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'Writing Directly Benefits Students' Reading Skills'

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

In what ways can writing support reading instruction?


All of us obviously want to help our students become better writers.  But are there ways we can "double-dip," too—in other words, help them improve their writing AND also use writing instruction to improve reading skills?

We'll explore that question today with Tony Zani, Mary Tedrow, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Colleen Cruz,  and Pam Allyn. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Tony, Mary, and Mary Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Giving kids the "write stuff" makes them better readers

Tony Zani is a literacy coach in the Salt Lake City school district. He has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in instructional leadership. Tony is a national-board-certified teacher with a specialization in early-childhood education:

Writing is often the overlooked content area.  After the National Reading Panel left it out and No Child Left Behind focused on reading achievement, there seemed to be a decline in teaching writing.  After the Common Core State Standards came out, there was an increase in writing instruction. But, if your state is like mine, writing is only tested in a few grades.  So, guess what?  Those are the grades when writing is taught like crazy.  In other grades, it often becomes a nice thing "if there's time."  There's rarely time.

This mentality is prevalent because every level of the education system focuses on making sure students do well on end-of-year, high-stakes assessments. Jobs are at stake.  Money from the government is at stake.  Heaven forbid your school does so poorly that an outside group comes in to help you "turnaround."

Never fear, though.  Writing directly benefits students' reading skills. For example, if you have students write about what they've read or learned (for nearly any content or age), you'll dramatically improve reading comprehension.  Students are often forced to reread and think more deeply about what they've read.  When students have to consider a controversial question and use texts they've read to defend their point of view, reading comprehension is off the charts. In our school, we've emphasized writing about what we read.  It took about two years for most teachers, and students, to really embrace the concept.  It was about that time that our end-of-year reading scores had a huge jump. Our highly impacted Title I school made enormous growth just because students were better at thinking about what they read. 

Writing also improves students' reading fluency.  When students have to stop and think about what spelling patterns to use when they write, they are making a deeper connection in their brains about sound and spelling patterns. This deeper connection makes it easier, and faster, for students to recall those same patterns when they read.  Written language is literally a secret code that someone made up to represent spoken sounds.  The more students think about and practice the code in written form, the better they will be at understanding the same code in writing. Again, in our high-needs school, we saw students' scores on tests like DIBELS and our end-of-level test rise dramatically.  Fluent readers more deeply understand that code.

Writing also improves reading comprehension as students get better at formatting their writing. When students write argumentative essays, they learn how authors often lay out their arguments and evidence.  This, in turn, gives students a framework for reading others' argumentative writing.  Having a framework in your mind helps you fill in the blanks and improves comprehension. When students write narrative pieces, they develop an understanding of how authors typically lay out character development, setting, plot, problems, turning points, and resolutions.  Again, students have a framework to build upon when they read others' narrative texts.  In a bit of irony, our school focused on writing informative and argumentative pieces—those are emphasized in the common core, right?  Our students had very high scores when reading informational texts.  However, students scored lower when reading literature.  Reading literature was a strength for most other schools.  Writing in all genres is important. Don't lose that balance!

Writing is a critical communication skill.  Universities and employers frequently complain that writing is an underdeveloped skill.  It's no wonder, when we have an education system that often relegates writing to the land of "I wish we had time" and "That's not on the test."  What a tragedy.  Teaching students to be effective writers is important by itself.  However, writing also provides big gains in reading comprehension and reading fluency. 

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"Reading is the inhale; writing is the exhale"

Mary K. Tedrow, an award-winning high school English teacher, now serves as the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. Her book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Area is available through Routledge:

Writing and reading are intricately intertwined.  One is the inverse of the other: Reading is the inhale; writing is the exhale.  They depend on each other, and when we find time to practice both, the students are the winners.

In the earliest readers, writing is a natural way to ingest and experiment with a growing knowledge of letters and their function in symbolizing the sounds we speak.  Encouraging students to write, even before they know all the rules, builds a deeper understanding of how reading works.  In kindergarten, the inventive spelling students employ to compose early writings allows children to represent on the page what they are hearing in the world. Children more clearly understand the letter/sound relationship as they compose thoughts and stories in writing. Recent research has revealed that students who are given latitude to use inventive spelling become better readers (Oulette & Senechall, 2017). 

But the interplay between writing and reading goes well beyond just learning to read.  When students are asked to write for their own purposes, they intuitively understand the choices authors make as they create a work that moves a reader.

Teachers who have students writing authentically—that is, the way real writers write—can interrupt the process and teach craft lessons. Show students how to develop several good beginnings and ask them to choose the one which serves their purpose best. Show how to incorporate the senses in description, how to move a plot forward through dialogue, how to manipulate sentences for punch and clarity.

All of these writing skills are the inside/out version of analyzing writing by others.  When we analyze the books, poetry, and essays we read, we are simply describing the choices an author made on their road to composing a piece.  When students are heavily involved in creating those pieces themselves, they will more easily see what authors are doing and understand the messiness required in producing effective communication.  Writing brings the author and his or her skill to life.

