Special Report
Reading & Literacy

How Does Writing Fit Into the ‘Science of Reading’?

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 17, 2023 7 min read
White and Black elementary girls sitting side by side at their desks and writing in their notebooks while having a class at school. Their classmates are in the  blurred background.
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In one sense, the national conversation about what it will take to make sure all children become strong readers has been wildly successful: States are passing legislation supporting evidence-based teaching approaches, and school districts are rushing to supply training. Publishers are under pressure to drop older materials. And for the first time in years, an instructional issue—reading—is headlining education media coverage.

In the middle of all that, though, the focus on the “science of reading” has elided its twin component in literacy instruction: writing.

Writing is intrinsically important for all students to learn—after all, it is the primary way beyond speech that humans communicate. But more than that, research suggests that teaching students to write in an integrated fashion with reading is not only efficient, it’s effective.

Yet writing is often underplayed in the elementary grades. Too often, it is separated from schools’ reading block. Writing is not assessed as frequently as reading, and principals, worried about reading-exam scores, direct teachers to focus on one often at the expense of the other. Finally, beyond the English/language arts block, kids often aren’t asked to do much writing in early grades.

“Sometimes, in an early-literacy classroom, you’ll hear a teacher say, ‘It’s time to pick up your pencils,’” said Wiley Blevins, an author and literacy consultant who provides training in schools. “But your pencils should be in your hand almost the entire morning.”

Strikingly, many of the critiques that reading researchers have made against the “balanced literacy” approach that has held sway in schools for decades could equally apply to writing instruction: Foundational writing skills—like phonics and language structure—have not generally been taught systematically or explicitly.

And like the “find the main idea” strategies commonly taught in reading comprehension, writing instruction has tended to focus on content-neutral tasks, rather than deepening students’ connections to the content they learn.

Education Week wants to bring more attention to these connections in the stories that make up this special collection. But first, we want to delve deeper into the case for including writing in every step of the elementary curriculum.

Why has writing been missing from the reading conversation?

Much like the body of knowledge on how children learn to read words, it is also settled science that reading and writing draw on shared knowledge, even though they have traditionally been segmented in instruction.

“The body of research is substantial in both number of studies and quality of studies. There’s no question that reading and writing share a lot of real estate, they depend on a lot of the same knowledge and skills,” said Timothy Shanahan, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Pick your spot: text structure, vocabulary, sound-symbol relationships, ‘world knowledge.’”

The reasons for the bifurcation in reading and writing are legion. One is that the two fields have typically been studied separately. (Researchers studying writing usually didn’t examine whether a writing intervention, for instance, also aided students’ reading abilities—and vice versa.)

Some scholars also finger the dominance of the federally commissioned National Reading Panel report, which in 2000 outlined key instructional components of learning to read. The review didn’t examine the connection of writing to reading.

Looking even further back yields insights, too. Penmanship and spelling were historically the only parts of writing that were taught, and when writing reappeared in the latter half of the 20th century, it tended to focus on “process writing,” emphasizing personal experience and story generation over other genres. Only when the Common Core State Standards appeared in 2010 did the emphasis shift to writing about nonfiction texts and across subjects—the idea that students should be writing about what they’ve learned.

And finally, teaching writing is hard. Few studies document what preparation teachers receive to teach writing, but in surveys, many teachers say they received little training in their college education courses. That’s probably why only a little over half of teachers, in one 2016 survey, said that they enjoyed teaching writing.

Writing should begin in the early grades

These factors all work against what is probably the most important conclusion from the research over the last few decades: Students in the early-elementary grades need lots of varied opportunities to write.

“Students need support in their writing,” said Dana Robertson, an associate professor of reading and literacy education at the school of education at Virginia Tech who also studies how instructional change takes root in schools. “They need to be taught explicitly the skills and strategies of writing and they need to see the connections of reading, writing, and knowledge development.”

While research supports some fundamental tenets of writing instruction—that it should be structured, for instance, and involve drafting and revising—it hasn’t yet pointed to a specific teaching recipe that works best.

