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Toward a Holistic Tutoring Practice: Teaching Reading and Critical Thinking in the Writing Center

Introduction

As a tutor at the writing center, I often work with students whose writings reflect flawed reasoning or insufficient understanding of the assigned reading. As a result, I find myself conversing with students about the arguments they try to express in the writing, not the technicalities such as grammar or sentence structure. One problem I consistently see when working with students like these is their inability to critically read and assess their own writing – they often think they have presented a well-argued case when in reality there are still many flaws. Motivated by the desire to help students critically assess their own writing, I set out to explore how writing center tutors can teach and encourage students to develop skills that enable them to treat their own writing on a higher intellectual level. I found from my research that there is a strong, positive correlation between one’s writing skills and one’s ability to read and think critically. Therefore, writing center tutors should have some knowledge of critical thinking and reading pedagogy, as these skills are intimately related to a student’s ability to write well.

In this paper, I specifically consider how student writers benefit from their abilities to critically read and think in both prewriting and revision stages in academic writing. I then survey some practical suggestions for tutors to experiment with, when opportunities present themselves for tutors to give students analytical reading or critical thinking tutorials.

Analytical Reading and Critical Thinking in Academic Writing

Before looking at the impact of analytical reading and critical thinking on one’s writing, we need to first understand some terminologies. Analytical reading is the ability to translate written words into intelligent ideas, which readers then internalize and absorb to be part of their own knowledge. It is not sufficient to understand individual words; we can all remember situations where we know all of the words in a given passage but understand not their meaning when taken together. Take the following passage for example:

If the balloons popped, the sound would not be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Since the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course the fellow could shot, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far (quoted in Caverly 28).

Most college students, people who visit our writing centers, recognize most if not all of these words. However, few of them would be able to make sense of this passage, if not given the appropriate context, in this case, a discussion of an electronic Romeo. This example, though not a perfect one, shows it is possible for a person to know all of the words in a passage but still fail to understand its meaning. Analytical reading is the skill required for readers to “bridge” this cognitive gap and make sense of the text, drawing knowledge from context, author’s intention, etc. Writing center tutors do well to recognize the importance for student writers to read their reading assignments and their own writing analytically, for if the students do not accurately comprehend the text on which they are to reflect or critique, even a grammatically correct paper would not earn them a satisfactory grade. Student writers also will benefit when they are able to give their own writings an analytical reading in order to identify the weaker parts of their argument and strengthen them accordingly.

After students are able to read a text analytically and make sense of its meaning, they then need to learn to relate that knowledge and make it relevant, a goal they cannot accomplish without critical thinking skills. Tracey Baker, Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, defines critical thinking as “the appropriate use of reflective skepticism toward the problem under consideration” (Baker 37). Critical thinkers use higher-order intellectual skills to analyze and question, reasoning with themselves to test the limits of ideas. They do not merely read and understand a text; they reflect upon the meaning of the text and the validity of the claims it makes.

Analytical reading and critical thinking skills are important in any intellectual pursuit, including the endeavors to express our thoughts in written words. In the next few paragraphs, I will show the roles that reading and critical thinking play in the process of academic writing. I limit my discussion in the field of academic writing among other genres, because it is usually the type of writing that students bring into the writing center on university campuses.

Prewriting Stage

As part of many college writing assignments, students are required to read either literary texts or scholarly articles. These readings could be Shakespearean plays, Hemingway’s novels, John Donne’s poetry, a president’s State of the Union address, and many other forms of writing. The students usually are asked to read the texts and write an analysis. Therefore, before the students begin to write, they need to first understand and analyze the texts. This is where analytical reading skills come in – with the help of solid analytical reading skills, students are then able to intellectually dissect the texts, digest the ideas in the texts, and form critical analysis. The ability to read analytically is especially important when the reading assignments are technical and more difficult to comprehend. Students cannot begin to work on the actual writing if they are unable to even make sense of the reading assignments that they need to analyze.

