Writing to Engage
Marvin Diogenes, Director of the Stanford Program in Writing and Rhetoric, explains how low-stakes writing assignments can help students engage with the course materials.
Reading as active meaning-making
We assign readings with the hope that students will find the readings as engaging as we do. We can work toward this outcome by putting active reading in the foreground, inviting students to think explicitly about reading as a creative, meaning-making activity central to their academic work.
Low-stakes, ungraded, and creative writing prompts and activities can improve students’ engagement with and understanding of course readings and other materials, such as videos or podcasts. Such assignments aim to make students more active, purposeful readers, encouraging them to draw on personal experience and past reading experience to engage with new texts (especially unfamiliar or challenging texts).
Writing activities focused on reading move students into a dynamic relationship with the text, helping them engage with texts over time and in relation to each other. Such activities highlight that readings aren’t simply content containers and readers aren’t empty vessels; students create meaning through their active engagement and conversations with others.
Readings aren’t simply content containers and readers aren’t empty vessels; students create meaning through their active engagement and conversations with others.
Start with a reading inventory
When assigning readings, you might begin by asking students about their past reading experiences and current reading strategies. You can also ask students how often their previous teachers asked them to use writing to engage with readings or other course materials.
Gathering reading inventories from your students provides insight into their past reading habits and strategies. A reading inventory activity gets students to consciously reflect on their reading as well and can help you design reading assignments and classroom activities.
You can then take what they share into account when providing specific strategies guiding how you want students to engage with the readings you assign. In particular, use what you learn about them as readers to design writing activities aimed at helping students engage with readings and, as a byproduct, think differently about how they read. Also, keep in mind your learning objectives as you design these activities.
Designing writing-to-engage prompts
Writing-to-engage (also called writing-to-learn) assignments and activities emphasize writing as a key means of learning rather than primarily as a way in which a writer demonstrates mastery of content or knowledge.
This kind of assignment or activity can serve as part of the process of completing a more formal assignment. Often they take the form of freewriting in response to readings, keeping a reading journal for the course, or responding to questions as part of preparing for class discussion of readings.
We can define such writing opportunities as low-stakes (generally not graded other than to note that the student completed the work), creative, and often informed by the writer’s life experience. Writing-to-learn activities move students into a dynamic relationship with course readings and other materials, often through the reading journal, which encourages students to engage with texts over time and in relation to each other. Below you can find examples of various kinds of prompts and activities that you can use or adapt for your classes.
Develop questions to support student engagement
Ask students to respond to questions you prepare to highlight key ideas, concepts, and contexts to guide their reading and help them prepare for class discussion. Develop questions that reflect what you find compelling or engaging about the text. Consider including questions that you don’t have answers for yet.
Ask students to prepare questions about the reading to ask in full class discussion, discuss with a peer or small group, or contribute to a Google document with the rest of the class, generating a list of questions from the full class. You can use the questions in various ways for class activities, such as small group work or clustering questions to highlight key concepts or challenging aspects of the reading.
Ask students to highlight sentences, paragraphs, and sections
Students approaching reading as a process of extraction generally put aside as irrelevant their experience of reading the text. The following prompts emphasize that reading is first of all a human experience (we don’t read as machines). Readers’ prior knowledge, interests, and personal experience shape their engagement with the text and can set the stage for more insightful analytical reading valued in academic settings.
- Write about a favorite sentence or passage (“This for me was the heart of the reading”).
- Write about a sentence or passage that illuminated a new concept, theory, or question (“This taught me something I didn’t know before”).
- Write about a challenging sentence or passage (“Why did this have to be so complicated? Why did this have to be so boring? Why did this have to be so long?”).
- Write about an opaque sentence or passage (“I didn’t understand this at all”).
Ask students to write back to the writer or add to or revise the reading
Students generally don’t think of the writer of their school texts as people trying to engage readers in a relationship through language; thus, they might not think about responding to the invitation of the text with questions or collaboration. The following prompts emphasize that reading provides an avenue to respond directly to the writer and become a collaborator in creating the text as an opportunity for learning.
- Respond directly to the writer of the reading (“This is what I want to ask you/tell you/share with you about what you wrote”).
- Add a sentence, paragraph, or section that the writer left out that you believe would make the text more accessible to readers.
- Revise a sentence, paragraph, or section to make it better/clearer/friendlier/more accessible to readers.
- Develop connections to other texts (“This made me think/think again about what we read earlier in the course”; “This made me think about this other thing I read”) to engage in conversation with the writer.
- Find a personal way into the reading (“This made me think of this in relation to my own experience”) that might expand the writer’s sense of audience and perspective on the topic of the reading.
Ask students to create visualizations and translations
Students generally think of readings as words on a page or screen, perhaps with charts and graphs and works cited listing sources. Asking them to turn prose into visual texts can lead to deeper engagement. Having them create their own versions in visual form or another genre can foster dynamic interactions with readings.
The following prompts offer students opportunities to create visualizations and translate the text in playful, creative ways that might illuminate the meaning and heighten the student’s sense of agency.
- Create a visualization or mapping of the reading. Students might create a map or constellation visualizing the reading in relation to other readings or to their personal experience. .
- Write a review of the reading (this can be creative in terms of the venue for the review, e.g. writing a Yelp review of an academic article).
- Revise the reading for another genre (what if this were the lyrics to a song, a short story, a poem, or a sermon?).
Hume Center for Writing and Speaking resources
- Individual Tutoring Sessions for students
- Class Workshops: Write to PWR Director Marvin Diogenes at firstname.lastname@example.org or Hume Director Zandra Jordan at email@example.com