One of the challenges, the researchers note, is that while reading curricula have improved over the years, they still don’t typically provide many supports for students—or teachers, for that matter—for writing. Teachers often have to supplement with additions that don’t always mesh well with their core, grade-level content instruction.

“We have a lot of activities in writing we know are good,” Shanahan said. “We don’t really have a yearlong elementary-school-level curriculum in writing. That just doesn’t exist the way it does in reading.”

Nevertheless, practitioners like Blevins work writing into every reading lesson, even in the earliest grades. And all the components that make up a solid reading program can be enhanced through writing activities.

4 Key Things to Know About How Reading and Writing Interlock

Want a quick summary of what research tells us about the instructional connections between reading and writing?


1. Reading and writing are intimately connected.


Research on the connections began in the early 1980s and has grown more robust with time.


Among the newest and most important additions are three research syntheses conducted by Steve Graham, a professor at the University of Arizona, and his research partners. One of them examined whether writing instruction also led to improvements in students’ reading ability; a second examined the inverse question. Both found significant positive effects for reading and writing.


A third meta-analysis gets one step closer to classroom instruction. Graham and partners examined 47 studies of instructional programs that balanced both reading and writing—no program could feature more than 60 percent of one or the other. The results showed generally positive effects on both reading and writing measures.


2. Writing matters even at the earliest grades, when students are learning to read.


Studies show that the prewriting students do in early education carries meaningful signals about their decoding, spelling, and reading comprehension later on. Reading experts say that students should be supported in writing almost as soon as they begin reading, and evidence suggests that both spelling and handwriting are connected to the ability to connect speech to print and to oral language development.


3. Like reading, writing must be taught explicitly.


Writing is a complex task that demands much of students’ cognitive resources. Researchers generally agree that writing must be explicitly taught—rather than left up to students to “figure out” the rules on their own.


There isn’t as much research about how precisely to do this. One 2019 review, in fact, found significant overlap among the dozen writing programs studied, and concluded that all showed signs of boosting learning. Debates abound about the amount of structure students need and in what sequence, such as whether they need to master sentence construction before moving onto paragraphs and lengthier texts.


But in general, students should be guided on how to construct sentences and paragraphs, and they should have access to models and exemplars, the research suggests. They also need to understand the iterative nature of writing, including how to draft and revise.


A number of different writing frameworks incorporating various degrees of structure and modeling are available, though most of them have not been studied empirically.


4. Writing can help students learn content—and make sense of it.


Much of reading comprehension depends on helping students absorb “world knowledge”—think arts, ancient cultures, literature, and science—so that they can make sense of increasingly sophisticated texts and ideas as their reading improves. Writing can enhance students’ content learning, too, and should be emphasized rather than taking a back seat to the more commonly taught stories and personal reflections.


Graham and colleagues conducted another meta-analysis of nearly 60 studies looking at this idea of “writing to learn” in mathematics, science, and social studies. The studies included a mix of higher-order assignments, like analyses and argumentative writing, and lower-level ones, like summarizing and explaining. The study found that across all three disciplines, writing about the content improved student learning.

If students are doing work on phonemic awareness—the ability to recognize sounds—they shouldn’t merely manipulate sounds orally; they can put them on the page using letters. If students are learning how to decode, they can also encode—record written letters and words while they say the sounds out loud.

And students can write as they begin learning about language structure. When Blevins’ students are mainly working with decodable texts with controlled vocabularies, writing can support their knowledge about how texts and narratives work: how sentences are put together and how they can be pulled apart and reconstructed. Teachers can prompt them in these tasks, asking them to rephrase a sentence as a question, split up two sentences, or combine them.

“Young kids are writing these mile-long sentences that become second nature. We set a higher bar, and they are fully capable of doing it. We can demystify a bit some of that complex text if we develop early on how to talk about sentences—how they’re created, how they’re joined,” Blevins said. “There are all these things you can do that are helpful to develop an understanding of how sentences work and to get lots of practice.”

As students progress through the elementary grades, this structured work grows more sophisticated. They need to be taught both sentence and paragraph structure, and they need to learn how different writing purposes and genres—narrative, persuasive, analytical—demand different approaches. Most of all, the research indicates, students need opportunities to write at length often.

