Learning how to write well can make students better readers. Study after study has shown that when children are taught how to write complex sentences and compose different kinds of texts, their ability to read and understand a wider variety of writing improves too.
“We need to be thinking about reading and writing reciprocally,” said Dana Robertson, an associate professor of reading and literacy in the School of Education at Virginia Tech.
Robertson spoke about the research base behind reading-writing connections during an Education Week forum last week, featuring researchers, teachers, and district leaders, about writing and the “science of reading.”
The term refers to a movement toward more explicit, systematic approaches to reading instruction—approaches that studies have shown can help students become better readers.
Researchers say that there are connections between evidence-based methods in reading and writing. Students can also benefit from structure in writing instruction, too—explicit teaching about how to construct sentences, paragraphs, and essays.
“We can use text structure and these graphic organizers to understand our reading process, and we can use this same kind of processes for thinking about how we’re planning our writing to organize our ideas in a logical way,” Robertson said.
Christina Cover, a high school special education teacher in New York City, discussed in last week’s forum how she teaches some of these structures. The lessons have helped her students “talk about writing in a specific and focused way,” she said.
Read on for practical tips and takeaways from the forum discussion. And check out the video of the panel above to watch the conversation in full.
In the early stages of reading and writing, word chains can help link letters and sounds
In a word chain activity, a teacher says a word that students then break down into phonemes, or individual sounds. The students encode these phonemes into letters, writing down the word. Then, they reverse the process, reading the word aloud by blending the sounds together. Finally, the teacher asks them to change one sound in the word—cat into bat, for example. And the process repeats.
The activity helps link spoken sounds to written letters, but also the processes of reading and writing words, said Robertson. “We need to be thinking both [about] linking sound to letter but also letter to sound,” he said.
As students gain fluency with fundamentals, make sure they also have opportunities to apply them
Students need to be fluent with foundational writing skills—letter formation, handwriting, and often typing. They need direct instruction and repetition, said Robertson. “But we can’t do that without also giving them ample opportunity to apply it in writing with lots of practice, for actual purposes to create meaning,” he said.
Cover, the special education teacher, teaches at a transfer school—designed for students who have dropped out or need to make up credits. Many of her students need support with sentence-level writing, so she has started doing “Mechanics Mondays.” Every week, she teaches a specific sentence-level writing skill: avoiding fragments or run-on sentences, posing questions, using conjunctions and appositives—noun phrases that modify other nouns.
“I introduce those topics, talk about why it’s important to learn them, share definitions, examples. I model, work with the students, and then they go off to practice the skills on their own,” Cover said.
So far, she’s already noticed some changes in students’ shorter writing samples—there are fewer students ending sentences with prepositions, for example. “We hope that will transfer into their longer-form writing,” Cover said.
Writing assignments should be tied to the ‘purpose of learning’
When students are writing about text, different types of assignments bear different dividends for students’ reading comprehension, Robertson said. For example, when students summarize, they can recall a wider range of ideas about the text, but their understanding is more superficial. When they do analytic tasks, like comparing arguments, they’re working with a narrower range of ideas—but they’re exploring them in more depth.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other, said Robertson. It depends what teachers want students to achieve.
“The writing tasks that we’re asking students to do in response to texts have to [align] with the purpose of learning,” he said.