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Letting Students Experience a Text Before They Analyze It

By giving students a chance to read text ‘like a reader’ first, you can help them generate insights in a natural, informal way—before asking them to consider the mechanics of how it was done.

August 18, 2022
Creative Credit / iStock

When teaching students how to be a close reader, educators often feel pressure to get students hunting for the technical terms they’ll have to identify in future assessments and exams, such as common literary and narrative devices like symbolism, meter, and denouement.

While that work is obviously crucial to students’ academic growth and success, Jacob Chastain, an author, podcaster, and seventh-grade English teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, writes in Middlewebit ends up being more effective when they’ve first had the opportunity to evaluate writing in a lower-stakes way.

In other words, when he allows his students to “read like a reader” before asking them to jump into the work of “reading like a writer,” the dialogue is richer and the comprehension deeper. The shift is subtle but powerful, he says.

“When we read like readers, we are trying to understand what a text is saying to us and why,” Chastain writes. “When we read like writers, we are trying to understand how the writer crafted a piece or excerpt to make us feel what we did or make us think what we thought.”

Using both modes of interrogation, according to Chastain, helps invite students into a “multidimensional” approach to understanding and making meaning of writing that is deeper and more beneficial to their long-term growth as a reader and writer. “They are receiving the information and processing, but they are also asking why this was written, why it was effective or not for them, and synthesizing information across both perspectives.”

Making the Switch

In class, Chastain says, his students quickly make this paradigm shift using a simple prompt. On the first pass of a new text, he’ll ask students to read like a reader: “Let’s experience the poem and discuss what we get from it.” Later, he’ll cue them to switch modes: “Now let’s read this like a writer.”

Getting students to make that shift reliably requires you to help them define what each one entails, Chastain explains. He recommends starting at the very beginning of a school year by asking students questions that get them generating insights about both modes of reading. To support “reading like a reader”—identifying areas that are fun, tension-filled, or compelling, as well as areas that they found boring or hard to get through—he asks kids questions such as “What makes you like something you read?” or “What does a good story or piece of writing do to you?”

When defining what it means to read like a writer, other questions, like “What are some goals a writer might have when writing a story?” and “What are the tools a writer can use to accomplish that?” can help students focus on how and why something is said, not just the words themselves.

By creating a running list of principles for each mode of reading and hanging it up in the classroom, Chastain says, you can continue to develop and refine the students’ thinking skills. “Your list will grow, and students will have a deeper and better understanding of what goes into reading like a reader and reading like a writer.”

Humanizing the Reading Experience

Stepping back from the mechanics of good writing to consider more basic questions of student enjoyment, emotional resonance, and connection to the story has the effect of humanizing reading—it reduces the risk that students will see reading as a task or that they’ll conclude the objective is always information foraging or formal inquiry.

When coaching students to read as a reader, Chastain is focused on getting them to think through how a piece of writing makes them feel or react—“what it triggers in our minds.” He encourages students to position themselves as a “consumer” of words first, as if they were encountering this text on their own.

After jotting down their thoughts and observations informally, they identify the things they took away from the text, such as a particular character they felt connected to; a magical line that touched them; or a fact, insight, or anecdote that stood out to them.

In the process, Chastain says, students might infer some themes or messages—“This seems to be about beauty” or “I think they’re writing about their parents”—but, he says, students should be given the agency to decide if they want to wait to interrogate those themes until after they’ve read the text again, as a writer.

Understanding How It’s Done—and Connecting the Dots

When students are prompted to read a text as a writer, Chastain says, he asks students to identify and investigate how the writer crafted a piece—manipulating imagery, setting, or narrative arc, for example—to make readers feel something particular or to consider a new viewpoint. “What tools or techniques did the author use to get these reader reactions from us?” Chastain might ask. “Based on what we have learned as readers, was the writer successful in doing what they wanted to in the piece? Why or why not?”

By starting with the insights they’ve already gathered as readers before they shift to discussing the underlying mechanisms of good writing, students are able to feel  “more connected and engaged” as they analyze texts.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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