Writers’ Workshop Method in the Reading Classroom (Kyoto JALT MyShare, 2013)

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.

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