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In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Connecting Reading & Writing ‘Is a High-Leverage Move’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 25, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

In what ways can reading support writing instruction?

In Part One, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Laura Robb, Lindsey Moses, and Laverne Bowers shared their thoughts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Michelle, Irina, and Laura on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Sean Ruday, Michael Hart, Ph.D., Julie Wright, Barry Hoonan, and Patricia L. Scharer, Ph.D., contribute their responses.

The next question-of-the-week can be found at the end of this post.

A four-step process

Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He has written nine books on literacy instruction, all published by Routledge Eye on Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanRuday:

When I conduct workshops for teachers on the best practices of writing instruction and teach writing-focused classes for preservice educators, I am often asked, “What is the most important thing to do when teaching writing?” While there are many aspects of effective writing instruction, I strongly believe that the most important idea for writing teachers of all grade levels to keep in mind is that the best writing instruction is inextricably linked to reading. To make our students effective writers in any genre, we teachers need to facilitate their reading of that genre and guide them as they think carefully and reflectively about what choices expert authors in that genre make and why they make them. Once students have done this, they can apply their understandings of the features of writing in that genre to their own works.

I help students think about the importance of writing strategies that published authors use—and that the students can apply to their own works—by taking what I call a toolkit approach to teaching writing. In this approach, students read outstanding works in a genre, think about the tools (or writing strategies) the authors used to make their pieces effective, and add those strategies to their own writing toolkits. To help students use outstanding works they read to understand the importance of writing strategies, I use a four-step instructional process:

1. Show students examples of writing strategies used in published texts they read.

This first step gives students authentic examples of how published authors use key strategies that the students will ultimately apply to their writing. For example, if you want your students to incorporate the strategy of sensory language into their writing, you would begin the process by asking students to read texts that contain sensory language and helping them identify examples of this concept.

2. Discuss how the authors of those works use key writing strategies as tools to enhance their writing.

Once students have seen examples of a key strategy in a published text, I recommend talking with them about the importance of that concept to the effectiveness of the text. To facilitate these discussions, I ask students questions such as, “How does this strategy impact our experience with the text?” and “Why do you think the author chose to use the strategy?” Questions such as these can build students’ metacognition of the impact of these writing strategies and of the kinds of choices authors make when writing.

3. Work with students as they use the focal strategies in their own works.

This step in the instructional process give students increased ownership: It asks them to apply the strategy they’ve identified and discussed in the first three steps of the process and apply it to their own works. Students can do this as they create new pieces, or they can look at texts they’ve already created and revise them by incorporating the focal strategy. While students work on incorporating the focal strategy into their works, I recommend conferring with them individually to monitor their progress and provide them with any necessary support.

4. Ask students to reflect on how those strategies enhanced their works.

To conclude this instructional process, I recommend asking students to reflect on the impact of the focal strategy on their writing. For example, if you and your students focused on sensory language throughout this process, you might ask them to respond in writing to the questions: “Why is sensory language important to effective writing?” and “How would your work be different if you did not include sensory language?” Reflecting on these questions can further develop students’ metacognitive awareness of writing strategies.

This instructional process can help students see the connection between the works they read and the pieces they write by emphasizing the strategic nature of writing. By linking what students read and write, we can help our students think carefully and metacognitively about effective writing.

Informal writing

Michael Hart, Ph.D., has more than 25 years of experience as an international literacy expert, entrepreneur, and consultant. Dr. Hart’s unique background provides him with the authority and expertise to challenge the status quo of global literacy initiatives and lead the charge in providing new solutions. He is the founder and president of www.drmichaelhart.com and www.trueliteracy.in. Follow Dr. Hart onTwitter @drmichaelhart:

Another way to look at this issue is to ask, “In what ways do reading instruction and writing instruction support one another?”

Contrary to what is far too often done in the U.S., the research indicates that it is best to combine reading and writing instruction at the same time with the same instructors and topic. At the foundational level, simultaneous instruction aids the students’ ability to improve sounding out words. Teaching decoding and encoding simultaneously leads to a sort of “overlearning,” which helps with both reading and writing (Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence of how writing can improve reading. Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education). But the value of combining reading and writing instruction goes well beyond phonological awareness.

Keep in mind that a broad range of language skills are important for effective reading and writing. Vocabulary development and background knowledge are critical skills from reading that can deeply inform the quality of a student’s written product. Understanding syntax, semantics, and morphology plays an important role for both reading and writing. Thus it makes sense that integrating reading and writing instruction regarding the same topic or story will enhance, strengthen, and support the interconnections between the two tasks. This, of course, leads to better comprehension.

Another dynamic in the U.S. is that the amount of time spent teaching children to write decreases significantly after 3rd grade. One reason is that teachers feel they do not have time to provide appropriate feedback. One solution posited by researcher Stephen Graham would be to urge teachers to let the students write without worrying about intensive feedback. Let it be considered “informal writing,” the primary goal of which is to just engage students in the reading and writing process.

“Taking advantage of the natural connections”

Julie Wright is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over 25 years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings. She holds national-board certification as well as a B.S. in education, a master’s in language arts and reading, a reading endorsement, and extensive school leadership postgraduate work, including a P-9 principal license from Ohio State University. She has served as an adjunct faculty member at Ashland University and the University of Wisconsin, teaching graduate courses focused on curriculum, instruction, and assessment and instructional coaching respectively.

