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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Writing First!

Putting writing before reading is an effective approach to teaching and learning.

Writing First!- thumbnail
The expression “writing and reading” violates the habitual rhythm of our tongues. We usually say “reading and writing,” so it sounds as though I'm putting the cart before the horse. But I call writing the horse. Nothing can be read unless it was first written.
Consider this scene. First graders in their classroom are writing stories—or rather drawing pictures and writing pieces of their stories underneath each picture. Here's part of one story:A picture with two human figures.Text: “Me and Mommy went to Star Market.”An obscure picture of two shapes intersecting.Text: “I opened the car door and it bumped the car next to us.”A picture of two human figures with lots of bubbles coming out of one of their faces.Text: “The man shouted at Mommy.”
I standardized the text of this story. What the student actually wrote for the first picture was this: “me an mommmy wn to staa maaktt.” Besides the spelling problems, the letters vary wildly in size and wander around the picture; there are often no spaces between words (see Calkins, 1983). Nevertheless, every word is there, and the child can read it back to you word for word (as long as you don't wait too long to ask). A teacher or parent who gets to know that child's tricks of spelling can pretty reliably read the writing.
Teachers or parent helpers often compile these pictures and type the text in standard “grown-up” spelling, then bind the pages together with a hard cover to make a book. Students “write” multiple books during the year, which the teacher displays in a prominent spot in the classroom library. Students learn to read by reading their own and their classmates' books. This scene is happening in many kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade classrooms. I'd call it the most far-reaching change in education—in our very conception of literacy—that has happened in centuries.
First graders are not well positioned for reading: They can read only the words they have learned to read or sound out—a fairly small lexicon. But they are beautifully positioned for writing: They can write all the words they can say. Even younger children who don't know the alphabet can write if they have seen other people write: They just scribble, scribble, scribble—but with meaning, and they can “read” their writing back to you. All that's needed is to invite them to use invented spelling or kid spelling, whatever letters come easily.
Once this door is opened, teachers find that it helps teach reading. The process of writing helps children comprehend written language and control letters and texts, an understanding that they need for reading. Children no longer think of books as something impersonal—like arithmetic workbooks—written by a corporate, faceless “they.” They realize that books are the products of people like themselves trying to communicate with other people like themselves.
Donald Graves and several others deserve enormous credit for this discovery: Very young children can write before they can read, can write more than they can read, and can write more easily than they can read—because they can write anything they can say (Calkins, 1983; Graves, 1983; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Sowers, 1982). Why did it take us so long to discover this root, brute fact? Plenty of children through the ages must have scribbled meaningful writing before they could read or spell. Plenty of grown-ups must have noticed. But somehow no one really noticed; or else they noticed and called it aberrant or wrong.

Input or Output?

We could blame our blindness on the phrase “reading and writing,” but that phrase—and the sequence it implies—merely encapsulates a deep cultural construction embedded in everyday language. The word literacy literally means power over letters—that is, over both writing and reading. But used casually (and in government policy and legislation), literacy tends to mean reading, not writing. The words academic, professor, and even teacher tend to connote a reader and critic more than a writer, so deeply has the dominance of reading infected our ways of thinking.
The word learning also tends to connote reading and input—not writing and output. Our very conception of learning favors reading over writing because the concepts of learning and reading draw on the same root metaphor. Learning is input: taking things in, putting things inside us. People think of listening and reading—not talking and writing—as the core activities in school. (An old tradition has not fully disappeared: Talking is the crime and writing the punishment.) If we stop to think about it, we will realize that students learn from output—talking and writing. But we don't naturally think of learning as talking and writing. Notice, for example, how many teachers consider assessment or testing as measuring input rather than output. Tests tend to ask, in effect, “How well have you learned others' ideas?”
When I ask about a more writing-friendly model of assessment, educators suggest questions like this: “How well can students build new thoughts out of what they have studied?” That's a good model—yet notice how it's still a covert test of input. We need to stretch our cultural habits to realize that we could also have tests that ask, “What new ideas can the student come up with?” Such a model may seem to be an inadequate test of learning, yet it would in fact measure learning and reflect skills that students need for school, work, and life.
In most school and college courses, reading is more central than writing. There is usually only one writing course: some kind of “freshman writing workshop.” A sprinkling of creative writing or other advanced writing courses is available to comparatively few students. Departments other than English and journalism typically have no writing courses at all.
Of course, writing is assigned in many courses across many disciplines, although some students in large universities manage to avoid writing for their entire college career. But when writing is assigned, it traditionally serves reading: The student summarizes, interprets, explains, integrates, or makes comparisons among readings.

