Reading and Writing: A Balancing Act

Mayra E. Messi

Unlike last year, this year I was given a standard 9th grade English curriculum that dictated what literature I was to teach. According to the curriculum, I was to teach the novel, The Sound of Waves, by Yukio Mishima during the first marking period of the second semester. Knowing that, I began planning for that unit of study. All was well until I approached my principal about getting the books to distribute to my students. It was then that I realized that the principal had miscalculated the number of books that I would need. I was about 70 books short, and would realistically only have enough books for a class set. What this meant was that all the reading of this novel would have to take place in the classroom. This was coupled with the fact that I had already fallen behind on the very tight schedule set forth in order to cover all the material required in the curriculum. I knew that I could not afford to spend more than four weeks on this unit. My main concern then became having the students complete the novel, as well as, integrate writing assignments and activities that would be meaningful and educative.

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I was fully aware that I could never, and should never, want or expect my students to read for an entire one-hour class period. Not only would they have been bored, but also they would have become very resistant to reading. I knew that many of the students would gain nothing from extended reading times. As a teacher, I am responsible to teach my students strategies to read effectively and think critically about what they read. I also have the responsibility to develop their writing skills, and to teach them to use writing as a means for better understanding what they read. I knew that they would gain nothing from reading a novel and then simply answering questions that checked for comprehension.

Perhaps because I was faced with what I believed to be a daunting task, I was forced to search for as many resources as I could to aid me in creating lesson plans that would incorporate reading, writing, thoughtful activities and discussion. Looking back to that frenzied time, I am happy that I only had enough books for a class set and that I was forced to think “outside the box.” I now realize how comfortable I had become in my teaching style, and how that prevented me from looking for new ways of teaching. If it were not that I had been forced to find alternative ways of teaching literature, the experience that I had, and more importantly, that my students had, would never have taken place.

In essence, my plan was fairly simple. In-class reading would not be longer than 20 minutes. At times, I read to the class, acting as a model for good reading, and also gave students the opportunity to read. Most students were happy to have a chance to read out loud to the class. Even some students, who initially were afraid to read out loud, eventually became more comfortable and confident and read. Many of the lessons began with pre-reading activities that set the stage for that day’s reading assignment. These pre-reading activities were designed to activate students’ prior knowledge, set purposes for the reading, spark curiosity and question asking, and create a motivation for the students. During the reading, I devised activities that helped guide the students through the text, helping them to visualize, make connections, and form preliminary interpretations. Much of this was accomplished by using the “Interactive Read-Aloud” method.

After the reading assignment, students were then given a post reading activity/assignment. These activities also varied, and utilized art and creative writing. The post reading activities helped the students go back into the text to explore it more analytically and deepen their interpretations. Many of the activities enabled students to more fully understand the characters and their motivations, revise meaning, confirm previous predictions, ask new questions, as well as explore larger themes in the novel. Using this lesson format, I was able to utilize all of my class time effectively, optimizing my student’s learning experiences.

For the first time this year, my students were engaged in the reading and were anxious to find out “what happens next.” Not only were my students reading more, they were writing more. Because a lot of the writing assignments were low-stakes assignments, where they were not getting graded, they were more willing to do the assignments. Without the fear of failure, many of my low-skilled students attempted the assignments; many with greater levels of success than they thought were possible. The confidence that they gained during this unit was apparent through their greater levels of participation in class. Students who normally would not write, or would not share their writing with the class became eager to share their ideas, enriching class discussion.

While my lessons were initially borne from necessity, I now realize the value of balancing my lessons with reading and writing activities. During this unit, I have seen many of my students’ reading and writing skills develop. More students were completing the assignments, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They were very proud of their accomplishments, and as a teacher, nothing is more fulfilling than seeing your students find confidence in themselves where they lacked it before. After that unit, many students pulled me aside and told me that my class was their favorite because they were having fun while learning and that they looked forward to what I had in store for them in the next lesson. I can’t begin to tell you how much it means for a teacher to hear that from their students.