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This writing unit is based on a method of writing presented by Robert Gay in his book Writing Through Reading. Although this method was originally designed to be used with high school and college students, I believe that by modifying the reading assignments and writing exercises, this approach can be used with culturallydisadvantaged middle school students in an attempt to improve not only the students’ writing but their reading as well.
Writing through reading is simply a unit of methods and exercises in different kinds of rewriting or retelling another person’s thoughts. Through the processes of transcribing, translating, paraphrasing, condensing, and imitating, which I will discuss in detail later in this paper, students can learn to reproduce in writing the thoughts of others. Originality of expression rather than originality of thought is emphasized in this writing unit.
Practice in the use of the forms of reproduction mentioned above provides many benefits for students. Reproducing thoughts through these methods requires concentrated attention to reading. If students must record in some form the thoughts read, they must learn to read discriminatively.
An advantage reproducing thoughts has over original composition is that the problem of writing is greatly simplified by providing the students with the ideas about a subject.
Reproducing thoughts has another advantage in that it allows students to measure their own success. The reading material reproduced serves as a model with which students can compare their work. Similar writing submitted by classmates also provides a model with which students can judge their own work. Original writing can really only be judged by the teacher’s standards, which may be totally inconsistent with those of the students.
Another advantage of reproducing thoughts is that it forces students to enlarge their vocabularies. If students are to reproduce the thoughts of another, they must strive for accuracy. If their limited vocabularies do not provide the words for expressing another’s thoughts, they must find them.
Reproducing thoughts also provides a practical means of attaining competency in writing sentences. Generally, frequent exposure to good writing eventually enables students to distinguish between good writing and bad writing. If students read the sentences of an author who knows how to write them, reread them over and over, preferably aloud, and practice writing sentences following the exact model of those read, they will master the art of writing sentences.
Gay summarizes the advantages of rewriting another person’s thoughts as follows:
The intent of this unit is not necessarily to produce great writers. In a classroom setting, I’m not concerned so much with the training of young authors as with the simpler problems of teaching students to write sentences and to acquire a vocabulary. Since good writing is basically a matter of habit and feeling, I hope that this unit will also provide methods of establishing habit and generating taste.
- (a) That students know exactly what they are doing, and have two standards with which to compare their products—the original, and the versions of their classmates.
- (b) That students can write under the eye of their teacher, and are subject to the teacher’s suggestion and criticism.
- (c) That students discover that learning to write may be an artistic discipline, conducted not only in accordance with theory, but by practice in the presence of a model.
- (d) That students are compelled to pay attention to the two essential units of style—the word and the sentence; and to these, not—as too often in rhetorical study—because they appear to be important on their own account, but because, to express the thought of the original, they must be “right.” Students must extend their vocabulary, refine their diction, and labor over their sentences.
- (e) That, since good writing is largely an affair of feeling,—of the ear,—students unconsciously train their perception of sentencepattern and sentence rhythm.
- (f) That the rewriting of carefully selected passages of prose and poetry imprints upon the minds of students worthy ideas which, merely read, would soon be forgotten.1
What is good reading material? Gay describes good reading material for this unit as “material whose subject matter falls well within the experience or observation, or at least, the apprehension, of a young student.” In addition to selecting appropriate material based on the fact that there will be representatives of all reading levels, consideration must be given to the varying interest levels represented in any classroom.
Once these reading and interest levels are known it will be easy to direct students to reading materials needed for their writing exercises. Although many writing exercises will be assigned based on specific readings, there will be some writing exercises in which the students will be given the opportunity to choose the book or passage they will read.
The classroom will be the setting for most of the writing done in this unit, and since this writing unit is based on reading, ample reading material must be on hand in the classroom at all times. There must be something for every student to enjoy. Material for this unit should include readings in new and old literature, realistic and fanciful literature, and prose and poetry. Gay offers a general description of good reading material is offered by Amelia H. Munson in “Book Selection,” an article contained in the book edited by Evelyn R. Robinson, entitled Readings About Children’s Literature. Munson suggests, “In your whole collection, try to have: Scope, coverage, variety, readability, and attractiveness.”3 Excerpts from her description of the features found in good reading material are as follows:
Scope. Start with known interests of young people so as to set up the inviting element of familiarity. Add to this books that will broaden their interests.
