discourse community can be defined as people who share similar thoughts and ideas. Discourse may also be understood as a unit of language organized around a particular subject-matter and meaning. The idea of discourse signifies an awareness of social influence on language. Strictly speaking, it is only discourse that is directly accessible to us, since we only learn about the story via discourse. Elements of the discourse thus determine our perception of the writing. For instance, while reading a story we may ask ourselves questions such as: What is the narrative situation? Whose point of view is being presented? Which narrative modes have been employed? How are the thoughts of the characters transmitted? How has the chronology of events been dealt with? How has style been used? All of these elements are always used to create a certain effect. For instance, how is it that the reader tends to identify with one character and not with another? An analysis of the elements of the discourse reveals how the reader is “manipulated” into forming certain views about the story.
While writing a text, the writer takes these very elements into consideration and asks the very same questions to herself.
Does Writing Help in Reading?
Writers make use of reading in a number of different ways. They develop drafts,re-read them, review notes and compare styles with other authors. Writing techniques are used as pre-reading and post-reading activities in most class rooms. Most academic writing is done in response to reading. Writing as well as reading is a form of thinking. In academic writing, students have to articulate a clear thesis, and identify, evaluate and use evidence to support or challenge the thesis-sustaining arguments and synthesizing ideas.
When one writes, one conjoins all the experiences that have taken place during reading into a whole, as a process of connecting the dots. This process involves scanning and sieving, selecting and rejecting. Writing therefore actually rewrites all our experiences of reading the word and the world!
Gage (1986) as quoted in (McGinley & Tierney, 1988, p. 7) describes how writing contributes to knowing in his chapter, “Why Write” in the NSSE Yearbook:
Writing is thinking made tangible, thinking that can be examined because it is on the page and not in the head invisibly floating around. Writing is thinking that can be stopped and tinkered with. It is a way of holding thought still enough to examine its structure, its flaws. The road to clearer understanding of one’s thoughts is travelled on paper. It is through an attempt to find words for ourselves in which to express related ideas that we discover what we think.
Reading and Writing as a Mode of Learning and Critical Thinking
Why do we want children to read and write? Do we want them to acquire decoding skills simply to be able to follow instructions, or do we want them to read and write for knowledge creation and to be able to participate in the democratic processes of the nation, in the economic processes for their well-being as well as to develop and to express their ideas to the world in the process of being and becoming.
The objective of higher level reading and writing processes is to: use the title to indicate contents, predict the intention of the author, understand conventions of different genres and create meaning of vocabulary from the context and recreate the context, question the ideas with reference to the context, have an independent perspective, and to situate the reading in your social context; and more importantly, to critically question the ideas of the writer for knowledge creation.
If we want our students to become critical thinkers, they need to write in conjunction with reading. Critical thinkers must recognize the value of initiating an engagement (with reading and writing) at an appropriate time. They must have an understanding of the unique purpose of reading and writing as well as its power in order to comprehend, critically examine and rewrite the world and the word.
For educators, the term literacy is particularly useful as it brings together the two concepts of reading and writing which, up to the 1980s were treated quite separately in curriculum, pedagogy and research. In fact, one of the major contributions to language education is the merging of reading and writing. Today, there is a need to understand reading and writing as forms of understanding the word and the world and also as ways of acting upon social reality for change and transformation.
Reading and writing are part of the basic educational process; they are the cornerstone of a child’s success in school, and indeed throughout life. Without the ability to read and write critically and with conviction, the opportunity for personal fulfillment and participating in the economic life of the nation and the democratic processes will not be possible.
Finally, what could Ritu and Selva Raj do differently in their classrooms? Teachers like Ritu and Selva need to look at reading and writing in an integrated manner. They could ask children to collect writings on a theme related to the text, from sources such as newspapers, magazines, books, and even pamphlets, brochures or advertisements. These could be read and analysed before turning back to the text in question. Instead of simply accepting the ideas in the text, children could question them, and perhaps even debate on ideas from other sources. Writing down these questions would lead to fresh ideas and approaches. Author visits could be arranged for understanding the relationship between the processes of reading and writing. However, all these changes will reflect in the class room only when the teacher begins to read critically and participates in knowledge creation.
Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, D. P. (1984). A schema theoretic view of the basic processes in reading comprehension. Illinois: The National Institute of Education. Flood, J., & Lapps, D. (1987). Reading and Writing Relations: Assumptions and Directions. In The dynamics of language learning: Research in reading and English (pp. 9-26). Illinois: Eric Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills.
Friere, P. M. (1987). Reading the word and the world. London: Routledge.
Kucer. (1987). The cognitive base of reading and writing. In The dynamics of language learning: Research in reading and English (pp. 10-27). Illinois: Eric Clearinghouse.
Langer, S. K., & Appleby, A. N. (1996). Reading and writing instruction: Towards a theory of teaching and learning. Review of Research in Education, Vol13, 171-194.
McGinley, W., & Tierney, R. (1988). Reading and writing as ways of knowing and learning: Technical Report No. 423. Illinois: University of Illinois.
McGinley, W., & Tierney, R. J. (1989, July). Traversing the tropical landscape : Reading and writing as ways of knowing. Written Communication, Vol.6. pp. 243-269.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and word. In L. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (pp. 218-219). London: MIT.
Nivedita V. Bedadur is Assistant Professor in the University Resource Centre at Azim Premji University. She has taught English in Kendriya Vidyalayas in India and Nepal.