Students who write are better, more observant, and appreciative readers in general. And students who read are better, more competent writers.  Be sure your students have the chance to breathe in and out throughout the day.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in Grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77-88.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

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"Lure" students into reading through working with their writing

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a secondary-level teacher and literacy specialist for the Wisconsin Rapids public schools in Wisconsin:

I have found it possible to lure secondary-level students into the reading world through working with their writing.  I work with 6-9th grade struggling readers as a reading specialist and literacy coach. By the time they are referred to me, they have not been reading for years—which accounts for much of their struggle.  When we teachers work through the power of written self-expression with and for these students, we can also tinker with content-specific academic vocabulary, text structure, and mechanics of writing.  We can also prime and build basic reading and comprehension skills.   Even researchers have found that use of reading-response writing, explicitly teaching writing process, and engaging students in wide writing practice enhances basic reading skills and comprehension in K-12 readers.  Here are some strategies I have found to be successful working with secondary-level students based on the aforementioned three areas:

  • Create reading-response writing opportunities focusing on opinions and feelings of the reader.  By the time they are in 6th grade, most students want to share information about interests and opinions.  How can we connect that interest into reader response? To begin with, we don't always have to work with published text.  We can create our own texts in the classroom.  We teachers can start the process by writing a letter to students sharing some general information and interests.  The teacher then guides the students to write a letter back to them with similar information. This experience encourages students to begin sharing and expressing themselves in writing.  Get into the habit of crafting student-writing response assignments for which we are asking about students' feelings and opinions regarding classroom reading—even soliciting poetry writing if that genre works best for some students. Students may also find starting with a salutation hailing a specific audience helps them focus their thoughts in their writing.  "Dear teacher/class/partner, I think that____."  They can also focus on sharing their writing with a partner or small group.
  • Teach the writing process relative to classroom text.  Teach students a few writing structures to clearly communicate thoughts and ideas.  Teach the main structures of the text you use in your content—be it narrative or expository structures.  Let's say we want to teach students to compare and contrast within a classroom text on the running of restaurants.  We might use a Venn Diagram graphic organizer to compare and contrast the information about restaurant operation with them on the smartboard.  Allow the class to help fill in information.  Then together, flesh out a comparison-contrast response with a question like, "Based on our reading today, what might be a more difficult restaurant to run, Culver's or Buffalo Wild Wings?"  Use a template to gather student input to flesh out a response.  Teach students to support viewpoints with evidence from the text and show them a specific way you will always want them to use to cite evidence.  Allow the class to help design or co-create a rubric for evaluating writing, which will help students internalize the elements of the specific writing.  Steer the strategy to a similar text where you might use the same kind of structure and response.
  • Engage in wide practice of written response:   Continuing both "big" and "little" writing in our classes, based on the structures and types of texts we teach, can increase reading comprehension.  Working on mechanics of writing improves basic reading skills like fluency and word recognition.  In addition, continue to practice reading, writing, and reflecting and sharing in whole-group, small-group, and partner contexts.  Have students create "Why?" questions to inquire about text.  Supply sentence stems to help students focus their text response with their writing such as, "I think ___________ did what he did because in the story_______."  Make it a habit of requiring written response in the form of exit response slips where students within a limit of 3-5 minutes, quickly write a response to an inquiry regarding what they learned through the reading.  Wide practice of writing helps students' classroom reading become second nature, and it helps prune their focus on text. 

I know the strategies I have elaborated upon work, because my students made enormous, lasting gains in their reading through focusing on writing. Also, the gains secondary-level students can make through focusing on feelings and opinions in their reading-response writing foster livelier conversations during classroom discussion.  Students' overall gains even show students that content texts across the curriculum can pique their interests outside of the classroom.  It's a win-win all around! 

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Having students annotate their writing with the Strategies they use

Colleen Cruz is the author of several titles for teachers, including The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, as well as the author of the young-adult novel, Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. She was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, where as the director of innovation, she shares her passion for accessibility, 21st-century learning, and social justice. Most recently, Colleen authored Writers Read Better: Nonfiction (July 2018) and Writers Read Better: Narrative published by Corwin:

As an educator who works with teachers and students in grades 2 through 8, I find that I often look at the practices of primary-grade teachers and wish we upper-grade folks borrowed more heavily from them. Whether it be a focus on individual development, an emphasis on play, or just an overarching focus on the whole child, there are pedagogical treasures we need to bring more to our big-kid classrooms. At present, the most pressing for me is the desire to use writing to support reading instruction more often. 

Every kindergarten and 1st grade teacher I know asks students to write as soon as they enter the classroom. This is long before students know the entire alphabet or how to read any words. In fact, most of us who have had little ones at home can attest to how often kids pick up a marker or crayon and write their names, strings of letters, or familiar words. Our youngest learners often produce words before they consume them. And when they do that, they are setting themselves up for success as readers because they learn early on, if they can write their name they can read it. If they can write any word, they can read it. 

