Writers’ Workshop method in the reading classroom

picture by @mkofab from ELTpics
used under Creative Commons License

 I’m a pretty anti-comprehension questions guy.  Not because I think they are entirely useless, but because I use a number of texts that don’t come with good comprehension questions, which would require I write them myself.  Just what would that take? Here is an abbreviated version of what Paul Nation (2008) notes about good comprehension questions:

         They should be easier to understand than the text itself
         Answering the questions requires reading the text, which means you should first corral a very proficient reader to try and answer the questions without reading the text before using them.
         The questions should use language/words not in the text itself, which makes them even more difficult to write for lower level students who have limited vocabularies.
         The questions need to test comprehension, not memory, so focusing on details which a proficient reader might not remember is a no-no

So let’s say I have a short text of 200 to 500 words and I want to craft a series of decent comprehension questions, it’s going to take me a few hours.  And the very act of making those questions is, I believe, the kind of work I should be finding a way to get my students doing in class, not the kind of work I should be doing as a teacher out of class.  But it’s not just work avoidance which keeps me from writing up comprehension questions. 

Recently a series of excellent posts on process writing from Rachael Roberts at Elt Resourceful and Christopher Wilson at ELT Squared  helped me realize that how I think about writing has very much influenced how I have come to teach reading. Before I started my career as an English teacher, I spent 2 years getting my masters degree in creative writing.  Two times a week I got together with 8 other students to workshop stories.  The writers’ workshop process for critiquing a story in the program I attended was pretty straightforward and consisted of a number of steps that can be used in the language classroom when working with narrative texts (short stories, certain newspaper articles, and personal essays).  I’ve used this technique in my reading classes when working with some short stories and I would like to outline the first three steps of the process and highlight some of the benefits in this post.

1.     Timelining the story: students read through the story and highlight all the major events.  The events are then mapped onto a timeline.  Depending on the level of the students, the activity can be simplified by preparing a timeline in advance with some of the events already mapped onto it.  The timeline activity ensures that students have identified the “what” and “when” of a story.  While this doesn’t ensure comprehension, not being able to identify this information is a clear sign that students are lost.  And unlike comprehension questions, this activity allows teacher and learner to begin to identify what kind of problems (i.e. lexis or form) a student is having with the text and where in the text they are getting lost.  Creating a timeline also serves two other functions.  Once students have completed a timeline (usually in small groups), they can then compare their timeline with other students.  There is often some difference of opinion as to just what constitutes a “major event” and this can lead to some lively conversations.  Creating a detailed timeline also helps students to engage in what Hitomi Masuhara (2003) calls, “the fun and involving experience of connecting the language with multidimensional mental representation.”  Basically it pulls the students away from the painful word by word reading we often see in our classes and allows the students to explore the story temporally, moving back and forth in time through the events.

2.     Write short sketches of the characters in the story: stories are driven by characters.  If a student doesn’t have a fully formed idea of the “who” of a story (the type of characters in the story and their motivations both explicit and implied), it will be very difficult for them to understand the “what” of the story (the actions taken by the characters or their reactions to events in the story).  If students can write a short sketch about a character, including physical descriptions, attitudes, and behaviors, it doesn’t guarantee that they understand the story, but having no clear idea of who the characters are is a pretty sure sign that students will be unable to articulate why things in a story happened. Characters are who we, as readers, emotionally attach ourselves to in a story.  If we are lucky, it can even feel as if a clearly defined character is holding our hands and leading us through a story.  For lower level students, you can provide some questions to guide them in the writing of their sketch such as “What does Stacy look like?” “What are two things Stacy does in the story?” “How would you describe Stacy’s personality?”  One thing to keep in mind is that the words character and caricature, while having a similar appearance, are very different words.  Caricature comes from the Latin “carrus” or a Gallic type of wagon.  I like to think of it as a type of emptiness, something that has to be filled. Character on the other hand comes from the Greek “to inscribe” and is built up of the characteristics that are indelible and written on the soul.  Having students write a sketch of the people in a story ensures that when they read, they are interacting with characters, not caricatures.  Once again, aside from simply checking and deepening comprehension, this activity also serves as a useful jumping off point for conversation.  Once students have a clear idea of who a character is, it’s much easier to engage in conversations about more subjective things, such as if students like or dislike a character and why.  Subjective conversations such as these prepare learners for more imaginative activities, such as having students imagine showing a character from a story around their town and creating an itinerary for the day.