The Unexamined Dominance of Reading

Our sense of reading as the horse and of writing as the cart derives from a metaphor of learning that students are vessels to fill with knowledge. But if we put the real horse forward and emphasize writing, we make use of a better metaphor: Learning is the making of meaning. This helps explain much that is otherwise paradoxical. For example, the more we write and talk, the more we have to write and say. The greater the number of words that come out of us, the greater the number of words we find left inside. And when students feel empty—“I have nothing to say, nothing on my mind”—the cause is not insufficient input but insufficient output. Talking and writing put words and thoughts into students' heads. These facts are not contradictory when we understand that learning consists of making new connections, and thus new meanings.
When we stop privileging reading over writing and put the real horse—writing—in front, we stop privileging passivity over activity. I grant the usefulness of the currently fashionable formulations: that reading is “really writing” (actively creating meaning), and writing is “really reading” (passively finding what culture and history have inscribed in our heads). These formulations carry genuine and useful truth, but in the end, writing promotes more psychological and physical engagement than reading.
For example, reading tends to imply, “Sit still and pay attention,” whereas writing tends to imply, “Get in there and do something.” Reading means that the teacher and the author chose the words; writing means that the student chose the words. Reading asks, “What did they have to say?”, whereas writing asks, “What do you have to say?” Reading is consumption; writing is production. Putting reading first encourages passivity by locating agency and authority away from the student, keeping it in the teacher or the institution. It locks schools into sending students a pervasive message: Don't speak until spoken to, and don't write your own ideas until you prove you can correctly reproduce the ideas of others. When we make writing as important as reading, however, we help students break out of their characteristically passive stance in school and learning.
We also shouldn't overlook the importance of the physical dimension. Students are more awake and involved after they write than after they read. The next time a class discussion turns listless, stop and have everyone read a helpful piece of text. But notice how much more energized students become if—in the same situation—you ask them to write for a few minutes. The physical dimension can even enliven reading. Reading out loud—especially if the student uses gestures—has a positive influence on cognition.
Reading's dominance is linked to a cultural fear: “We must put reading before writing—input before output—or else we'll invite romantic solipsism and rampant individualism. Students will disappear into cocoons of isolation.” This fear rests on a model of individual development that most readers of this journal will recognize as misguided—a kind of parody of Freud and Piaget: “Children start out as egocentric little monads dominated by the desire to stay separate and egocentric. They cannot become ‘decentered’ or social without a terrible struggle.” It's as though we fear that our students are each in their own little bathrooms, and we must beat on the door and say, “What are you doing in there? Why have you been in there so long with the door locked? Come out and have some wholesome fun with us!”
A different model of development that derives from thinkers like George Herbert Meade, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Lev Vygotsky now seems more acceptable: Our children start out social and intertwined. Their little selves are not hermetically sealed atoms; instead, they are deeply enmeshed in the important figures in their lives. We don't have to struggle to make children connect with others—they already are naturally connected. We don't have to bang on the bathroom door to make them listen to, collaborate with, and feel part of the people and cultural forces around them. They may not want to listen to us, but that doesn't make them private and solipsistic. (It's usually the more private and solipsistic kids who listen best to us teachers.)
Separateness and autonomy are not qualities that children start out with but rather qualities they gradually achieve—a process marked by struggle and setbacks throughout adolescence and young adulthood. It can be a slow and difficult process for individuals to achieve that sense of self that enables them to think and act in ways that their community may disapprove of. Writing, in this instance, is a particularly powerful tool for helping adolescents listen, reflect, converse with themselves, and tackle both cultural messages and peer pressures.

