Teaching Writing through Reading – in Two Parts

6 Mar

This post was originally written for
Teaching with Writing: Tips, by writing consultants at the
of UMinnesota’s Center for Writing.

This two-section Teaching Writing through Reading post provides ideas about how explicit guidance with reading tasks can benefit student writing. Part 1, Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, will offer three suggestions for how to use explicit guidance with reading to support student writing. Part 2, Guiding Literature Reviews, will extend the discussion by considering the literature review, an assignment that requires students to perform a number of intricate and closely related reading and writing tasks.

Writing & Reading Across the Curriculum

Literacy research has documented strong and symbiotic links between reading and writing. As Langer and Flihan note, “ Writers incorporate what they have learned about language, structure and style from the texts they have encountered as readers” (Center on English Learning & Achievement). The key word here is encounter. If students do not read actively, chances are they do not see the benefits in their writing. For example, when student reader s are unable to identify a text’s core argument or the connective ideas among texts, they will likely struggle with summary and synthesis writing.

Here are three suggestions for fostering mutually beneficial reading and writing encounters.

1. Assign Purposeful Reading

Principles of effective writing assignment design stress the benefits of making clear the purpose, audience, and genre for students. The same holds true for reading assignments. However, as Gottschalk and Hjortshoj point out, when reading is assigned, the purpose for reading and the reader’s role are often unspecified. Consequently, a student, highlighter in hand, will treat undifferentiated reading assignments as a surface, linear, and passive act – not an encounter. Two useful questions to consider when assigning reading are (1) what do you want the students to do with the reading?, and (2) what is their role as readers? Brief yet explicit prompting that addresses these questions will guide students toward more focused reading and writing.


Gottschalk and Hjortshoj offer this model from a course in Social Sciences: “Read Chapter VI in Hinton as a basis first for understanding the cases we discuss next week. We will return to this chapter when you write a comparison between Hinton’s theory and Caldwell’s two weeks later, and an understanding of both theories will serve you well in the midterm exam” (127). Here the instructor lays out the purpose for the reading (preparing to discuss cases and compare theories), and the ways that careful reading will prepare the student for future writing. The inclusive use of “we” also underscores how students are responsible for contributing to the course’s production of ideas.

2. Require Students to Read as Writers

A majority of assigned reading tasks focus on what Adler-Kassner and Estrem term “content – based reading” – reading that asks students to summarize, interpret, consider connections, memorize information, and develop ideas (40). While content – based reading sup ports many course learning goals, shifting the focus toward process – based reading (“scrutinizing the text to look at the decisions made by the writer”) and structure – based reading (“developing genre awareness”) can be especially useful for helping students identify models for their own academic writing.


In an Environmental Engineering capstone course, a professor requires students to read technical memos and Environmental Impact Reports in preparation for their final projects. When students read the memos and EIRs, they annotate the documents, identifying specific rhetorical features, writerly moves, and genre conventions that will help them with their own writing. The annotated texts are uploaded to the course’s Moodle page to serve as writing guidelines for students.

3. Leverage Reading and Writing Tasks

As earlier posts have identified, reading and writing practices are mutually deepened when they are integrated. Ways to integrate reading and writings tasks include dialectical notebooks, passage-based papers, reading journals, précis writing , and the use of graphic organizers. Such tasks have the added value of generating ongoing inquiry. For example, when students generate questions about a reading, they can answer those questions in more formal writing assignments.


In a Chemistry course, a professor assigns articles from The Journal of Structural Chemistry to a group s of students. The articles are complete, but the abstracts have been removed. After reading their assigned articles, the student groups draft an abstract for their article and share with the rest of the class. The professor then supplies the original abstracts, and the class discusses the similarities and differences between the student abstracts and the originals . This abstract exercise prepares students for their own final projects, which will include a research proposal and a written abstract.

The Long Conversation

In its recently revised Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, the Association of College and Research Libraries has identified Scholarship as Conversation as one of its six core competencies. In order for students to participate productively in such a conversation, they must continue to develop their critical reading and written reasoning skills. The second Teaching through Writing Tip, which follows in this post, will extend this discussion of reading and writing by turning to the modes of summary and synthesis writing and the genre of the Literature Review.

