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Sunday / August 25

Strong Writers are Wise Readers: Using Writing to Teach Critical Reading 

We know that reading is imperative for building great writers. We also are beginning to discover and practice the ways that writing is a critical component to creating great readers. For instance, we know that children, even in the earliest grades, often write before they read — and students can read any word they can write (although the reverse is not so reliably true). And we know that when students are able to craft beautiful descriptions and show and not tell a character’s mood, they are well-positioned to see the handiwork of the author whose book they are reading — and suddenly inference doesn’t feel so hard.  

The crucial nature of reading and writing reciprocity for growing both craft and structure skills as writerand decoding and comprehension skills as readers is something many of us are just beginning to truly explore.  

That said, recently I have found myself dabbling more and more into what I think is perhaps the most pressing reading work we can do in today’s information-rich and editing-poor digital reading climate: critical reading of digital texts.  

All of us who spend time online are inundated with videos, articles, social media posts, video games, and advertisements galore. And our very democracy has been threatened by average adults being unable to tell whether they were being manipulated by the content they consumed online.  

We also know that the students we teach, without the benefit of years or even fully formed pre-frontal cortexes, are particularly vulnerable to being convinced to think, buy, or do any number of things – especially when they see it online or in social media. One of the most effective ways, if not the most effective way to counteract this is by actively teaching students first to write whatever material we want them to read critically. 

For example, instead of correcting students who are fooled by internet memes that contain historical photographs of famous people and fake quotes, teach a mini-unit in which students create their own memes. Ask them to create ethical memes, giving guidelines as to what an ethical meme might include, such as 

  • factual images or quotes 
  • reference angled toward audience,  
  • inclusiveness,  
  • attribution of image or quote,  
  • fair use or permission-granted art, etc 

Then, just as we would with other writing pieces, encourage students to move through process writing to develop a meme, or several, of their own.  

Immediately afterward, offer a curated collection or memes, or ask the students to bring in favorites they have found online. With the memes they created by their sides, ask students to critically read: What messages are the authors of these memes trying to send? Are these memes factual? Are they ethical?  

As the students read, encourage them to hold tight to what they know as meme writers, referring back to their own memes as they read in order to remember decisions they made. 

You could imagine taking this same progression to any type of text that calls for critical reading: advertisement, vlog, social media post, etc. You can do this as lightly or as deeply as makes sense for your students and their reading habits and maturity level.  

Doing this kind of work is critical now and will become only more so as more new media comes into use. If we are transparent about the process — that by learning to write something, anything, we are better positioned to critically read it — our students will be well-positioned, excited, and empowered to tackle any new media challenge that comes their way. 

Written by

M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several titles for teachers, including Writers Read Better: Narrative: 50+ Paired Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work Into Powerful Genre Reading, the Unstoppable Writing Teacher, as well as the author of the young adult novel, Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist. She was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, where she shares her passion for accessibility, twenty-first century learning, and social justice as the Director of Innovation. 

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