Coverage. This follows from the breaking down of fiction and nonfiction barriers and recommends your gathering material on a subject from factual, fictional, biographical, poetic, dramatic, and all other possible fields that add just the angle needed.
Variety. The same subject may appeal to a wide range of readers. Therefore it should be presented in books widely differing in treatment and in vocabulary.
Readability. Sometimes this is a matter of format, sometimes of vocabulary, sometimes of construction. Again, consider your clientele. Readable for whom?
Attractiveness. Look for: clear type, not too small; wide margins; a sufficiently heavy paper to be opaque; and eye catching but not blinding jackets.4
Using these suggestions for selection, it should not be difficult to furnish a classroom with reading material suitable for this writing unit. That being done, writing through reading can begin.
“Writing Through Reading” is a unit designed to be used throughout the school year primarily as independent classwork. Much of my class time is spent in small group instruction. Students are grouped homogeneously, but since classes are usually large, I find it necessary to divide each class into small groups in order to provide more individualized instruction.
After the groups have been established, most of the classwork is done independently. Because most of the writing for this unit is done independently, it is totally suitable to my method of teaching. This unit can be introduced very early in the school year. Writing exercises can be included as part of a students’ weekly assignments. It is of prime importance that the routine of writing daily be established as soon as possible.
To introduce writing through reading I would begin with the process of transcribing, which is probably the simplest form of reproduction, since it involves simply reading a passage of prose and copying it on paper. Students would be required to read a different passage every day and write it out verbatim, observing its structure and the relations of its parts, and looking up all strange words in the dictionary. Famous quotations are fun to use for this exercise’ and the supply is limitless.
Passages for these exercises would most often be chosen by the students themselves. Each day students would find a different topic on the chalkboard, such as Love, Hatred, Knowledge, Courage, and the like. They would be required to find a quotation under that heading and write it in their writing notebooks. Later the meanings of the quotations can be discussed with the class.
Given this as a daily exercise, students will certainly increase their vocabularies and gain practice in looking for the central thought in a passage. A good alternative to this exercise is one in which students can learn to train the memory and to improve spelling, punctuation, and listening skills. A short passage can be read aloud to students two or more times, and the students can then try to write it out in full. Basically these simple exercises serve to introduce the unit as well as to establish the habit of writing daily.
After a few weeks of transcribing, I would introduce, the process of translation. According to Gay in his chapter on translating he states that translating involves the following three steps: “We must (1) master completely the thought of the original; then (2) set ourselves to writing it down in the English language; and then (3) revise our version with a view to bringing it into close conformity with the thought of the original.”5 This process, although a generally used device, is not one on which I would spend a great deal of time. Without eliminating the daily practice of transcribing, I would probably assign exercises in translating as extra credit activities or assign them mainly to my bilingual students. With the use of Spanish/English dictionaries, students would be required to read and translate into English short passages written in Spanish.
To promote interest for the whole class in translating exercises, I may have bilingual students read aloud in Spanish the lyrics of a popular song and ask students to work together writing the translation in English. Enthusiasm for this method of reproduction should grow if students are provided with this sort of readaloud introduction.
I would then proceed to the process of reproduction known as paraphrasing, which is in itself a special form of translation. Gay states, “In translating, it is often necessary to amplify the original, or otherwise to change it, in English, in order that it may be clear. Such free translation is often called paraphrasing. It is sometimes useful, too, to rewrite a passage of English in other words to make its meaning clear.”6 If paraphrasing helps to give a clearer meaning to a passage and serves as an aid to comprehension, then it justifies itself a valuable method of writing. Students are forced to read for meaning if they are required to write in their own words what an author is saying in his work.
Gay offers the following methods and applications as the procedure for paraphrasing:
Before assigning independent work in paraphrasing, I would work together with the class paraphrasing several passages using the methods listed above. Passages from the Bible, Shakespeare, Mother Goose, Greek myths, old fairy tales, and folk tales provide excellent reading material for paraphrasing exercises.
- 1. Read the original over slowly again and again, until you are sure you know exactly what it means. Use the dictionary.
- 2. Do not try to find a synonym for each adjective, noun, and verb; on the contrary, do not hesitate to repeat any word if its meaning is clear and simple. If, however, the obscurity is due to unusual words or to figures of speech, try to find common and literal equivalents for these.
- 3. Rephrase the passage entirely.