Guiding Literature Reviews

Common Assignment with Common Challenges

Literature reviews offer tremendous learning potential. When done well, literature reviews can guide students to read the way you read: querying, extrapolating, scrutinizing, interpreting, and evaluating content ideas. However, literature reviews also pose a number of challenges for students across disciplines. Recent faculty assessment of undergraduate literature reviews from academic units within the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences reveals students’ struggles to select, summarize, and integrate sources into a meaningful whole:

  • “Students were ‘stringing beads on a garland’ rather than drawing conclusions or exploring critical responses, strengths, and weaknesses.”
  • “[Students] didn’t seem to know how to read and understand the studies they were reviewing. In describing studies, students would say, for example, ‘The results were not significant.’ ”
  • “The literature reviews didn’t highlight themes, offered very little framing, rendered no apparent logic, and involved tremendous redundancy.” (WEC Ratings Reports from Summer 2016)

Cognitive research on writing from sources and synthesis underscores these comments. The crux of the challenge for many students is moving beyond “knowledge telling” – listing or reproducing the language, concepts, and organization of sources – and engaging in “knowledge restructuring” – interpreting and generating relationships among sources (Segev-Miller).

Beyond Bead Stringing

As earlier tips have suggested, making explicit the intellectual moves and strategies that have become tacit for experts is immensely beneficial to students. This principle applies to reading as well. Instructors can support students in the crucial shift from knowledge telling to knowledge restructuring by providing explicit guidance with reading. Here are three reading-oriented tips that support synthesis and the writing of literature reviews:

1. Tell Them What to Read For

While literature reviews are assigned across the university, their purposes are shaped by disciplinary and/or professional interests. Three common, yet distinct, purposes for literature reviews are

  1. identifying or establishing a controversy;
  2. providing a current state of the field or art; and
  3. exposing a gap in knowledge (Bean 243-44).

Although related, each of these purposes requires students to select and read sources with different motives. Explicitly guiding students to read for controversies, best practices, knowledge gaps, or some other purpose can provide a stronger writing framework for the literature review.


An instructor in Psychology assigns a literature review that requires students to identify a gap in knowledge. The instructor provides two articles related to the study of sleep deprivation on cognitive function and requires at least three additional articles selected by the students. To guide and motivate students’ reading, the instructor poses the search for knowledge gaps as a vital step in developing a grant proposal to fund further research (Bean 244).

2. Break Synthesis into Sequenced Moves

For an effective synthesis, students must accomplish a number of cognitively demanding tasks. They must identify appropriate sources, delete redundant information, substitute a series of related ideas for a general one, and construct a unifying proposition that links sources (Kintsch and van Dijk, cited in Segev-Miller). Scaffolding and practicing activities that align with these steps can help students build toward more complex synthesis.


An Assistant Professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate assigns brief in-class and online activities that build toward a clear understanding of synthesis.

Activity 1: Eliminate redundant information in a sample passage to create a succinct summary.

Activity 2: Rewrite a sample passage so that it’s a better synthesis of the ideas presented. Write 1 – 2 sentences describing what you think is problematic about the synthesis in the paragraph.

Activity 3: Share revised paragraphs with the class. We will vote on the best revision and create a list of our own criteria of what makes a good synthesis.

3. Process Readings Visually

As research shows, many students lack experience with intertextual reading – explaining how one text’s meaning both shapes and is shaped by other texts (Segev-Miller 2007). Encouraging students to create graphs, maps, or diagrams as they read is useful for visualizing a working outline of source relationships, and it can also promote the restructuring of those relationships, which is at the core of literature review.


John Carlis, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, encourages students to create spreadsheets to diagram the relationship of sources when preparing literature reviews. The cell values in the spreadsheet are effective in identifying how various readings (listed in rows) use related terms and concepts (listed in column headings). The denser the matrices, Carlis maintains, the richer the literature reviews.


Adler-Kassner, Linda, & Estrem, Heidi. “Reading Practices in the Writing Classroom.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, 31 (1 – 2), 2007, 35 – 47

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking an d Active Learning in the Classroom. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Carlis, John. “Thinking about Literature Review/Related Work Diagrams.” Handout, University of Minnesota, 2014.

Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in all Disciplines. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003.

Langer, Judith A. and Sheila Flihan. “Writing and Reading Relationships: Constructive Tasks.” Eds. Indrisano, Roselmina, and James R. Squire. Perspectives on Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice.

Segev-Miller, Rachel. “Cognitive Processes in Discourse Synthesis: The Case of Intertextual Processing Strategies.” M. Torrance, L. van Waes & D. Galbraith, eds. Writing and Cognition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

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See the Teaching with Writing resource pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. Each semester, the Teaching with Writing series offers free workshops and discussions, and phone, email, or face-to-face teaching with writing consultations.


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