3.     Cause and Effect Maps: Students write all of the story’s major events in a series of boxes on a piece of paper.  If students have already created a timeline of events, the events can simply be lifted off the timeline.  If not, students will have to first identify what they believe to be the major events that take place in the story.  Once the events are on paper, students have to draw arrows between events that they believe are clearly linked by cause and effect.  Once again, this allows the teacher to clearly see at what point in the story students are losing the thread of meaning.  Students should be able to connect up every event in a story to at least one other event.  For lower-level students, simply writing the events down and drawing arrows might be enough.  For higher level students, having them write a sentence or two about what they believe to be the nature of the cause and effect relationship can provide rich opportunities for output.  Once again, the way students express the cause and effect relationship between events will often differ and this allows for rich, text-based conversations.

Within a Writers’ Workshop it is a given that every reader creates a large part of the meaning of a story based on their own experiences.  But it’s also just as much a given that the building of meaning rests on certain clearly presented facts: events which are readily understandable to be taking place within time, characters who are created out of characteristics, and a plot composed of points which adhere to the laws of cause and effect.  The three activities outlined in this post allow students to first identify these three components of a story and in doing so, a teacher can readily check for comprehension and pinpoint where comprehension falters.  It also allows students to create a world in which the story rests, Masahara’s, “complete mental representation of the story.”  And it is within that representation that students can begin to enjoy and share the truly subjective experiences–the sweaty palms of a good love story, the thumping heart of a good mystery–that make a story more than just a collection of words and events on a piece of paper.

Masuhara, H. (2003). ‘Chapter 22 – Materials for developing reading skills’ in B. Tomlinson (Ed.) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London: Continuum Press.
Nation, I. S. P. (2008). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. Routledge.

16 thoughts on “Writers’ Workshop method in the reading classroom

  1. This is a thoughtful and insightful post. I think there is a lot to take away from it. I am in a similar camp on reading comprehension questions. Please don't get me started on how they are often checks of memory. No, seriously, don't get me started. I was just talking about this the other night and luckily enough my interlocutor was nerdy enough for such a chat. Where was I? So in reading this I was truly able to imagine how it might play out in class. I couldn't help but wonder if there were certain assumptions you'd be using for these sorts of activities. I happen to know about your use of short stories written specifically for specific students in class. Is this what you had in mind? I don't know what the "typical" texts would be for Japanese HS classrooms but I wonder if there would be a disconnect between these types of text and the ideas that you shared above. I guess what I am really asking is something like, "Are you talking about specific types of texts (and text types)? If so, which ones? What sort of criteria do you have in mind?" I hope this makes sense. If not you can find me on twitter or various places online.


  2. Hi Mike,Thanks for the questions. These activities really require a narrative structure, a sense of story in order to work. So some of the "typical" texts that show up in a high school and middle school text book in Japan wouldn't really work as the follow a kind of mock-academic journal kind of format. Recently, I've actually done these activities myself, as a teacher, as a way to measure if a text lends itself to students being able to build a mental representation of the story. If I can timeline the story, write a character sketch, and cause and effect map events in the story, I feel pretty confident that students will be able to interact with the text in a way that moves beyond the word by word reading I see so often in class. I know it seems like a kind of tautology to say these activities are to be used with texts which easily lend themselves to these activities. But in a way that's the only criteria I can put forward. Part of that stems from the fact that I'm big on using narratives in the language classroom. But another part of it comes from the fact that I don't think many of the texts provided to students are, in general, very good. Narratives with no real sense of character, no easily identifiable sense of cause and effect, and a whole host of other problems end up in our students hands and I think that, not the language level of the students, is often what results in our students reading difficulties. Wow, that was a pretty rambling reply to your comment. Hope it makes some kind of sense. If not I'll come back and babble some more.Kevin