- 4. Try hard to retain the tone of the original.
- 5. Give the central train of thought.
- 6. Put in nothing that is not expressed or implied in the original, and leave out nothing.7
I would continue next with condensing because its emphasis on finding the main ideas of the original and on writing concisely can be better understood after completing the previous exercises, which stress words. A condensation, as it is defined by Gay, is “a concise abridgment, containing the substance of a full statement; a concise and lucid summary of a longer passage of prose or poetry.”8
The educational values of condensing are selfevident since qualities to be aimed at in this writing method are accuracy, completeness, clearness, and brevity. Advantages to this method of writing are that it gives training in reading and writing equally, and by following a simple procedure students can develop this skill rapidly with practice. The procedure Gay suggests is as follows:
In using this procedure, students are to keep in mind that the essential quality of a condensation is clearness; and the test of clearness is that a reader who has not seen the original will understand the meaning of the condensation.
- 1. Read the original over two or three times, until you have a clear idea of its meaning. Think of a title for the whole passage.
- 2. Try to divide the original into sections, and write a heading for each section.
- 3. Decide what is essential and what is unessential in each section.
- 4. Decide what emphasis to give to the thought of each section.
- 5. Write a clear and orderly condensed version, incorporating in it all the essential thought of the original, and adding nothing of your own.
- 6. Revise your version for further condensation.9
As in paraphrasing exercises, I would work together with students before assigning independent exercises in condensing. Once I felt the students had a clear understanding of the process, I might begin by reading a newspaper account omitting the lead, and have students furnish the summary of the news story. Simple exercises such as those would be followed by exercises involving longer passages to be condensed. By the end of the school year, I would hope that most students could competently review a book of their choice.
As reading material for exercises in condensing, I would probably choose passages from newspapers, famous speeches, debates, essays, narrative poems, plays and books.
In transcribing, translating, paraphrasing, and condensing, the students should be striving to train their perception of sentence structure, pattern and rhythm; and, in doing so, they may unconsciously achieve fluency of expression. Many of my students have difficulty expressing themselves both in writing and in speaking. Since I believe there is a need for a common knowledge among people, I strive for a standard dialect of English in my classroom. Arnold B. Cherney states in Teaching Culturally Disadvantaged in the Elementary Schools, “I do
not view dialect instruction as an invasion of a person’s linguistic privacy but an attempt to provide him with another tool with which to fashion a fuller life. The degree to which the culturally disadvantaged approximate the standard dialect of society in general will be the determiner of their integration into this same society.”10 I agree with this theory.
One method of acquiring a standard dialect is through unconscious imitation. Exposure to good writing through the method of imitating offers a perfectly definite standard for comparison and emulation. I present this process of reproducing thoughts last, because I feel it is the most difficult method of writing through reading. It is the method of writing which most closely resembles creative writing. By imitating, students experience many styles of writing, and as their personality and originality develop, their own style will emerge.
In his chapter on imitation and emulation, Gay provides two procedures to be followed. One procedure is to be used for imitating prose, the other for imitating poetry.
The mode of procedure for prose is as follows:
Again, illustration will help students to understand the actual procedure. In addition to being difficult, imitating exercises are usually not completed in one lesson. For this reason motivation is very important. Reading material consisting of good prose and poetry provides some of the motivation for these exercises. In addition an atmosphere that encourages interest and pride in selfexpression will help.
- 1. Select a passage within your knowledge or experience.
- 2. Read the passage over and over.
- 3. Jot down a hint of the thought of each sentence.
- 4. After each hint, record the number of words in the original sentence.
- 5. A day later expand your hints to about the length of the original sentences.
- 6. Compare your version in detail with the original.11
I would offer the same suggestions for imitating poetry, although the procedure for this process is somewhat different. Gay suggests that after careful study of the model:
As I have mentioned earlier, illustration helps. This method of writing should be saved for the latter part of the school year after the students have had practice in reproducing thoughts for several months and writing has become routine.
- 1. Think out in a general way what you wish to say.
- 2. Try to think of your verse in groups, not singly.
- 3. Before you write down a verse try to make it conform to the rhythm of the original.
- 4. Having made two or more lines conform to the rhythm, write them down.
