I remember the day I began to understand what a thesis statement was, not with a vague understanding that it tells the reader what my essay is about, but a more specific understanding of its form and function. It was my senior year of college, and, ironically, I was taking a course that would teach me how to teach students to write.
For the entire semester, we had to keep a writing and reading journal. We had to include every thing we wrote (grocery lists, emails, letters, notes, essays) and every thing we read (grocery lists, emails, letters, notes, essays, books). And for everything we wrote, we also had to note the purpose and audience. At the end of the semester, we were asked to write a reflection essay about our daily writing and reading habits and explore what we learned about ourselves and about writing. When the professor returned my graded essay, I read the comments, which celebrated my “well-organized, thesis-driven essay.” I don’t remember everything the professor wrote on that essay, but his praise of my thesis was specific enough that I looked again at what I thought was an unremarkable sentence with which I was never satisfied. That was my a-ha moment. I understood that the thesis guided the rest of my essay, that it was the destination for my ideas and reflection, not the starting point. It told the reader not only what my essay was about, but how to get there.
I had written many essays before that semester, and I received high grades. Every essay had a thesis sentence and pretty well-organized paragraphs, even if the thesis could be stronger, and my writing has always been, according to my teachers, a little “loose,” “kind of meandering,” and, what I felt was the most cruel comment of all, “too chaotic.” I never had numerous, glaring grammatical errors, though I was not and still am not a grammar guru. I make mistakes. Over the years, I have practiced and practiced until I think my writing is a little less chaotic, though it still meanders (and I’m okay with that). The day I read those comments praising my thesis, I learned more than what a thesis is. What I realized that day is that I understood what good writing looked like even if I didn’t understand the rules. After looking over my reading and writing journal from that semester, I also realized how I had learned to write: by reading.
Reading has been a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on when I was a child. Living in a small town with an even smaller library meant that I had to read what was available. Once I had read my way through the Sweet Valley High and Baby Sitters Club and Boxcar Children books, I moved on to the biggest genre selections the library had to offer: romance and mystery. I read almost all of the Agatha Christie books one summer and then the Danielle Steeles when I was much too young. There was also a short time that I became fascinated by celebrity biographies: Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Marilyn Monroe. I read essay collections about nature, science books about astronomy and ocean life, and how-to books about paper crafts. Then, I read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, and lots of R.L. Stine. I wasn’t a discriminating reader.
There was also a time in sixth grade when I discovered (I’m a little chagrined to admit this now as an adult) and read several Lurlene McDaniel novels. I picked one up simply because her last name was the same as mine. For those who are unfamiliar with her work, Lurlene McDaniel is a prolific writer of YA novels wherein all of the teen characters are dying or dealing with chronic illness. They are seriously depressing. But, I read one a day for a while. Around this same time, I started writing really bad poetry trying to mimic Emily Dickinson (who I had just discovered) and angsty short stories. And guess what? All of my main characters died tragic and traumatic deaths. Even then, I was learning to write by reading. It may not have been good writing, but I was writing and learning that writing was a skill to practice. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but my avid reading allowed me to build writing skills that would carry me throughout high school, college, and graduate school.
I don’t believe people are born writers. We aren’t born with the skills or knowledge of how to construct effective sentences, how to diagram sentences, how paragraphs work, or how to convey complex ideas clearly for a reader. If I believed this to be true, I would quit teaching because trying to teach students to write would be futile and unnecessary. I would also quit writing because I feel like I still have so much to learn. I don’t believe that some people can just write. Ask any person who writes regularly, and they will tell you that it takes time, maybe a little pain, a lot of work and practice, and draft after draft after draft. But, I also don’t believe people can learn to write simply by writing. I believe the only way we learn to write is by reading. We have to come first to the written word as a curious and engaged reader. We have to understand what we like and what we want and what we need as readers. Think about it. Children don’t even learn to write their own names or simple words like “cat” or “dog” without having first seen the letters and words on the page.
If you ask any of my former or current students what is most important to me as a teacher, they will tell you it is reading. In fact, one year, I asked my students to write letters to incoming students instead of writing a self-reflection essay for their portfolios. These letters turned out to be more honest, more reflective, and more revealing than I had expected. For one section of the letter, I asked students to give their incoming peers the advice they wish someone had given them their first semester in college, especially when it came to being successful in my writing class. Most of the students responded, “you have to read if you want to be successful in this class.” I was proud.
I was proud because the students in many of my classes are not prepared for college. They hate writing, they hate reading, they struggle with conveying their ideas clearly. And I get frustrated, not because their essays are not good. They have good ideas. And not because of a few grammatical errors. I am frustrated because they don’t read, and I don’t think they will become better writers without reading. I can teach them the rules and show them models (I write every essay with them). I can provide specific feedback on their essays and meet with them one-on-one, and there may be some improvement.
