Writing Often to Read Well: An Approach Worth Revisiting
The connection between learning to read and learning to write is noteworthy, if not profound. In a post to the Psychology Today website, education researcher and consultant J. Richard Gentry made this declaration: “Writing is one of the best ways to teach beginners how to read.” Dr. Gentry then stated that “both research and practice reveal that many English-speaking 3- to 6-year-olds write first and read later.” He also used Maria Montessori’s work as a reference point by reminding readers that Montessori observed children as young as 2 years old tracing letters on sandpaper and otherwise learning to write before they learned to read. Regardless of whether reading or writing comes first, the two are “forever intertwined,” in the words of education writer Dennis Pierce.
Pierce made this statement as part of a review of the work of Steve Graham, a professor of teacher education at Arizona State University who has conducted extensive research into the relationship between reading and writing and has written about how “students become better writers the more they practice reading” and vice versa. In a presentation on this topic to teacher licensure candidates at the University of Minnesota, Graham noted that although the relationship between reading and writing is “not perfect,” the two cornerstones of literacy do draw upon “common knowledge and cognitive processes.” This includes general knowledge about how texts work, such as the purpose of decoding words or the way meaning is created through words and context. Of further importance is the way readers and writers “interact,” in Graham’s words, in order to interpret or “construct a message.”
In Graham’s experience, incorporating writing lessons into reading instruction can pay off for teachers. Indeed, fluency, comprehension, and overall reading proficiency were shown to improve for students in elementary and middle school grades when teachers bumped up the amount of writing students did. According to Graham, writing provides students a deeper understanding of what authors do, what an audience might expect, and how to communicate better so that their ideas can be more clearly expressed. In his view, one of the reasons literacy rates for many students have remained stagnant in the United States is that purposeful writing instruction tends to drop off after the early primary years. One explanation for this is that teachers tend to feel burdened by the need to provide meaningful feedback so that students can effectively revise their own work.
Here is Graham’s advice for this dilemma: Assign more writing but provide less feedback. When students receive teacher feedback on everything they write, it can seem “debilitating” or “overwhelming.” As an alternative, Graham recommended letting students write frequently as part of the journey to creating polished pieces of writing and advised teachers to avoid the temptation or feeling of obligation to make note of each grammatical error or run-on sentence. Similarly, employing group writing activities can be a way to have students edit one another’s work, either casually or as part of an assignment. Many teachers are presumably already familiar with the principles of peer editing, but it is still valuable to emphasize the point that such exercises can help improve students’ reading skills as well.
Although Graham’s belief in the power of writing instruction and practice has gained a lot of attention, he has also made sure to note that he supports the use of “effective reading instruction” in isolation, too. While active instruction in such key reading skills as fluency, decoding, comprehension, and phonics is important, he seems to argue that immersion in writing helps provide both context and purpose for these strategies. After all, writing is a useful skill across the curriculum, and being able to write well can help students grasp content in a variety of subject areas. What’s more, according to Dr. Gentry’s Psychology Today post, writing acts as a “brainpower workout” by incorporating reading, logic, and sometimes math and science skills—and, once students start writing for an audience, “even emotional intelligence.”
Writing is a complicated, complex activity that is challenging for most kids, which is a good thing in Dr. Gentry's experience. While challenging, it provides a way for students to express their own ideas and otherwise take ownership of their learning by using writing as a creative outlet or a place to practice spelling, comprehension, and narrative skills. In addition, Dr. Gentry asserted that writing can offer a “useful assessment of reading ability,” as an analysis of student writing can reveal understanding of letters, sounds, and concepts, perhaps in response to something the student has read or listened to. Research that stretches back many years likewise supports the strong connection between reading and writing, including observations—such as the one made by Maria Montessori—that even very young children are often motivated to express themselves using “signs and symbols.”
While school districts and policymakers continue to ponder the best ways to boost student literacy rates, it may be worth it to shine the spotlight on writing and its relationship to reading. One reason to do so, according to a guide for teachers on the Empowering Writers website, is the clear need to “take better advantage of the inherent connections between reading and writing, using every reading experience as an opportunity to teach and reinforce core writing concepts, as opposed to isolating writing as a separate subject.” Evidence for the benefits of this approach may just show up in the improved reading skills of students.
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