Barry Hoonan teaches 5th and 6th grade at Odyssey Multiage Program on Bainbridge Island, Wash. He works with teachers both in the U.S. and internationally, including appointments as a three-time Fulbright Teaching Exchange teacher in the United Kingdom, a teaching fellow at Harlem Village Academy in N.Y.C., and a teacher-consultant at the American School of Brasilia. Barry is a co- author of Beyond Reading and Writing: Inquiry, Curriculum, and Multiple Ways of Knowing (NCTE, 2000) and is a recipient of NCTE’s Edward Hoey Award and of the Bonnie Campbell Hill Washington State Literacy Award.

Julie and Barry collaborated to write What Are You Grouping For, Grades 3-8 published by Corwin in August of last year:

Time never seems to be on our side during the school day and year so making high-leverage moves to maximize students’ literacy growth is a priority. Taking advantage of the natural connections between reading and writing, as reciprocal processes, is a natural fit. What students consume (by reading, viewing, and listening) affects what they produce (by writing, creating, and designing) because all texts serve as mentor texts. For example, when students use their reading lens to pay attention to how information is organized and presented, they have a model for ways they can organize their writing.

It’s hard for us to imagine the teaching of writing without incorporating reading. This last year, we paid close attention to the boys in Barry’s 5th/6th grade classroom. When given the chance to free write, the boys wrote lots of spy and adventure stories and an equal number of sometimes gross and silly stories about school. When we asked the kids where their ideas for their writing came from, they rattled off the Spy School, Big Nate, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Perhaps the lesson here is that there is not only power in borrowing ideas from the stories we read, it is equally satisfying for students to share out their influences and inspirations. This empowers writers to use their reading to feed their writing.

The importance of modeling and mentors cannot be understated in the connecting of reading with the teaching of writing. While visiting Barry’s classroom this last fall, Julie read Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, by Chris Barton. She read this delightful biography with enthusiasm and curiosity. Then she co-constructed her research notes with the kids, and finally, she invited students to look at biographical timelines from a wide assortment of books, magazines, and websites. The class created an anchor chart of the key features of a biographical timeline. She ended writers’ workshop by using the key events noted in the mentor text Whoosh! and, with student assistance, placed key events on a timeline.

We believe that reading voluminously creates the domino effect—the more we read, the more we want to read, reread, talk, and write. In our book, What Are You Grouping For?, Grades 3-8: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers—Not the Book, we talk about the importance of pivoting into small groups. We believe that when grouping is flexible, we can make instructional decisions for curriculum-based reasons, social-emotional reasons, and individual reader/writer reasons. Small-group learning opportunities provide time and space for students to be readers (i.e., making meaning, holding their thinking, sharing big ideas in the text) and for students to sit beside mentor texts to lift their own writing (i.e., studying the moves authors make to get their ideas out in the world and to connect with readers).

The more we link reading engaging texts to the teaching of writing, the more we demystify and clarify the myriad ways writers inform and excite. Connecting reading and writing is a high-leverage move that maximizes students’ literacy growth.

“Reading and writing are not separate subjects”

Patricia L. Scharer, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Ohio State University. She is a literacy collaborative trainer, a Reading Recovery trainer, and author of many articles and books about early literacy and children’s literature, including Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework:

One of the amazing insights from my Reading Recovery training over 30 years ago was that not only could young, striving readers learn to read and write, but also that the daily reading and writing had an important, even critical reciprocal relationship. What the child noticed while reading became new learning to apply in writing. Perhaps it was the shape of a letter or the use of all capital letters to indicate excitement or even that two words with similar spellings sounded the same. It was my job as an observant teacher to support what the child noticed and also provide intentional teaching to help him create even more links between his reading and writing; each supported the other.

In classrooms 30 years ago, the notion that young children could write their own messages was not commonly held by educators. Writing, in many K-1 classrooms at that time, meant copying a message from the chalkboard. Children focused on carefully crafting the letters rather than creating their own message. Now, from the first day of kindergarten, students are excited to write each day during writing workshop! Their stories often begin with pictures of personal narratives with invented spellings but evolve into more complex texts across a range of genre. Reading and listening to quality literature for children is a key element supporting the transition from personal narratives via drawing to complicated, multipage, well-edited texts of a variety of genre.

So, what’s the role of children’s books? First, quality books expand children’s language beyond what they experience as they talk with others each day. Books introduce children to literary language such as “Once upon a time” or “The end,” which are not typically found in oral language. The language in books also teaches new ways to tell stories like the essential three-part fairy tale structure with characters such as three bears, pigs, or Billy goats. Children learn that stories are told in many different ways—with a narrator and several speakers or from the perspective of just one character.

A wise teacher revisits favorite books to help students notice the author’s craft and then apply it to their own writing. Since the books are familiar, the teacher need only attend to the portion of the book central to what students are learning as writers. If, for example, students are learning about descriptive words, the class may go back to favorite parts of Swimmy (1963, 2013) by Leo Lionni to discuss Swimmy’s description as “black as a mussel shell” or the eel Swimmy saw with a “tail that was almost too far away to remember.” Favorite books become powerful illustrations of the writers’ craft during daily writing workshop mini-lessons and are internalized as students write their own texts. Through these mentor texts, children learn how to craft a good leading sentence, how a story mountain rises up to a climax followed by a conclusion, how to use descriptive language to create a character, or the specific qualities of a certain genre.

To harness the power of quality children’s books, teachers need to thoughtfully select quality books for reading aloud, guided reading, and for students’ independent reading. Close analysis of student writing will help teachers plan effective mini-lessons to ensure that students notice and learn from the books they hear and read to support them as writers. Reading and writing are not separate subjects; rather, reading and writing are linked, as Swimmy and the little red fish, into something even greater!

Lionni, L. (1963, 2013). Swimmy. NY: Scholastic.

Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are specific ways to make lessons more culturally responsive and culturally sustaining?

Thanks to Sean, Michael, Julie, Barry, and Patricia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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