However, if they don’t read, they will never continue to improve. I provide my students with essays to read (from the textbook and supplemental readings) to ground our discussions, to provide them with topics to write about, and to model good and bad writing. In other words, if students are writing a memoir, then we read several memoirs as a class. Many students, however, don’t read the essays before class. Then, they don’t understand why their writing isn’t getting better.
For years, I have been trying to design my courses in a way that not only encourages students to read, but requires them to do so. They have to write about what they read through summarizing, responding, and analyzing, but it still hasn’t been working. I know that I can’t make students read. I get that. What I don’t fully understand is the resistance to reading and their pride in not reading. Last semester, my students and I were discussing books. Only a handful of students had ever finished an entire book, and most of those admitted that it was because they had read the book aloud as a class while they were in high school. None of them had ever purchased a book. And many of them seemed proud of the fact they had never done so, a few even bragging that they had made it through an entire year of college without reading. I was aghast. And saddened.
In a course evaluation once, I had a student write that I was too passionate about reading and that I took it personally when students didn’t do their work. I confess: I am absolutely passionate about reading, and I will always take it personally. I take it personally because I often teach students like me and because I know what it will require of them to be successful in college and in life. It will be much harder for them than it is for others in many cases. See, I didn’t graduate from high school, and I was a first-generation college student. When I went to college, I had no idea how to write an academic essay or how to be a student. I still remember being a nervous wreck the first time I had to turn in a twenty-page seminar essay in graduate school. I didn’t know how to do it. I read. I worked. I asked questions. I practiced. And I kept going. Through trial and error, I made it through. When I look back, that first item in the list was the most important to my success. I read.
I don’t want my students to have to struggle the way I did. I can’t solve all of the problems, I don’t have all of the answers, and I am not qualified to rescue anyone. What I have to offer is my experiences. I want to tell them all the things I wish I had known, that I wish someone had told me that would make college life just a little easier. The most important piece of advice I can give to any student, but especially those in my composition classes is this: Read. And when they ask why they have to read (and they all ask this question), here is what I tell them:
- Reading builds our vocabulary: I’ve seen many students struggle with being able to find the right words to express their ideas. Reading exposes us to new words in context. We build a toolbox of words we can use later.
- Reading teaches us how to construct sound sentences: students in some of my classes have a difficult time crafting a single, error free sentence. I don’t believe we have to know all of the grammar rules, but in reading models of grammatically correct sentences, we begin to see patterns in language and style that we can mimic.
- Reading exposes us to new ideas and ways of thinking: There have been many studies that indicate that readers are more empathetic and kinder. I believe this to be true because reading allows us to see things from someone else’s perspective. When a group of my students were working on argument essays, they were finding it difficult to support their arguments with evidence (from personal experience or from texts). What I realized is that they couldn’t see things from someone else’s point of view and many couldn’t explain why they believed what they believed. Reading helps.
- Reading builds critical thinking skills: reading requires us to use our brains. On the surface, we must decode letters and words, but we must also see the meaning in those words, what the author is saying, how they are saying it. Doing so teaches us to think. And we can’t write if we can’t think critically and complexly.
- Reading opens the world to us, when our own world feels very small: I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t read. Without reading, my world was small. I often never left my hometown and spent most of my days as a young adult working. Without reading, I may have never experienced the thrill of sailing (something I’ve never done), imagined what it would be like to climb a mountain (when I was in the hospital and couldn’t walk across the room), to understand how beautiful the Italian countryside is in Spring( I haven’t been there..yet).
- Reading makes us curious: By reading, we want to know more. It creates a vicious cycle. The more we want to know, the more we have to read.
For all of those reasons (and more) I have wanted for years to ask my first-year composition students to read a book with me–not just short essays. There is nothing wrong with essays, but they don’t require sustained investment, and students see essays as something too familiar, I think. A book, on the other hand, asks for reader investment, and it can expose students to something they haven’t experienced. Every year, it didn’t happen. There was either a strict curriculum I had to follow or not enough money to provide books for students or not enough time. I was afraid that students wouldn’t respond well and, therefore, didn’t try to push it with those in positions to make these kinds of decisions. This year, however, we are finally doing a common read with our Expanded Composition students, and our department is providing the book for all students in these classes. We will be reading Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and I’m looking forward to sharing this reading experience with my classes. I’ll admit that I’m nervous about how it will work in a classroom of students who don’t want to read, but I’m also excited about this very important first step in their academic and writing lives. In reading together, I hope that we can all learn more about the world around us and about ourselves as writers. And who knows, maybe in the end, our writing (and discussions of writing) will be a little more purposeful and little less meandering.