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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Can We Take Advantage of Reading–Writing Relationships?

February 24, 2020

Teacher question: Everyone says reading and writing are connected. But our school focuses on only reading. We have a reading program (we don’t have a writing program). We test the students three times a year in reading, but never in writing. Writing isn’t even on our report card, though I guess it is part of Language Arts. What should we be doing with writing?

Shanahan's response:

You came to the right place.

I think your school is making a big mistake not giving sufficient attention to writing.

When I was a teacher, my primary grade kids wrote every day. When I became a researcher, I conducted studies on how reading and writing are related. When I was director of reading for Chicago, I required 30-45 minutes per day of writing in all of our classrooms.

There are, of course, a lot of good reasons why someone should learn to write. Many jobs, mine included, require it — and often jobs that require a lot of writing pay better (though I’m sure many nurses would disagree with that last point). Of course, writing is also an important form of self-expression. Just as there are people who play musical instruments, dance, sing, paint, knit, cook, and so on, there are many who use writing as a form of self-expression, and a form particularly useful for preserving memory. All of those are terrific reasons for teaching writing.

I’m going to guess that the reason your school is ignoring writing is because someone figured doing this might help raise reading scores. I say that’s a mistake because writing can also be a path to higher reading achievement, so your kids (and your school) are really missing out. Instead of promoting higher reading scores, your school is probably squashing them.

So, there are lots of reasons for teaching writing, and this entry will focus on one of them: how writing can help kids to become measurably better readers.

Research has identified three important ways reading and writing are connected — and all three deserve a place in the curriculum.

First, reading and writing draw upon the same body of knowledge and skills. If you want to be a reader you must perceive the separable phonemes within words, recognize the most common spelling patterns, link meanings to the words in text (vocabulary), understand the grammar well enough to permit comprehension, trail cohesive links accurately, and recognize and use discourse structure (texts are organized and recognizing this in a text improves comprehension). Of course, background knowledge plays a role in reading comprehension, too, so the more readers know about their world the better they may do in reading. Yep, learning to read requires all of that.

But think about it. That knowledge is integral to writing too. If kids can’t hear the phonemes, match sounds and letters, and remember spelling patterns, they won’t be able to get words on the page. The same can be said about all those other linguistic and content features of text needed for reading. That means when you are teaching the foundations of reading, you are also teaching the foundations of writing.

It is the same knowledge base, and yet, they play out differently because readers and writers start in different places. A reader looks at the author’s words and starts decoding — matching the phonology in their head to the author’s orthography. A writer thinks about the words he/she wants to write, thinks about the phonemes, and tries to remember what letters or patterns will represent those best. The same thing happens with the other elements, too — one starts with ideas and turns them into written language, the other marches in the opposite direction.

My advice about knowledge? Teach the skills that you teach now, but then think hard about them. How would kids use that skill in reading and writing? For example, when you teach letter sounds, you should be teaching kids to use those sounds to sound out words. It is a pathetic phonics lesson that includes no decoding practice. But you also should have students trying to write words. Many programs include dictation, and that’s great. I’m partial to invented spelling because it provides such extensive and supportive practice with the sounds. Look at this simple K-1 message:

Hermet Krabs liv in shels sum tims tha lev on the bech. [Hermit crabs live in shells. Sometimes they live on the beach.]

This piece of writing didn’t take long to produce, but to do it the student had to try to analyze 38 phonemes. He got most of them reasonably right, too. The most ambitious phonemic awareness lessons usually would NOT have individual children practicing anything like 38 phonemes, so encouraging this kind of writing is smart teaching

You can do the same with older kids when you teach informational text structure. For reading, that would usually entail teaching how problem-solution texts are organized, then having kids read such texts to practice using that awareness to gin up their comprehension. That can be made even more effective if you have kids composing their own problem–solution texts — and what a great opportunity to review science or social studies content at the same time.

Second, reading and writing are communications processes. Studies show that writers think about their audiences and what they need to tell their readers to communicate effectively. That might not be surprising, but there are also studies showing the value of having readers think about authors and author’s perspectives (this is emphasized in educational standards and is essential for reading history, and for certain approaches to literary text, too).

Writing approaches that involve kids in reading and responding to each other’s texts have been found to be beneficial in improving the quality of kids’ writing. There are any number of ways that teachers facilitate this kind of sharing that heightens student awareness that texts are written by somebody and that can sensitize young authors to the kinds of things that may confuse or entice their readers. Writing conferences, writer’s workshop, and revision circles are just a few ways to accomplish this.

On the reading side, it can help to read texts in which authors have a strong voice and/or style. It is, for example, terrific when kindergarteners find that they can recognize Dr. Seuss books or when third graders can distinguish a Beverly Cleary from a Barbara Cooney with their eyes closed. I like to have these students write imaginary biographies of such authors, based only on the content and tone of the texts we are reading. Of course, as kids get older, having them read primary source text sets in their social studies classes and then evaluating the trustworthiness of this material based on who the authors are and when they recorded their ideas.

Basically, being author can give students insights into what is happening off stage (what is the author doing back there?), which can boost one’s critical reading ability. Likewise, being a thoughtful reader gives writers insights into what their readers might need.

The third way that reading and writing can connect is through combined use. Reading and writing can be used together to accomplish goals. Most research on combined uses have emphasized two specific academic goals, so I’ll limit my comments to those; specifically, studying or learning from text and composing synthesis papers, like school reports.  

In the first, writing is added to reading to increase understanding or improve memory. Research finds that writing about what one is trying to learn from text is beneficial. Often when students read for a test, they read and reread and hope for the best. Studies indicate that reading and writing summaries, analyses/critiques, or syntheses of the information has a powerful and positive impact on learning. We should be teaching students how to use writing in concert with reading to improve comprehension, increase knowledge and to conquer academia.

For the second goal, the emphasis is on synthesis writing. Teaching students how to collect information appropriately from text sources enables easier and more effective syntheses. Instead of just having kids writing a report with three sources or something like that, guide them to plan a paper with a particular purpose or structure and then help them to read the texts in ways that will facilitate this writing. For instance, if students are to write some kind of comparison of sources, providing a summarization guide that will allow them to collect information from the texts in a way that would facilitate comparison makes sense, such as charting which ideas the texts agree and disagree on. Reading the texts in that way should enhance the writing.

Too many principals think that ignoring and even discouraging writing frees up time better devoted to higher reading scores. Too many teachers are anxious about writing because of the limited preparation they receive in this area. But having kids writing every day — in any and all of the ways described here — is a good idea.

Not doing so leaves reading achievement points on the table.

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