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After Reading, Should Students Discuss the Text or Write About It?

A teacher recently wrote to literacy expert Timothy Shanahan to ask: Should she be making more time for students to respond to a text they've read through writing? Or are classroom discussions enough?

In a blog post, Shanahan, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, responded that this may seem like an impossible choice, but the research is clear. Writing about a text improves reading comprehension more than talking about it.

(You'll have to forgive his inelegant comparison to the question of whether to take Heidi Klum or Giselle Bündchen on a date—a dilemma the research is likely less clear on.)

He pointed to a 2010 report by Stephen Graham and Michael Hiebert of Vanderbilt University called "Writing to Read." 

"I suspect the reason for this is that writing forces one to think through an idea more thoroughly," wrote Shanahan. "There are many times when I start to write a blog entry, thinking I know what I want to say, but as I compose, the limitations of my thinking are exposed—in a way that speaking does not seem to do."

However, the research also has some caveats, he explains. Those include:

  • Writing about a text generally benefits good writers more than struggling ones. But teachers can level the playing field with scaffolding and specific writing instruction. 
  • Younger kids benefit from writing summaries. But middle and high school students need to do more analysis in their writing. 
  • Note-taking seems to help students in grades 5 and up more than it does those in lower grades. 
Overall, Shanahan recommends students write every day, but ony do this kind of response writing one to three times a week. 

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