Also, many of us grew up as educators with the knowledge that reading supports writing. I first learned how this conventional wisdom applies to children's writing from Katie Ray and her seminal book Wondrous Words. So, it should not be all that revolutionary to discover that those early-writing and -reading connections still apply when students move into more complex reading. 

Yes, they might have moved past simple decoding and literal comprehension work. But the role of writing and reading reciprocity still applies. For every comprehension move a reader makes, there is an author on the other side of the desk. If a young reader is also a writer, they will be well-positioned to see the mirror moves they have made as a writer in the texts they are reading by other authors. Studies have shown this, of course (Graves, Calkins, Chew, Graham & Hebert to name a few). But in my work with young readers and writers I have seen time and again that if something is challenging to a reader, one of the most accessible paths to overcoming that challenge is through writing. It's a transferable understanding that can last a lifetime: Show students that every reading skill has a reciprocal writing skill, and if they have written something like it, they are able to read it well, too. 

One of my favorite ways to do this is to ask students to annotate their writing with the strategies they tried as writers and the reasons why. For example, "I used show-don't-tell in this paragraph to help make a picture in my reader's mind." I then ask them to read a book of their choice with their own writing nearby. When they come to a spot in the text they find challenging, they can look back to their own writing to see if they made a similar move and why. A few common writing/reading reciprocal moves I teach students include:

  • Show-not-tell in writing helps readers to infer in reading.
  • Plotting in writing helps readers to make predictions in reading.
  • Developing objects as symbols in writing helps readers interpret symbols in reading.
  • Defining a word in writing helps readers to understand the meaning of an unknown word.

There are, of course, countless more.

We know the power of modeling. And I believe for many years, rightly so, we have taught students how to mine the power of the published word for ideas for their own writing. For many of us, it's time to try to teach the power of modeling by asking students to look at their own writing as their mentor for their reading lives. I am hard-pressed to think of more empowering reading work.

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 Writing "is a powerful lever for helping our students learn to read profoundly"

Pam Allyn, senior vice president, innovation & development, Scholastic Education, is a leading literacy expert, author, and motivational speaker. In 2007, she founded LitWorld, a global literacy organization serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, pioneering initiatives including the summer reading program LitCamp and World Read Aloud Day:

Writing and reading are not just two sides of the same coin; they are profoundly related and entwined. I have often said that reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out—the child is taking new breaths in this new world, feeling her power and her potential.

Surrounding our children in the sounds of language from literary and informational text is crucial to their understanding of language. The child who is read aloud to multiple times per day, week, month, and year is already realizing the sound and feel of language. Then, too, the child who is given the opportunity to put her first marks on the page is already beginning to make meaning in the world. When reading a book, she sees it as something constructed from a world she already knows because her scribbles connect to those of others and give her the powerful idea that she has a voice. 

Writing early and constantly, in and out of school, is a powerful lever for helping our students learn to read profoundly. Here are five ways writing supports reading and vice versa:

  1. Building a deep sense of the beauty of grammar, sound, and vocabulary

The student who writes becomes alert to the structure of sentences, the rhythm of multiple words together, and words that surprise. Because our students are using the tools of language to build their own stories, they are awake to the qualities of texts. When students share works by authors such as Jacqueline Woodson or Naomi Nye, they're astounded and try to emulate them in their own writing.

  1. Understanding the purpose of and use of genres

Students who write quickly learn the necessity of genre. My 1st graders were writing informational texts and choosing their own topics. One wrote about nursing homes because that's where her grandpa was. Later, I saw her scouring a book with a glossary in it. She explained, "I want to add a glossary to my story. My readers might need to know some of the big words I use to describe where my grandpa lives." Genre is already embedded within her at the age of 6.

  1. Recognizing the power of writing to connect us

Students who write understand that by telling their stories, they're making their thoughts permanent, which leads to a hearty respect for the text, the authors who write them, and the uses we make of them. When our student writers are finishing works to put into the classroom library, they have an opportunity to see themselves side by side with published works, which feels celebratory. Writing, theirs and others, inspires and connects them.

  1. Becoming aware of the ways writing can change someone's mind or change the world

Even the smallest writer has big ideas. My 2nd grade class once wrote letters to the entire neighborhood inviting them to come see our play. People young and old came, and students saw how they could change their communities with the power of their own words. So, when they read, they consider all the ways writers can change people.

  1. Knowing and deepening one's own writing and the voice of an author

The student who writes is building confidence, courage, and a sense of self. She is learning how to evoke emotion, keep someone in suspense, and persuade while developing her own voice, which will serve her in the future whether she's writing a narrative or an email. When she turns to her reading, she is now more aware of the author's voice and knows the risks the author takes. She is one herself.

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Thanks to Tony, Mary, Mary Beth, Colleen, and Pam 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days.

 

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