Low-Stakes Writing Opportunities That Improve Critical Reading Skills

By Renee Wright

Reading and writing skills aren’t typically taught outside the English or Academic Success departments. But, having worked with faculty in various disciplines, I know even college-ready students struggle to read and comprehend effectively. If the student is deemed college ready, reading is generally not formally taught and students may be asked to complete complex writing tasks with little instruction. One remedy to counter under-prepared, college-ready students is low-stakes writing opportunities.

Peter Elbow suggests that the low-stakes written responses can make learning visible for students, and help instructors determine what to teach while requiring less grading time. Doing low-stakes writing each class period can build stamina in reading and writing. In “Writing to read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” Graham and Hebert suggest, “[s]tudents’ reading comprehension is improved by having them increase how often they produce their own texts” (5). I‘ve had great success with the examples outlined below.

  • Interteaching – Introduced by Boyce and Hineline to help students comprehend text, interteaching allows students to work in groups questioning and responding to a preparation guide of the reading material. Students use the guide to shape their understanding of the reading(s) by focusing on the questions outlined in the guide.

After the interteach session, students provide feedback about the session, indicating areas of confusion and topics they would like discussed during lecture. As a low-stakes writing opportunity, student answers on the preparation guide are about 10 percent of the final grade. However, students who do well on the guide typically perform well on other high-stake assignments.

  • Mircothemes – Microthemes are short essays (150 – 200 words) in response to a narrowly focused question. Introduced by Bean, Drenk, and Lee, mircothemes can be used to “promote growth in specified thinking skills” (27). Since responses are brief, it’s easy to determine the level of understanding. I’ll use an index card or half a sheet of paper. The physical limitations of the paper encourage critical thinking and determining what’s important in the reading.
  • Rhetorical Précis – Woodworth created the Précis concept as a way for faculty to reinforce the learning and specific goals in interdisciplinary writing instruction. The model consist of four sentences that summarize a reading. The response is considered low-stakes, and students can revise the information in subsequent reading and rereading of the material. Students can also incorporate the information into larger, high-stakes writing assignments. I don’t usually have students tackle this type of writing until the end of the semester because it takes time for students to master ‌looking at the how and why of a text.

There are many low-stakes writing examples and it’s easy to explore multiple versions to see which ones students respond to and which ones help improve learning and comprehension. The important take away here is to provide more of this type of writing throughout the semester.

Share your questions and successes below.

Works Cited

Bean, John C., Dean Drenk, and F. D. Lee. “Microtheme strategies for developing cognitive skills.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 1982.12 (1982): 27-38. Print.

Boyce, Thomas E., and Philip N. Hineline. “Interteaching: A Strategy for Enhancing the User-Friendliness of Behavioral Arrangements in the College Classroom.” The Behavior Analyst 25.2 (2002): 215 – 226. Web.

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines. Ed. Mary D Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997. 5-14. Print.

Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. “Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading.” A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. (2010). Web.

Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review 7.1 (1988): 156-64. JSTOR. Web. 30 October. 2010.


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