Using writing to support students’ exploration of content

Reading is far more than foundational skills, of course. It means introducing students to rich content and the specialized vocabulary in each discipline and then ensuring that they read, discuss, analyze, and write about those ideas. The work to systematically build students’ knowledge begins in the early grades and progresses throughout their K-12 experience.

Here again, available evidence suggests that writing can be a useful tool to help students explore, deepen, and draw connections in this content. With the proper supports, writing can be a method for students to retell and analyze what they’ve learned in discussions of content and literature throughout the school day—in addition to their creative writing.

This “writing to learn” approach need not wait for students to master foundational skills. In the K-2 grades especially, much content is learned through teacher read-alouds and conversation that include more complex vocabulary and ideas than the texts students are capable of reading. But that should not preclude students from writing about this content, experts say.

“We do a read-aloud or a media piece and we write about what we learned. It’s just a part of how you’re responding, or sharing, what you’ve learned across texts; it’s not a separate thing from reading,” Blevins said. “If I am doing read-alouds on a concept—on animal habitats, for example—my decodable texts will be on animals. And students are able to include some of these more sophisticated ideas and language in their writing, because we’ve elevated the conversations around these texts.”

In this set of stories, Education Week examines the connections between elementary-level reading and writing in three areas—encoding, language and text structure, and content-area learning. But there are so many more examples.

Please write us to share yours when you’ve finished.

Want to read more about the research that informed this story? Here’s a bibliography to start you off.

Berninger V. W., Abbott, R. D., Abbott, S. P., Graham S., & Richards T. (2002). Writing and reading: Connections between language by hand and language by eye. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Special Issue: The Language of Written Language, 35(1), 39–56
Berninger, Virginia, Robert D. Abbott, Janine Jones, Beverly J. Wolf, Laura Gould, Marci Anderson-Younstrom, Shirley Shimada, Kenn Apel. (2006) “Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling.” Developmental Neuropsychology, 29(1), pp. 61-92
Cabell, Sonia Q, Laura S. Tortorelli, and Hope K. Gerde (2013). “How Do I Write…? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills.” The Reading Teacher, 66(8), pp. 650-659.
Gerde, H.K., Bingham, G.E. & Wasik, B.A. (2012). “Writing in Early Childhood Classrooms: Guidance for Best Practices.” Early Childhood Education Journal 40, 351–359 (2012)
Gilbert, Jennifer, and Steve Graham. (2010). “Teaching Writing to Elementary Students in Grades 4–6: A National Survey.” The Elementary School Journal 110(44)
Graham, Steve, et al. (2017). “Effectiveness of Literacy Programs Balancing Reading and Writing Instruction: A Meta-Analysis.” Reading Research Quarterly, 53(3) pp. 279–304
Graham, Steve, and Michael Hebert. (2011). “Writing to Read: A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Writing and Writing Instruction on Reading.” Harvard Educational Review (2011) 81(4): 710–744.
Graham, Steve. (2020). “The Sciences of Reading and Writing Must Become More Fully Integrated.” Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1) pp. S35–S44
Graham, Steve, Sharlene A. Kiuhara, and Meade MacKay. (2020).”The Effects of Writing on Learning in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research April 2020, Vol 90, No. 2, pp. 179–226
Shanahan, Timothy. “History of Writing and Reading Connections.” in Shanahan, Timothy. (2016). “Relationships between reading and writing development.” In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 194–207). New York, NY: Guilford.
Slavin, Robert, Lake, C., Inns, A., Baye, A., Dachet, D., & Haslam, J. (2019). “A quantitative synthesis of research on writing approaches in grades 2 to 12.” London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Troia, Gary. (2014). Evidence-based practices for writing instruction (Document No. IC-5). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website: http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu/tools/innovation-configuration/
Troia, Gary, and Steve Graham. (2016).“Common Core Writing and Language Standards and Aligned State Assessments: A National Survey of Teacher Beliefs and Attitudes.” Reading and Writing 29(9).

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Does Writing Fit Into the ‘Science of Reading’?

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