The skills of writing and reading are some of the most complex and sophisticated abilities that humans have developed. Both of these skills involve a multitude of cognitive processes, including perception, memory, attention, language comprehension, and higher-order thinking.
Writing, for example, requires the ability to form letters and words, organize ideas, and express oneself clearly and coherently. It also involves understanding grammar, syntax, and other language conventions, as well as the ability to use rhetorical devices like metaphor and analogy. Additionally, writing requires a strong understanding of the audience and the purpose for which the writing is intended.
Reading, on the other hand, involves the ability to recognize written symbols, comprehend meaning from written language, and engage in critical thinking about what is being read. Reading requires skills such as decoding, vocabulary development, comprehension, and analysis. It also requires the ability to make connections between the text being read and one's own knowledge and experiences.
Furthermore, both writing and reading involve the use of working memory, which allows us to hold information in our minds temporarily while we perform other cognitive tasks. This is especially important in tasks like reading comprehension, where readers must hold on to details from previous parts of the text while they process new information.
In conclusion, the skills of writing and reading are incredibly complex and involve a wide range of cognitive processes. Mastery of these skills takes years of practice and development and requires a deep understanding of language and the ability to use it effectively.
Olha Madylus explains the process of developing reading and writing skills.
Olha has taught in the UK, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Greece. She is a freelance author, materials designer, consultant, and teacher trainer. She is based in London and does global consultation, teacher training, and teacher trainer training for organizations such as Cambridge University Press, The British Council, and Ministries of Education worldwide. Her main focus is on understanding and motivating learners. She is the author of Film, TV and Music, a photocopiable activities book for teenagers, Cambridge University Press.
Are the skills of writing and reading some of the most complex and sophisticated abilities that humans have developed?
The reason I decided to talk about reading, in particular, is because it is so complex and sophisticated, and in fact, magical. I have always been an avid reader and reading fiction – novels and poems – has the capacity to transport me to other worlds, into the minds of people living completely different lives to mine. Through reading, I can be made to understand someone’s viewpoint, laugh at situations I hadn’t previously imagined, and cry real tears for the people I meet on the page. The written word is astonishing in its power and I really wanted to spend some time exploring that and considering what that means for us as teachers of English and also link it to developing skills needed by students when taking language exams.
What does writing require? Just the ability to form letters and words?
Well, that’s the starting point. But writing requires two very important aspects –who you are writing for and why you are writing. It’s a form of communication even if it’s a diary entry or a shopping list.
If we break down the sub-skills of writing we’ll see how multi-leveled it is. Obviously, the choice of appropriate grammar and vocabulary is important, but also style, register, organization as well as the use of metaphor, simile, irony, humour, and even something like the power of repetition. Just consider Dr Seuss as a fun example: Left foot, Right foot, Left foot, right! Words can become music. I believe we have to focus on all the sub-skills in class and not just hope that writing will just come together by osmosis for students.
What does reading involve?
Now this is the BIG question that we as teachers of English have to understand, because it’s so easy to get stuck at one level of reading. The basic level of reading is referential – words mean just what they say e.g. the chair is blue. It’s a fact, a statement and nothing more than that. But how often do we communicate at that level? Most authentic use of language is not that straightforward: it’s open to multiple readings. A lot of how we understand what we read depends on understanding the context and interpreting the intention of the writer. At a simple level, we can start by looking at the function of language. We need to help students develop multiple skills to be able to read effectively.
How can we help our learners develop these reading skills?
From the earliest years, at the lowest levels, we need to encourage learners to interpret what they read. We do this with Primary/Junior students through stories, poems, and songs. We ask them for their opinions, for example, why are the three bears surprised when they come home (in the Goldilocks story)? We need to build on this and continue to ask students to think about what is beneath the words of the text and discover the meaning and put themselves into the reading equation. If it were a mathematical formula it may look like this –
Writer + Words + You (your thoughts, ideas, imagination, memories, experience, emotions) = understanding
You can call that reading between the lines. Mario Rinvolucri, in an article some years ago, suggests adding questions to a standard comprehension exercise that does just that. For example: ‘Why do you think X did that?’, ‘Do you think it was a good idea to X?’ This is about engaging critical thinking and imagination.
It is crucial to link reading and writing so students can understand how different types of texts work. For example, what differentiates one bunch of words from a story or a factual description or a message or a letter? Such a genre-based approach can really help learners to start building the necessary reading and writing skills they need to do well in exams. And I’ll be exploring that in my presentation in Thessaloniki in August.
What is the key advice you would give to teachers to help them develop their students’ reading and writing skills in class?
Firstly, ensure that students read as wide a variety of texts as possible and encourage them to read for pleasure and information and NOT just to answer factual questions. Plus, add questions that do not have one correct answer but require students to give a personal response to what they have read.
If you have only enough time to add one thing to your lessons – add poems! Reading and writing short poems doesn’t take long but can add a vital layer to learning. Students will be encouraged to interpret the meaning and also in writing poems, to use words carefully and powerfully.
Is there evidence to suggest that technology has resulted in the reduction of the language we use to communicate?
Many people complain that technology has destroyed children’s capacity to communicate but in fact, according to extensive research by people like Professor David Crystal, it’s actually had a very positive impact on our reading and writing skills. Young people are reading and writing so much more on a regular, daily basis than ever before through the use of mobile phones and computers. And rather than their language being limited by emojis and abbreviations, Crystal has noted that as they get older their language becomes more and more sophisticated.
We have to accept that things do change but we mustn’t be too quick to condemn changes without proper investigation.
Olha Madylus will be a plenary speaker and a workshop conductor at the Foreign Languages Forum in Thessaloniki (26 August) as well as at the FLF in Athens (2-3 September). Do not miss her sessions!