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Read to write: improve writing skills using graded readers

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” ~ William Faulkner

Are you looking for effective ways to  improve your students' writing skills? Take advice from successful  authors. The Guardian newspaper asked contemporary writers to share any golden rules they bring to their writing practice. Reading is on top of their lists - just like for the Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.

“When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.” ~ Zadie Smith

“Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It's worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling.” ~ Sarah Waters

Black Corsair David
Illustration from David and the Black Corsair by Martyn Hobbs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini © Helbling Languages

Do you ever read with a pen or pencil in your hand? Only newspapers or factual texts but not fiction? Do you underline expressions you like, circle words and phrases that sound interesting? Do you write comments on the margin? Does poetry make you want to write your own rhymes? Do you respond to ideas, comment on actions, or question the plot? Would you like to enter a dialogue in a novel? Would you want to rewrite the ending of a story or write a story from your own perspective? Have you ever kept a reading journal? Have you ever considered correspondence with a fictional hero?

You might have had many if not all of these moments while reading fiction or non-fiction texts. These ideas work as some of the most inspiring writing activities for you and also for your students. Although we recommend that you promote reading for pleasure (and not pressure) through graded readers, these books also contain great opportunities to improve all language skills.

Extensive Reading

Remember some rules for using graded readers and Extensive Reading in the classroom.

  1. Always find the right reading level for your students.
  2. Let your students choose a book from a variety of genres.
  3. Activate background knowledge before you start a reading project.
  4. No direct testing.
  5. Keep track of your students' reading.

For more ideas read our post about Extensive Reading in the classroom.

You can also use our Book Club Role Cards to set specific (re)reading goals. Levels: CEFA1, Ar B1; Cambridge KET, PET; Trinity 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

1 Highlight the text for language ideas

Highlight, underline, mark. Start a dialogue with the text. Ask your students to choose a chapter from a reader they like (or really don't like) and read it again looking for interesting or strange language. Tell your students that they can use phrases from the readers on writing lessons, but also explain the implications of plagiarism.

Coconut Seller
Highlighted text from Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (Level 2, CEF A1). © Helbling Languages

2 Comment on the text

Ask your students to reread a chapter with a pencil in their hand. Their understanding of the text can be clearer if they start a 'discussion' with it.

  1. Comment on the plot.
  2. Comment on the characters' behaviour.
  3. Respond to dialogues.

3 Take notes and rewrite the text

David Rose and JR Martin describe three levels of strategies in Reading to Learn in their book  Learning to Write, Reading to Learn. These are: Preparing for Reading (Cycle 1), Detailed Reading (Cycle 2), Rewriting (Cycle 3). 'Short passages are selected from curriculum texts for Detailed Reading, followed by Rewriting of the passage using the same language patterns. As well as detailed comprehension and writing skills, these strategies are used to develop detailed knowledge about language at the levels of grammar and discourse.' (p. 128) They suggest that these practices are effective in providing support for students learning English as an additional language in TESOL contexts. Here are two activities they recommend:

  1. Sentence Making: Students cut up and manipulate words and word groups. Words are then selected from these sentences to practise spelling. (Martin and Rose, p. 128)
  2. Rewrite highlighted information / Joint and individual rewriting:  'The first step in rewriting is to write the highlighted information as notes. A very fruitful strategy for doing so is for students to take turns scribing the notes on the class board, as other students tell them what to write from their own highlighted texts. This is a cooperative activity in which the dictating student must clearly articulate the words.' (Martin and Rose, p. 163)

Ask your students to highlight information about the characters, the setting and the plot. They can use the Plot Expert and Setting Expert Role Cards to organise their ideas.

4 Keep a reading journal and write a summary

Reading journals: Help your students organise their thoughts by giving them questions to answer for every journal entry. For example, you can ask them to reflect on the plot, the characters' attitude, what they liked or did not like about the text. They can write about their feelings during reading, and write about how difficult or easy it was to read the text. This can be a personal account of the reading experience.

Summary: Writing a summary is very different from keeping a journal. You will need to discuss some principles of summary writing. Remind your students that when they write a summary, they should stay as close to the ideas and the story in the text as possible, and it is not a subjective reflection on the story, but they should try to stay objective.

  • Write a story map, summarising the main points in the plot.
  • Study each chapter, and divide them into subheadings. Find the main idea in each chapter, and write a couple of sentences about it and its subheadings.

5 Questions about the text - write an essay

  • Use the questions in the chapters. You will find visually engaging discussion boxes in  each chapter. Ask your students to choose one and answer the questions. These boxes provide analytical and philosophical questions that will let your students reflect on the text from a personal point of view.
Discussion starters and essay/summary questions in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (Level 4, CEF A2-B1). © Helbling Languages


  • Write questions about a chapter. You can also ask your class to generate questions during reading. Asking questions about a text is a sure sign that they have a certain level of understanding of it.

6 Extended writing tasks

There are imaginative and engaging tasks at the end of each reader.

The Garden Party
Writing practice activities (1 and 7) in The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (Level 4, CEF A2-B1). © Helbling Languages

For more writing lessons, browse our two  resource books for teachers packed with fun activities:

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