Implications for Teaching

Write Hunches

Students invariably read better if they write first—if they start by writing their own thoughts about a topic that the class will tackle in a text. Even if the topic is scientific, factual, or technical, and students know little or nothing about it, I tell them, “Write your hunches about this topic—even your fantasies. What do you wish were true?”
For example, before having students read an essay about dropping out of school, I might ask them to freewrite about whether they think the number of dropouts has gone up or down in recent decades—and speculate about the causes of dropping out. Before reading an analysis of environmental degradation and a proposal on how to deal with it, students might speculate about the causes and suggest solutions of their own. Before conducting an experiment that involves rolling balls of different weights down inclined planes, students might speculate about the results. Starting with writing rather than reading highlights how learning and thinking work best: as a process of hypothesis making and hypothesis adjustment in which the mind is active rather than passive.
After writing their hunches, students are more attentive to what the author wrote—sometimes out of mere curiosity to see how well their ideas match the material. This kind of writing also makes students braver about questioning an alleged authority. For example, when students are asked to read an interpretation of something they find far-fetched—such as a strongly Marxist or psychoanalytic “take” or some “overintellectual” explanation—they often just tune out and say to themselves, “This is nuts!” If they write first and try to work out a hypothesis of their own, they may in fact be more resistant to the text, but they will at least be engaged in the problem—which just doesn't happen when they say, “This is nuts!” Now they have an intellectual relationship to the ideas in the text.

Write in the Mode

The previous examples focused on content. A comparable approach can help students better understand the forms that writing takes. If we are studying imaginative writing (fiction, poetry, or literary nonfiction), I have students try out the forms that I want them to understand. They might tell the story as a flashback, or tell it through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, or use a certain stanza. Students find this writing less intimidating if they do it as a low-stakes, playful exercise before reading the “great work of art.” As they get braver, they can write at greater length after discussing the published piece.
Before we read pieces of analytic or academic writing, I ask students to experiment with various forms: a frankly partisan argument in which they reveal themselves openly; an argument that strives to be dispassionate in which they try to keep themselves out; an analysis that tries to clarify and understand a complexity rather than make an argument. As we self-consciously try out these forms—sometimes as playful exercises, sometimes as serious revised essays—students learn to read more intelligently.

Write Movies of the Reader's Mind

We saw how writing helps 1st graders learn the difficult process of reading. Writing can help students at the college level as well, by providing them with a metacognitive understanding of the nature of the reading process. Most students have been taught by writing teachers to draft, get feedback, and revise (even if many of them skip this sequence when they can). Most students can see how writing is a process of slowly constructed meaning, often socially negotiated through feedback. They have learned that clarity is not what we start with but what we work toward. Fewer students are prey to the once-common myth that good writers sit down and immediately produce excellent writing out of some magical genius place in their heads.
But reading is much quicker and more hidden than writing. Students are therefore more prey to the myth that reading is a process in which experts look at texts and immediately see perfectly formed meanings hidden there—meanings that ordinary folk can't see. Students have a harder time understanding that reading is just like writing: a process of cognitive (and social) construction in which everyone builds up meanings from cues in the text, using as building blocks the word meanings already inside readers' heads. Just as in writing, clarity is not what we start with in reading but what we work toward.
We can use writing to help students comprehend this concept. When they understand it, they read better. What helps clarify the process is capturing elusive “rough drafts of reading”—what I call “movies of the reader's mind.” I present a text in fragments. After each fragment, I have students quickly write down everything that's going on in their minds: their reactions, their interpretations. For example, after being given the title and the first several sentences of a text, a student might write, “It seems to be about X. Some kind of analysis or story or argument. I have a hunch that I'm going to like this piece.” After reading the next couple of paragraphs, the student might write, “Oh, now I see it's doing something different from what I thought. It's making me think of X and Y, and it's reminding me of Z from my past experience [my past reading].” I try for three to five interruptions of this kind, regardless of the length of the piece. I also have students record changes in their reactions and interpretations after they read the piece a second time. The reflective writing after the first fragment might take only two minutes—but the writings get longer with subsequent fragments. This process flushes out the misreadings and wrong takes that are inevitable even with expert readers. It often helps for the teacher to be the guinea pig for the class and record movies of his or her mind with a text encountered for the first time (see Curtis, 2001).

The Horse and the Cart

I'm not arguing that reading is less important than writing. Nor am I saying, “Let's put writing first because students already read well.” Many students are remarkably bad at reading. But weakness in reading often stems from neglect of writing. Students will put more care and attention into reading when they have had more of a chance to write what's on their minds and when they have been given more opportunities to assume the role of writer. This is not an either/or argument, and the writing/reading connection is not a zero-sum game.

Calkins, L. M. (1983). Lessons from a child on the teaching and learning of writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Curtis, M. (2001). The original text-wrestling book. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Harste, J., Woodward, V., & Burke, C. (1984). Language stories and learning lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sowers, S. (1982). Reflect, expand, select: Three responses in the writing conference. In T. Newkirk & N. Atwell (Eds.), Understanding writing: Ways of observing, learning, and teaching. Chelmsford, MA: Northeast Regional Exchange.

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