  3. Hey Kevin, I really like the idea of a Writer's Worksop writing class. Creative writing seems to be horrifically under taught around the world and so can be very motivating for students to actually do some!One extension could be to divide the class in two (or more) with different texts. Different groups work on their own text breaking down the storyboard, the character sketches and the cause and effect maps before handing the material (without the story) to another group. They then have to write a story using the material provided. That way it almost acts like a dictoglos of sorts. They have the key information about the story but not the grammatical structures in place. They can then compare their stories with the original and provide extra feedback for the group that produce the timelines etc. What do you think?Anyway it sounds like a good activity but I agree with mike. Many standard textbook texts would have to be adapted or not used.


  4. Hi Chris,I think your idea of breaking the students into two groups, handing out different stories to each group, and having students exchange the results of the three steps in this post and then have them write a story based on that material is really fantastic. I'm going to run with it as soon as the year slides into February (final exams start from next week so no chance for regular classes). I'm especially appreciative of how it gives a sense of audience to the tasks, something that is currently missing and if I get it into the lesson, might make things a little more interesting.I'd agree that standard textbook texts might have to be adapted, but I'm also willing to wager that they should be adapted even if you aren't doing these kind of activities. textbook texts that start off with lines like, "Donna has always loved living in an airplane…" and continue on with five paragraphs of information about Donna's airplane-house with no further development of Donna's character and a bunch of information that seems like it's there only to highlight a grammar point or two are going to be extremely difficult to read for most of our students. There's just nothing there for students to hold onto, emotionally or temporally. Kevin(wow, that kind of turned into a mini-rant…sorry. I have nothing against airplanes or airplane-houses and no harm was intended)


  5. A belated comment- but now I can comment on the comments too!I love these ideas for working on comprehension of narratives. Sure, they wouldn't work for all kinds of texts, but the approach might be adaptable? (more thought needed).With my textbook writer's hat on:I completely agree that some coursebook texts seem to be very 'empty'. I may not always succeed, but if I write a text myself (rather than use an authentic one), I try to write it in a specific genre, as if I were submitting it for publication in a particular newspaper or whatever. If it needs to 'showcase' a particular language point then I'll try and choose a genre or topic where that would naturally occur, and, as much as possible, just let it occur naturally as I write, rather than shoe-horning it in. BTW this isn't a defense, just thought it might be an insight into a way of working.


  6. Hi Kevin,Thanks for this great post. Some fantastic ideas here which I am really looking forward to experimenting with in my next classes.I agree whole heartedly with comments on standard coursebook reading texts. Wouldn't it be nice if there was such a thing as a kind of compilation book of short literary texts adapted to suit a range of levels? Maybe such a thing does exist – if not, this would be a nice writing project! 🙂


  7. Hi Rachel,Thanks for the comments and thanks for the inspiration as well. I do think there is probably a way to adapt these activities for other types of genres. Hopefully, over the course of the next school year, I'll have some time to play with the activities with other types of texts. I'm feeling a tad guilty at my mini-rant. I have come across a number of well written texts in course books which do have a more "natural" feel (whatever that means), and which I have been happy to use in class. If I can shift the focus away from the text and to the reader/learner, one thing that surprises me is how we take it for granted that, as teachers, we and students share a similar idea of what it means to understand a text, or that basic comprehension of a text will allow students to enter into a dialogue on a text.When I'm involved in a writers' workshop, it is a given that before we can discuss a text, we have to put in an aweful lot of work to find common ground on which to base our discussions. The activities outlined in this post are the ground-making that is necessary to have a fruitful dialogue. If it takes this much work for graduate students to discuss a short narrative, it should take at least as much effort and guidance for our students to engage in the same sort of dialogue.Often times when we enter the discussion phase of a reading class, if students don't engage with the text, we simply blame the text (something I'm guilty of here in the comments as well as the post itself) or the level of the students. In fact, most of the problems probably arrise from not breaking down the reading into a set of discreet steps which lead to a point where conversation can emerge.I remember John Fanselow once had a group of teachers at my school spend an hour discussing a cereal box. It was a very lively and interesting discussion. But only because of the concrete steps we took before discussing the text. And maybe that’s what it means to teach reading in communicative language classroom, to help guide the students to the point where a text, any text, can become the base for an interesting and lively conversation.Kevin


