Better Writing Assignments Start with Critical Reading Praxis


Laying the Foundation: Graduate Student Projects in Teaching & Learning

In this blog feature, we present the work of Rice graduate students completing coursework in our Certificate in Teaching and Learning.

Today, we’re featuring the project of Mallory Pladus, a PhD Candidate in English at Rice. As part of her coursework in UNIV 501 “Research on Teaching and Learning,” Mallory pursued the research question “What types of reading and writing assignments promote critical literacy?” Based on her findings she compiled an annotated bibliography, wrote a synthesis of the research, and developed a research poster. We asked Mallory to share her findings and analysis through this blog post.

In the spring I conducted a research project with the CTE that began as an effort to learn more about writing assignments in undergraduate courses, specifically for English and writing-focused courses, but with an interest in assignments across disciplines as well. I approached the project from the vantage point of an instructor at a loss, remembering having puzzled over the question of what kind of writing work to assign when I had the chance to experiment with curriculum design as a first-time grad student instructor.

In that teaching experience, I wanted to take seriously the question of how my course could be evidence of a pedagogical cornerstone: to help student writers feel more confident in how their thinking comes through on the page. I thought a lot about the standard essay form, its strengths and weaknesses: it combines lessons on argumentation, literary evidence, and form; it’s (rotely?) institutionalized across disciplines. In the research I did last term, I was still less interested in deposing the essay, and more interested in researching answers to these two questions: What types of assignments help students arrive at a point where they can claim, with a feeling of authenticity, in this paper, I argue that…? And what are the major principles in composition pedagogy that might help me and other instructors create more interesting and more effective assignments for students?

The findings were elucidating toward those ends. The field of composition pedagogy shows the positive influence of genre studies, which encourages instructors to make explicit the social function, the rhetorical situation, and the discourse community of the genres they’ve assigned.[1] Instructors who opt to not buck the traditional essay assignment, for example, should unpack with students who the essay is for, what conventions readers expect from it, and why the genre exists at all. I especially like the call to encourage students to write to a real or imagined community beyond the instructor. I remember valuing a version of this advice I received as an undergrad writer - to keep front and center the questions of who (is this for?) and why (write this at all?).

Above all, though, the standout lesson from the field - discussed as repetitiously as the content of the advice itself - is that student writers benefit most from writing early and often, through assignments that are sequenced, frequent, and recursive. I think most instructors know this, but could stand to be reminded. Effective assignments encompass opportunities for reflection, metacognition, and revision. They might call for post-script writing, for example; they might sequence an essay in staged parts; they might compel students to submit revisions after dialoguing with peers. In an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Doug Hesse, he summarily states the logic subtending all of these principles: “Students learn to write by writing.”[2]

For me, these conventional precepts - though helpful - omit one key term. Don’t students also learn to write by reading? One of my favorite things about teaching English is that part of the disciplinary groundwork is to attend carefully to language - to interpret texts as a series of decisions to a set of ends. For writing instruction, this helps. We impart to students the significance of these decisions, and we get to establish close engagement with language as a course norm. Hesse does acknowledge this aspect of successful writing classrooms too, as he notes that student writing benefits when students feel equipped to read texts as deep examples - not just of how to turn a phrase (though that too), but of carefully plotted rhetorical moves.

From experience, as a graduate fellow at Rice’s CAPC, I’m often reminded that my job to help a student improve a piece of writing comes down to making sure the student has really understood the assigned reading. When I think of common areas for improvement - an essay repeats key claims, doesn’t engage thoughtfully or confidently with source materials, lacks overall heft - they all tend to signal that a student’s first act in revision should be to return to the text. Through this work consulting on student essays, I’ve also learned that students frequently collapse the terms “critical” and “criticize”; when asked to “critique” an author’s argument, for example, students proceed to expose its flaws. These two observations suggest a need for and one potential barrier to implementing critical reading as part of our writing instruction. The pedagogy scholars, Robert Diyanni and Anton Borst, whose work I describe more below, define critical reading well: it is the capacity to “analyze a text, understand its logic, evaluate its evidence, interpret it creatively, and ask searching questions of it” (3).

Toward my first research question, about how to help students write with a greater feeling of authenticity, critical reading offers one answer. Before students can fill in the blanks that follow the template “In this paper, I argue that…” they need to form a considered response to a source text, and this work begins with meaningful comprehension. Further, the language that Diyanni and Borst use to define critical reading resonates with this goal of authentic argumentation. As they highlight the abilities to “interpret [a text] creatively” and to “ask searching questions of it,” they describe the act of reading from a specific subject position. Course writing assignments (“I will argue”) then allow students to develop ideas that began with reading.

My second research question pertained to the field of composition studies. In the research I conducted on writing assignments, I was surprised to not find more content on the relationship between critical reading and critical writing. There are, however, two notable exceptions to this point - one old, one new. In a study from 1990, Reading-to-Write: Exploring a Cognitive and Social Process, Linda Flower, et. al. explain that according to research in cognitive learning, the mind distinguishes between reading to do something and reading to learn something (6). When a person reads a set of instructions, for instance, they scan for usable content to extract. Conversely, the act of reading with a bent toward writing, “is guided by the need to produce a text of one’s own” (7).

In Critical Reading Across the Curriculum, DiYanni and Borst make a case for the significance of critical reading, with greater implications for pedagogy. They explain that CR entails two primary parts: to read responsibly (to accurately attend to a text) and to read responsively (to talk back to a text via marginalia and annotation). The contributor Pat C. Hoy argues that “We would do well to clarify for our students this entwining relationship, reminding them...that the most persuasive writing is predicated on acts of clear-headed critical reading” (25). Hoy offers the practical example of one such reading assignment as a precursor to writing: guide students to distill an essay; have them write one cogent sentence in the margin to capture the meaning of each paragraph.

Both Reading to Write and Critical Reading Across the Curriculum stress the importance of meeting a text on its own terms - of understanding its major moves and claims (as opposed to quickly mining it, and before beginning the work of critiquing it). Both provoke the need for instructors to prompt students to read better, with an eye toward writing. In addition to the example Hoy provides of the distillation assignment, instructors could experiment with reading journals, dialectical notebooks (that stage a conversation between the reader and the source text), and descriptive outlining (in which students unpack both what a text says and how it says it).[3] These examples attest to the overlaps between reading and writing assignments. Similarly, as we emphasize the importance of drafting, editing, and revising in the writing classroom, we can also emphasize active reading and active reading assignments as the first stage of the writing work we already know to teach as a process.

[1] From Dan Melzer’s Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing (2014). For more on genre theory, see Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines (2011).

[2] “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition” (2017).

[3] See Susan M. Leist, Writing to Teach; Writing to Learn in Higher Education (University Press of America, 2006), for a more detailed description of these and other assignments.

Posted on December 5, 2019 by Ania Kowalik