In the prewriting stage of the writing process, critical thinking is an asset as important as analytical reading. After students gain a firm understanding of the text, they need to think critically about the ideas expressed in the text and relate them to each other. In “Critical Thinking and the Writing Center: Possibilities,” Tracey Baker explores the relationship between critical thinking and writing and suggests ways in which writing center tutors can teach critical thinking. She quotes Janice Hays, who “equates thinking with writing,” as saying that

...it is the act of shaping though in writing that makes possible the elaboration of ideas, the establishing of relationships among those ideas, and the consequent manipulations of those relationships that we associate with complex thought…we do not genuinely “know” as subject until we have written about it, nor can we begin to think it through thoroughly until we have qualified, subordinated, correlated, and synthesized aspects of that subject in the structure of written language (Hays, quoted in Baker 38).

Because academic writing is instrumental – a tool used to express opinions, studies, ideas, and what not – the content of the writing reflects directly the thinking and reasoning in the words. Therefore, strong writing depends heavily on crisp reasoning.

Revision Stage

In the revision stage, critical thinking and analytical reading together helps students to assess their own arguments. If the students have strong critical thinking and reading skills, they can read their own writing and assess its strengths and weaknesses. Even though writing centers exist to help students with this task, students would do well to learn how to critique texts, including their own, so that they and the tutors at the writing center may actually exchange ideas and work together to improve their writing. Equipped with critical thinking and reading skills, students themselves become more mature thinkers.

Although strong critical thinking and analytical reading skills are integral to one’s ability to write well, many college students today lack them. The National Commission on Excellence in Education reports in “A Nation at Risk”:

- Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing and comprehension.

- About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate.

- Many 17-year-olds do not possess the “higher order” intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 4- percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematical problem requiring several steps (3).

The 17-year-olds described in the report go on to college with underdeveloped skills in thinking and reading, which impedes their success in writing exercises. This study, done in 1983, reflects problems with which college students struggle even today. In Griswold’s 2006 article, he details his small-scale interview of writing center tutors at West State University, in which study he finds that “tutors felt that their students did not have problems actually reading the words on the page, but rather had difficulty engaging critically with texts and distinguishing between key points and supporting evidence” (Griswold 66).

What should writing center tutors do when such students, who have little or no prior experience in learning how to think or read critically, bring to the writing center their weakly argued written assignments? Tutors need to realize the students’ papers reflect their incorrect understanding of a text or their flawed thinking and ready themselves to help students in these skills. The next section of the paper is a discussion of practical things writing center tutors can do to help students with critical thinking and analytical reading.

How Writing Center Tutors Can Help

Critical Thinking

One of the best ways for writing center tutors to encourage students to think critically is probably asking them a lot of questions in order to invite the students to critique their own writing. Specifically, “Burke’s Pentad” is a useful model that tutors can use to demonstrate how to make connections between pieces of information that students gather from either their own writing or reading assignments. The “Pentad” consists of five aspects of a text – the act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose – that interact with each other. The interplay of these five aspects, or the “ratio,” provides readers to critically comprehend the complexity of the relationships of ideas.

Another favorite question writing center tutors ask, the “so what” question, is also useful in helping the students to see the relevance (or lack thereof) of different pieces of information in their writing. When tutors ask the “so what” question, we invite students to make clearer the relevance of a point they make in their writing. Students often have great ideas in their papers; without a clear connection to the overarching point of the paper, however, those great ideas are argued in vain. Therefore, tutors need to constantly bring the students back to the thesis, or, the main point of the paper, and question whether a particular point in their writing is relevant. Questions such as “so what” help students to realize the weaknesses in their writing, and therefore help them strengthen their arguments.