  8. Hi Genevieve,Thanks for the comment and I would love to hear about how these activities work out in your class. Any teacher who can turn handbag lint into a lesson activity (http://esolinshetland.blogspot.jp/2013/01/lessons-from-my-handbag.html) can probably take these activities to places I've never even dreamed of.I'm actually hoping to put together a collection of short narratives for language learners by language teachers. That's my resolution for 2013. I've started collecting stories from teachers. Your blog is filled with crisp detail and fantastic writing and I would love to have a story from you if you've alread put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). And if such a collection already exists, I'd certainly love to get my hands on a copy.Kevin


  9. Yes, it's all about how engaged the students are and, while an interesting text goes a long way, it can't really do that for you. A textbook can provide a lead-in etc, but if the teacher simply goes through the steps without connecting with the students or relating the text to their lives, it won't 'take off'. Ultimately a text in a text book isn't a recipe, it's an ingredient, and it's up to the teacher (and students) to provide the alchemy(though it helps if the text isn't too leaden, ho ho)


  10. A comment just for Rachael…I think the type of books (and writers!) that Kevin and I were discussing were more the typical one from Japanese (and Korea for that matter) public schools. Quite a whole 'nother kettle of fish, I think. I know you weren't defending or being defensive but I wanted to be sure to mention this.


  11. Much of these activities resembles some of the ideas presented in the reading circles that I adapted into academic reading. Now, one role in ARC is Discussion Leader, whose tasks (one of them) is to create comprehension questions about the article for the other group members to answer. This poses an inevitable challenge: you have to understand key concepts in order to create valid comprehension questions. I spend considerable time helping them understand what makes a good comprehension question and not just one that is searching for specific information.


  12. Hi Rachael and Mike (whose anonymity was never really in doubt),I think both of your comments tie up nicely together. While a good text (or a rousing story) isn't going to necessarily 100% "make" a class, at the same time finding ways to work with the kinds of texts that are ministry approved in Japan (and I'm guessing Korea) really increases the amount of work a teacher needs to do to help the students connect with the language. The best texts (and Rachael, I certainly would include your fine 'Tripped up on a Trip to London' story at http://elt-resourceful.com/2012/12/12/using-a-genre-approach-for-writing/), help build a bridge between the teacher and the learners and draw out language from everyone involved in the class. Call it alchemy, the right ingredients, or the flat out magic of a well written story. Recently, I'm feeling that getting those kinds of stories in our students hands is a bit more important than I used believe. Especially when I think that I have my off days as a teacher and even if the class is a bomb, at least I can get some comfort from knowing the students read something worthwhile. Kevin


  13. Hi Tyson,Of course! Your adaptation of reading circles for academic purposes is a concrete way to help students engage with a non-narrative based text and check for comprehension without resorting to peppering a class with comprehension questions. One other thing I like about both ARC and the tasks outlined here, is that they don't have to necessarily ding students for lack of writing ability. The focus can be on text comprehension and discussion/conversation skill.s That's nice because sometimes I'm not looking to assess every single skill in class, and I don't necessarily want to pile on the added pressure of students having to produce polished written material. As always, thanks for the comment.Kevin


  14. Do I win a prize for latest comment?I've had no contact whatsoever with creative writing, but I find that with teaching EFL writing that I ought to. I sometimes feel like I should be a good editor, which is a pity since I don't really know how an editor works.Anyway for a CR noob, this is a nice starting point. Thanks, Kevin.


  15. Hi Alan,Thanks for the comment. Think you definitely get the latest comment prize. At least on my blog. So a hearty congratulations. I find most teachers in EFL hardly ever get a chance to explore creative writing with their students. We're so busy just trying to help our learners get some control of high frequency vocabulary, some important functional language…you know, the basics, that we can't find the time for more creative writing (and reading of fiction as well) activities. Glad to hear this post might be of use.Thanks again for dropping in. Your prize is in the mail.Kevin


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