Write to learn

Why do we write?  We express ourselves, we show what we know, we communicate with others, we have fun–the reasons vary.  But one of the most important, though often overlooked reasons, is that we write to learn.girl with pony tail on floor writing

Recently I worked with a high school student who was required to read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a memoir about the author’s miserable childhood.

However, my student not only needed to read the text but she needed to write about it using this approach:

  • On her computer (she could have used notebook paper), she created two columns. The first was labeled “Direct quote and page number” and the second was labeled “My response.”
  • For each chapter in the book, she was required to find one quote that identified the main point of that chapter. In the left column, she rewrote that quote  and its page number. In the right column she wrote a personal response to that quote. She did the same for all the chapters of the book.

“This assignment is probably to prove to the teacher that I read it,” she said to me. True, but this combination of reading and writing also helped her learn.

  • The student needed to analyze each chapter for its main idea or theme. She had to compress all those words of text and evaluate which idea seemed to dominate.
  • The student needed to find a quote that exemplifies the theme of each chapter. This called for understanding the text and evaluating one quote’s worthiness compared to another quote’s worthiness.
  • The student needed to use her emotional intelligence to offer a personal response. She knew that other students might choose the same quote. She needed to offer an insight that was uniquely hers.
  • And later, during a verbal discussion of the text or a written test, this writing assignment would probably make the student more confident. She had thought through the main ideas and was able to put forward an educated understanding.

Many research studies show a positive  correlation between writing about a text and understanding it. Writing is not the only way to improve reading comprehension, but it is a proven good way.

For more information about this learning strategy, see The Read, Respond, Revisit, Discus Strategy (Hurst, Fisk, & Wilson, 2006)

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