- 5. As an ideal, try to conform to the natural order of prose.12
In conclusion, I will say that in researching this paper I have collected a wealth of useful information on the teaching of writing. Selecting “Writing Through Reading” as an approach to discuss over the many others available does not mean that I think it is the best approach to the teaching of writing. I was looking for a writing unit that would supplement other kinds of writing in the classroom and would offer daily practice in writing. Considering the needs of my students and believing in the distinct advantages of this unit, exercises in transcribing, translating, paraphrasing, condensing, and imitating, sensibly conducted, serve those purposes.
Mother Goose Rhymes
- 1. Every day students will be required to find and copy verbatim a famous quotation. When students meet for small group instruction, check the entry in their writing notebooks and discuss the students’ interpretations of the quotations.
- 2. As a group exercise a short passage is read aloud two or three times. Students will then try to write it out in full. Some passages to use for this exercise are as follows:
Birds of a feather flock together,
And so will pigs and swine;
Rats and mice will have their choice,
And so will I have mine.
See a pin and pick it up;
All the day you’ll have good luck;
See a pin and let it lie,
Sure you’ll want before you die.
I’ve seen you where you never were,
And where you’ll never be,
And yet you in that very same place,
May still be seen by me.
For every evil under the sun,
There is a remedy, or there is none
If there be one, try and find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
A las cuatro de la tarde, voy a las
- 1. Simple passages from a level one Spanish book provide suitable material for exercises in translating. Using a Spanish/English dictionary, students are required to translate short paragraphs or poems from Spanish into English. It might be helpful to give hints. Examples are as follows:
tiendas del centro porque tengo que
comprar fruta y mantequilla pare
la cena. Hay que comprar fruta en
la fruteria y mantequilla en la
lecheria. Comemos a las nueve.
Hint: This paragraph describes the eating and
shopping customs in a SpanishAmerican country.
By Georgio Castaneda Aragon13
sin una nube.
Solo la espuma
sobre la arena
Hint: A poem to learn about the sea.
- 2. As a whole class activity using Spanish/English dictionaries, have one of the Spanishspeaking students write the first stanza of a popular song on the chalkboard. Have the student read it over a few times aloud, trying to accentuate the rhythm of the song. Translate it word by word together with the class.
- 1. Students will be required to (a) paraphrase the following: and (b) give the situation and the subject, as clearly as they can in a few words:
The world has never had a good definition of the word “liberty”, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing. With some, the word “liberty” may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name,—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names,—liberty and tyranny.
Address, Sanitary Fair, Baltimore
April 18, 1864
“I, Too, Sing America”
- 2. Students are asked to write out their understanding of two short poems. Some examples are:
By Langston Hughes14
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed
I, too, am America.
“Take Something Like a Star”
By Robert Frost15
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
I gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may take something like a star
- 1. Using the method of condensing described in the unit, condense the following passage:
In the early days of Massachusetts, there was a time when good sense and justice seemed to be set aside. Innocent people lost their lives because of group hysteria.
It began in 1692 in Salem Village. This wasn’t the famous town of Salem, but a small village not far from it. The name of the village was later changed to Danvers.
A group of young girls used to spend time with a slave named Tituba, who came from the West Indies. The girls were all under 20 years of age. Tituba told them about magic and fortunetelling. The girls also read books about witches. These were evil things to the people of Massachusetts in those days. They believed that witches did the work of the devil.
Two of the girls became sick. They began to have fits. They said they were under witches’ spells. They said that the witches were Tituba and two unpopular women of the village. Then other girls accused other people of witchcraft. The suspected witches were put on trial. Some people confessed and accused others, so they would not be hanged. Others were executed by hanging.
The search for witches spread to other towns. Over 200 people were arrested. Twenty people were put to death. Many who spoke out against the trials were accused of witchcraft themselves and were arrested.
People finally could tolerate the situation no longer. They still believed in witches. But they thought people should not be hanged because of the kind of evidence that was given. The evidence, they thought, might be fake. And some of the people who were accused and executed seemed like good, honest people.
The governor of Massachusetts ordered the trials stopped. The accused witches were set free. The dark days of the witch hunt were over.
From Scholastic Real World English:
- 2. Write three leads for “news stories” suggested by incidents in history.
- 3. Write leads for three tales from Grimm or Andersen.
- 4. Write a condensed version of the plot of one of the stories mentioned above.
