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The Writing Thief Goes on a Reading (and Rereading) Rampage

By Ruth Culham
 | May 24, 2016

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
―Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

ThinkstockPhotos-BU011643_x300Teachers must be readers.

“I don’t have time to read” is like saying, “I don’t have time to breathe” if you are a writing teacher. Making time for reading is crucial. Pick books that you can visit again and again and again to mine for all the art and writing techniques you notice so you can share them with your writers.

What message could be more powerful to your students than to explain that if you seem tired it’s because you stayed up too late reading? Or, how great would it be if you know books well enough to suggest good ones for every single reader in your class—regardless of his or her interests and past reading experiences? And then over time, because you and your students have become avid readers and rereaders, you can help them read with a writer’s eye, to understand what works about a piece of writing and find craft moves they want to try on their own.

Imagine the power you’d have as a writing teacher if you were a reading addict.

Every year in August, I read To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a habit I adopted about 20 years ago and a tradition I look forward to eagerly, like a cool lemonade on those thirsty summer days in Macomb, GA.

I learn from this masterful text every time I read. By rereading, I’m held captive in Harper Lee’s writing web, which is spun with now-familiar images and events that range from ordinary to heartbreaking. This book is a mentor text for me—each reading makes me a better writer. Each reading makes me a better person.

The first time I read TKAM, however, I didn’t appreciate its depth the way I do now. It took three, four, five readings—and working with the text with students—to ferret out its writing riches. Sure, I understood the story and the central messages right away, but to get inside the text, to deconstruct it as a piece of writing and understand why it is so powerful, took many passes. With each subsequent reading, I appreciate the book more. It has many lessons to teach about life¾but just as many about writing. Make no mistake about it, the two go together.

So I keep reading, keep exploring new texts, keep imagining their impact on the student writers in our classrooms. I just can’t wait to share some of the books I read. Recently I read The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, for instance, a magnificent chapter book that I devoured from cover to cover and then went back and read again. I’m now reading Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. I am sure I’ll read it more than once; it’s that good.

On my “recent” shelf, Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri, The Whisperer by Pamela Zagarenski, and Perfect by Nicola Davies are a few of my favorites. I’m reading Enchanted Air and The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle each for about the fourth time. Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy, Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales make my heart sing again and again. If you haven’t read these gems yet, run—don’t walk—to your library or local bookstore and find them.

My reading obsession led to Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture.

It's been said that good writers borrow but great writers steal. Writing thieves read widely, dive deeply into texts, and steal bits and pieces from great texts as models for their own writing. I’ve stolen from all these books and many more. I’m a committed reader¾and rereader. You should be, too.

Ruth Culham is a recognized expert in the writing assessment field and is known for conducting lively teacher workshops. Her current book, The Writing Thief, gives insight on how to use reading to practice writing skills. 

Culham will present “The Writing Thief Goes on a Reading Rampage” Monday, July 11, 8:30 AM–9:30 AM, and “Writing Is the New Black” Saturday, July 9, 4:00 PM–5:00 PM at the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits in Boston. She will also copresent at “Using Culturally Texts for Reading and Writing Well” Sunday, July 10, 10:00 AM–12:00 PM. Visit for more information or to register.


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  1. William Peloquin | Jun 20, 2016
    Nice post . keep sharing !!!!! Videoder is best for video downloading.  @

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