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Teaching Reading for Writing

An article on writing instruction in The Atlantic [1] is among the must-reads of the week. In a nutshell, the piece reports that a lousy high school on Staten Island has found success improving students’ writing by actually teaching writing—that is, the fundamentals of sentence construction, the use of coordinating conjunctions to identify logical connections, and the coherent organization of paragraphs.

As Alan Jacobs observes across the page [2], this should come as little surprise to people who were educated before the 1960s. But it was a shock to the teachers at New Dorp High School, who initially believed that their students were too dumb to write well. Many now speak enthusiastically of the program. There’s actually fodder here for both sides of the recent strike in Chicago. On the one hand, teachers had to be placed under considerable pressure to implement reforms they distrusted. On the other hand, those reforms were not based on high stakes testing.

As an occasional teacher of expository writing at the college level, I am delighted by the favorable attention paid here to an unglamorous job. Although great writing can’t be taught, competent writing can. And in my experience, most students are eager to learn.

But there’s an obstacle to learning to write that the Atlantic piece doesn’t bring up: few students have much experience as readers of expository texts. English classes generally emphasize fiction and drama (the New Dorp students are reading Death of a Salesman). Social studies classes rely on insipid textbooks [3]. Asking students who have only these models to develop analytic arguments is something like asking rugby players to take up American football. They could be taught the rules. But they’d have trouble mastering a game they’d never seen played.

In addition to rigorous instruction then, students need examples of effective prose. To get them, they should be required to read good narrative history, traditional literary criticism, and, at least in my dreams, great political speeches.

What to assign? I’m curious to know what readers think. If you could require high school students to read just one text, what would it be? Think speeches, essays, or chapters of books. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably too much to ask.

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#1 Comment By Hubbard On September 25, 2012 @ 10:26 am

Just one text assigned for high school students? That’s a tough one, since I think it helps to read many good writers (Twain, Dickens) to get develop an ear for how they write as beautifully as they do. Much as I love Dostoyevsky, he’s probably too hard for the average high school student.

So my pick would be a gateway drug for writing. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It’s clear, concise, peppery, and wonderful. It worked for me.

#2 Comment By PDGM On September 25, 2012 @ 11:37 am

I often have my students read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. His life embodies the transformative powers of reading and writing; there’s a clear and direct connection between his learning to read and write (surreptitiously; he was a slave) and his eventual freedom from slavery. The language is formal and somewhat difficult to many modern students, but overall I think it works quite well.

#3 Comment By Ronan Ryan On September 25, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

For me, the letters of George Orwell can’t be beaten. You may not agree with his politics, but he’s a model of expository wrtitng.

#4 Comment By Monica Borel On September 25, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

I think Thomas Paine’s Common Sense could make the list.

#5 Comment By Zathras On September 25, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

My first instinct was to suggest magazines which do longer expository work–the Atlantic, Harpers, etc., but the issue is that these articles generally require a good amount of prior knowledge. And that’s the real issue here–is there exposition out there which does not rely on a substantial amount of prior knowledge?

#6 Comment By Maria On September 25, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler


#7 Comment By Carl On September 25, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

I teach Introduction to Philosophy at a Catholic college. My usual method is to start with Descartes’ Meditations, go ahead to Hume’s Enquiry on Human Understanding, then back to the classics with Plato’s Republic and Boethius’ Consolations. The readings are generally above the reading level of most of the students, so I spend a lot of class time just projecting the text up on a PowerPoint slide and talking through it. I generally get good improvement in writing skills from students over the course of the semester, and I’d like to think it’s partially because they have to get used to wading through the difficult texts.

#8 Comment By Aaron in Israel On September 26, 2012 @ 9:49 am

I still remember reading Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands Of an Angry God,” in high school English. I think that would be a good assignment.

#9 Comment By Adam O’Neal On September 26, 2012 @ 9:50 am

All the King’s Men: beautiful prose and brilliant political insight.

#10 Comment By Rick Geissal On September 26, 2012 @ 10:00 am

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (H.W. Brands)

#11 Comment By scott On September 26, 2012 @ 10:39 am

Strunk & White – “Elements of Style”

#12 Comment By Jason Reese On September 26, 2012 @ 11:06 am

Anything by John Lukacs.

#13 Comment By Charles On September 26, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

Endorsing early suggestions of Dostoevsky, Orwell, Twain. For the troublemakers, Douglass and Oscar Wilde as well.

#14 Comment By Andrea Broomfield On September 26, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

I agree that Frederick Douglass’s autobiography is excellent, and I am partial to the beauty of Annie Dillard’s prose.

#15 Comment By cka2nd On September 29, 2012 @ 10:47 am

Between being sick and having trouble accessing the TAC website, and the fact that this title only came to me as I woke up yesterday morning, I am sorry to say that this response to Rod’s question is several day’s late.

Henry T. Aubin’s “The Rescue of Jerusalem.” Aubin comes as close to solving a long-standing biblical and historical mystery as we are likely to ever see, in the process imparting useful lessons about the writing of the Bible and how history can be determined, analyzed, distorted and corrected. The subject is of vital importance to the development of both Western and World Civilization, and while the book is a corrective to “Euro-Centrist” history it is not a crude example of “Afro-Centrism.” Finally, while Aubin writes like the award-winning journalist he is, he footnotes like a serious scholar.

#16 Comment By David Andrews On September 29, 2012 @ 11:11 am

Tristram Shandy

#17 Comment By PDGM On September 29, 2012 @ 11:18 am

Annie Dillard’s essay on the moth (where it turns into a second wick; forgot the title for now) is stunning! I love that essay, and have used it in various remedialish college writing classes, both as a paradigm, and as an inspirational text (what I’m also doing with Douglass, of course).