Analytical Reading

To help students become better readers, writing center tutors can encourage them to read more on their own, an often-heard and long-proven strategy. This idea that with more experience comes greater understanding and mastery is the underlying belief in one of the three traditional schools of writing pedagogy, the mimetic school (Giroux 293). As Malinowski says in “The Reading-Writing Connection,” one frequent observation in the researches of reading and writing is that “better readers read more and unconsciously learn the skills needed to write” (5). The reason is that there are similar cognitive processes and patterns in reading and writing. The paralleled mental processes in reading and writing gradually train the students to model after the way great authors write, thereby improving their own writing.

Another useful advice writing center tutors can give their students is to annotate their reading assignments. Both Dan Foran and Keming Liu endorse annotation as “an index to critical writing” (Liu 192). Liu quotes Diyanni’s definition of annotation in a handout she compiles for her composition class students.

Annotations are brief notes written about a text during the process of reading. Underlining, circling words and phrases, highlighting passages, drawing arrows to link related points, and using question marks to indicate confusion are what a reader can do to signal importance. Marginal comments are also used to reflect the reader’s understanding of an attitude toward the text (Diyanni, quoted in Liu 201).

As students annotate their reading assignments, they process the written information in their minds, make connections between ideas, and use different symbols to mark up their reactions to the texts. Dan Foran, Director of the Writing Center at the Evergreen State College, demonstrates to his students exactly how to annotate. He would write down his comments on the text: “I have boxed in a thesis or sub-thesis, underlined in two colors a key phrase, written ‘Here he’s universalizing,’ or ‘Is this really true? What’s the support for this claim?’” (Foran 12). He observes that after the students understand how to annotate and practice doing it themselves, they are much more eager to start on the writing assignments, because they now have much more meaningful ideas about the texts to write about. Liu also comments that those who annotate critically, taking a “deep approach” to the text, produce essays that are marked by “clear argument and nonrepetitive support;” while those whose understanding of a text stays at the superficial level (as determined by their annotation of the text) write ambivalent arguments (203). As these two studies show, annotation appears to be an effective reading strategy and worthy for writing center tutors to recommend to their students.

Conclusion

We have seen that students who are able to read and think critically are usually also better writers. However, because many college students lack such skills for whatever reason, writing center tutors need to be familiar with reading and thinking pedagogies in order to help student writers in these areas. I do not suggest that writing center tutors need to be trained in critical thinking and reading pedagogy, in addition to existing training programs. Rather, I propose that they only have to be aware of these problems that student writers face and be familiar with ways in which they may help them read or think better. As I have suggested in the second part of the paper, writing center tutors can encourage and teach critical thinking by using heuristics, such as Burke’s Pentad. As for more productive reading, tutors can encourage students to read more on their own and to practice annotating assigned texts. Writing, reading, and thinking are inseparable from each other; and it is only when writing center tutors realize this intimate interrelationship and offer a holistic tutoring practice that students can mature into more advanced writers.

Works Cited

Baker, Tracey. “Critical Thinking and the Writing Center: Possibilities.” The Writing Center Journal 8.2 (1988): 37-41.

Caverly, David. “Teaching Reading in Learning Assistance Center.” Proceedings of the 17th and 18th Annual Institutes for Learning Assistance Professionals: 1996 and 1997.” Miodusky and Enright, ed. Tucscon, AZ: University Learning Center, University of Arizona, 1997. pp. 27-42.

Foran, Dan. “Reading Well: The Key to Success in College Writing.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 26.2 (2001): 12.

Giroux, Henry. “Writing and Critical Thinking in the Social Studies.” Curriculum Inquiry 8.4 (Winter 1978): 291-310.

Griswold, Gary. “Postsecondary Reading: What Writing Center Tutors Need to Know.” Journal of College Reading and Learning 37.1 (Fall 2006): 61-72.

Liu, Keming. “Annotation as an Index to Critical Writing.” Urban Education 41.2 (March 2006): 192-207.

Malinowski, Patricia. “The Reading-Writing Connection: An Overview and Annotated Bibliography.” Resources in Education (January 1988).

U.S. Department of Education. “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.” Washington D.C.: The National Commission of Excellence in Education, April 1983. http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html

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