- 1. Using the following passage as a model, students will be asked to write about a heavenly place for a girl keeping in mind the mountain of examples which are provided in the example to prove that Uncle John’s farm was indeed “a heavenly place for a boy.”
It was a heavenly place for a boy, that farm of my Uncle John’s. The house was a double log one, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting it with the kitchen. In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals—well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken, roast pig; wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairiechickens; biscuits, hot batter cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot “wheat bread,” hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butterbeans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, “crabber”; watermelons, muskmelons, cantaloupes—all fresh from the garden; apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler—I can’t remember the rest. The way that things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor—particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheat bread, and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North—in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread, but this is mere superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite so good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.
_ Mark Twain
- 2. Using a poem of their choice, students will be asked to write a few stanzas in the same meter and tone. Light verse concerning an amusing idea expressed in an offhand manner provides the best model. Examples are as follows:
By Paul Laurence Dunbar 16
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free; I
Its not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
By Langston Hughes 17
I play it cool
And dig all jive.
That’s the reason
I stay alive.
As I live and learn
“Dig and Be Dug
Each of the selections for the assignments has been chosen for its ideas, its interests, and its availability. Often the same selection can be used for two or more assignments. I think it is more interesting, however, to vary the reading material.
As was stated earlier, the selection of appropriate reading material is essential to the success of this unit. Knowing your students is the key to selecting appropriate material. Contained in the list of material for classroom use and in the reading list for students is reading material covering a wide range of interest and reading levels.
- Encyclopedia (a desk encyclopedia is handy if a full set is not available).
- Dictionaries (both English and Spanish/English)
- Scholastic Dictionary of Synonyms, Antonyms and Homonyms
- Roget’s Thesaurus—Dictionary Form
- Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, compiled by Emily Morison
- The Great Quotations, compiled by George Seldes
- Forty Thousand Quotations, compiled by Charles Douglas (my favorite because quotations are listed by subjects).
- Spanish I Text Books
- Survey Books of Works in American and English Literature
- The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by G.B. Harrison
- Collections of Bible Stories
- Collections of Fairy Tales and Folk Tales
- Books of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes
- Poems of Childhood, compiled by C.R. Gibson
- Masterpieces in Verse, compiled by Grace Huffard and Laura Carlisle
- Collected Poems by Langston Hughes
- The Oxford Book of American Verse, compiled by F.O. Matthiessen
- The Poetry of the Negro, compiled by Langston Hughes
- Scope Magazine
- Other Magazines
- Numerous paperbacks covering a wide range of interests and reading levels.
Directions: Level One. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972. This series is designed to reach students in American minority groups—the blacks and the Spanish surnamed, the Appalachian, the Oriental, and the American Indian.
Herber, Harold. Reading in the Content Areas. New York: Scholastic Book Service, 1975. This is a good literature skills text with appealing photographs and illustrations.
Houghton Mifflin Action Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970. A series of eight paperback books designed for middle and high school students containing wellknown works by contemporary authors.
Markham, Lois A., ed. Scholastic Real World English: Writing 3. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1978. This book contains 25 writing lessons that will be fun and challenging.
Plummer, Samuel C. Scholastic Real World English: Language 3. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1978. A good portion of this book is devoted to regional dialects and the many speech varieties found in American English.
Steere, Amey, Caroline Z. Peck, and Linda Kahn. Solving Language Difficulties: Remedial Routines. Cambridge: Educators Publishing Service, 1971. A manual designed to be used in the intermediate grades with students experiencing specific language difficulties. It is especially useful with bilingual students.
Cheyney, Arnold B. Teaching Culturally Disadvantaged in the Elementary School. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Books, 1967.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Hayden Books, 1976.
Gay, Robert M. Writing Through Reading. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921.
Koch, Kenneth. Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1970.
LaGrone, Gregory G. and Victoria RomeraNavarro. Hablamos espanol. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1975.
Levine, Harold. Vocabulary and Composition Through Pleasurable Reading. New York: 1976.
Macrorie, Ken. Telling Writing. New York: Hayden Books, 1976.
Matthiessen, F.O., ed. The Oxford Book of American Verse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.
McCrimmon, James M. Writing With A Purpose. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963.
Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.
Robinson, Evelyn R., ed. Readings About Children’s Literature. New York: David McKay Company, 1965.
Seldes, George, ed. The Great Quotations. New York: Castle Books, 1977.
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