Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach: Literacy Strategies for Online Writing Instruction
by Beth L. Hewett, 2015

Part Three: Writing to Teach

While the book title equally emphasizes student and teacher roles—reading to learn and writing to teach, respectively—the book, and part three in particular, frames both halves with a focus on students. That’s not a criticism, since the second half wasn’t about how teachers should write generally, but about how to write in three specific student-focused genres more efficiently: feedback on student work, assignment descriptions, and interpersonal communications.

Semantic Integrity

Throughout these chapters Hewett focused on maintaining coherence in these expository tasks and semantic integrity, which she defined as "having fidelity between what is written and what can be inferred from the writing. In other words, to the greatest degree possible, the inferred meaning should match the intended message" (p. 179). A particularly meaningful example for me was her criticism of the word "consider" in feedback. She pointed out that leaving a comment like "consider adding research here" is confusing. "Does consider mean that I should do something or that I must do something? Is it a suggestion that I can ignore or a polite way of telling me what to do?"(p. 179) Her discussion of semantic integrity continued with describing how comments tend to fall short: poorly-targeted advice, inadequately modeled text, the use of jargon and abbreviations, and unhelpful language meant to be indirect or polite. Hewett grounded her discussion in specific phrases familiar to educators, which gives her work a more potent value to educators.

Feedback

Feedback (and interpersonal communication) should be done with emotional sensitivity, establishing a personal, professional tone. Hewett gave specific advice about how this might be done, including personalizing, giving feedback using a four-step process (identify problem, explain why it’s a problem, demonstrate solution, and give a revision task), knowing when and how to communicate (and how synchronous and asynchronous settings affect tone), and being generally thoughtful. Crafting readable OWI assignments, while not requiring the same attention to emotion, still need to be executed with clarity and precision: being direct, troubleshooting assignments before assigning them, providing specific examples, using helpful redundancy, and making good use of visual/formatting cues.

screenshot showing 3 modules. Top: Week seven schedule. Middle: an embeded Formatting and Citation Video. Bottom: Link to Citation Video Response
Figure 5. Screenshot of the layout of the author's online class

Hewett acknowledges the use of visuals in online settings, and her concepts of semantic integrity, clear feedback, etc. apply in a variety of settings, yet creating tutorial videos or banners, like the ones pictured above, were not directly discussed in her book.

Conclusion

Hewett's Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach: Literacy Strategies for Online Writing Instruction, while not providing advice about technology or insights into debates around online education generally, provided a valuable resource for teachers interested in a practical, experience-and-research-supported argument on why reading and writing are so important in online writing instruction and how to effectively leverage them. Her reliance on generalities in part one was, for the most part, unavoidable and tastefully done. Her use of specific reading assignments and concepts in part two were structured enough to be useful in a "take what you need" kind of way. The advice about giving feedback and maintaining semantic integrity in part three was similarly helpful and practical. Hewett provided a valuable resource for novice or experienced instructors trying to figure out the role of reading and writing in online education.

Back to Part Two: Reading to Learn