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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Writing as a Response to Reading

February 26, 2016

Teacher question: My students talk about the stories through collaborative conversations and class discussions, but I hardly allow time for students to write written responses.  How often should I have students write a written response and should students be taking notes on the story?

Shanahan's response:

Writing about text or talking about text … I used to consider that to be an impossible choice. Then I read the research on it. Conversation and discussion about what students read is certainly valuable, and, yet, if your goal is to raise reading achievement, writing has even greater value (not such a hard choice after all).

Steve Graham and Michael Hebert analyzed data from more than 100 studies on writing about text. What they found was that writing about text had strong impacts on reading comprehension.

In fact, writing about text was clearly better than just reading the text, than reading and rereading the text, and than reading and talking about the text.

I suspect the reason for this is that writing forces one to think through an idea more thoroughly. There are many times when I start to write a blog entry, thinking I know what I want to say, but as I compose the limitations of my thinking are exposed — in a way that speaking does not seem to do.

For kids, when they write about text, they tend to have to go back and reread — and that alone is a big benefit.

Of course, Graham and Hebert did not find all writing to be equal.

For example, they reported that generally the better writers benefited more than the strugglers. However, that one was easily fixed with a bit of writing instruction and scaffolding. Teach kids how to do the writing that you are asking them to do, and you level the playing field.

Also, younger kids seemed to benefit a lot from writing summaries of text. But as they got older (like middle school and high school), then summaries gave a low payoff. Presumably because by then kids could summarize thoroughly without having to think as hard about it. At those advanced ages, analyzing, critiquing, and synthesizing texts through their writing had the biggest payoff.

That doesn’t mean that older students should never be asked to summarize, or that younger ones don’t need to write reports requiring them to combine info from multiple sources. It does mean that there should be proportionally more summary assignments — and summary instruction and scaffolding — in the elementary grades until kids become proficient. (And, vice versa).

Another difference is in the role of note-taking. There was only one study of that with kids in grades 3-4, and it had a very low payoff. However, in grades 5-12, there were many such studies and there was clearly a learning benefit both from structured and unstructured note-taking. This one I would probably only introduce when there was an actual benefit for the skill; that is the kids will need the notes to do something else.

In my classrooms, kids were expected to write pretty much everyday. Unlike when I taught, I’d probably make sure that between 20% and 60% of that writing (that is 1-3 days per week) would be writing about text; less of that in K-1 and more as students advanced through the grades.

Writing about text or talking about text? There is a place for both in your classroom.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln