Blast from the Past: How Can We Take Advantage of the Reading-Writing Relationship?

  • reading-writing relations
  • 20 January, 2024

This blog first appeared on February 22, 2020. It has been a while since I have written about how writing instruction can boost reading achievement. When I first started writing about that (almost 50 years ago), it was virtually an unknown topic. These days, most teachers tell me that they agree that writing can improve reading, though they don’t seem to have much understanding of the concept and quite often they skip the writing because of pressures to get higher reading scores. So it goes. Given recent experiences with such conversations, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic. There was nothing to change or update here but the original had no references, so I cited some of my contributions in this arena. I still believe that a quarter of your language arts instruction should focus on writing – and this entry provides practical advice to help you accomplish that in ways that can build both reading and writing.

RELATED: What Does Brain Science Have To Say About Teaching Reading? Does It Matter?

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 response:

You came to the right place.

I think your school is making a big mistake not devoting 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. As director of reading for Chicago, I required 30-45 minutes per day of writing in all 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 (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, many use writing as a form of self-expression and to preserve memory. All those are terrific reasons for teaching writing.

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

So, there are lots of reasons for teaching writing, and this entry focuses 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 your 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 the 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. The 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. The same thing happens with the other elements, too – one starts with ideas and turns them into written language, and the other marches in the opposite direction.

What is my advice about taking advantage of this overlap? Teach the reading 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 also have your students try to write the 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 accomplish it the student had to analyze 38 phonemes. He got most of them reasonably right, too. The most ambitious phonemic awareness lessons usually would NOT have any individual child practicing 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, and then having the students read texts with that structure to gin up comprehension. That can be even more effective if the kids try to compose 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 communication 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 authors’ 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 are beneficial in improving the quality of kids’ writing. There are any number of ways that teachers can facilitate this kind of sharing and heighten awareness that texts are written by somebody. Doing this 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 this can be done.

On the reading side, it can help to read texts in which authors have a strong voice and/or style. It is 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 the authors, based only on the content and tone of the texts we are reading. Of course, as kids get older, these kinds of things are addressed by having students read primary source text sets in their social studies classes and evaluating the trustworthiness of this material based on who the authors are and when they recorded their ideas.

Being author can give students insights into what is happening off-stage (what is the author doing back there?), which can boost critical reading ability. Likewise, being a thoughtful writer 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 emphasize 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 show 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 conquer academia.

The second body of research explores synthesis writing. Teaching students how to collect information appropriately from text sources enables easier and more effective syntheses. Instead of just having kids write 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, provide a summarization guide that facilitates the collection of comparable information from the two texts (such as charting which points on which the texts agree and disagree). 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.

As Vivian says in Pretty Woman: “BIG MISTAKE!”


Fitzgerald, J., & Shanahan, T. (2000). Reading and writing relations and their development. Educational Psychologist, 35, 39–51.

Shanahan, T. (1984). Nature of the reading-writing relation: An exploratory multi­variate analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 466–477.

Shanahan, T. (1997). Reading-writing relationships, thematic units, inquiry learning… In pursuit of effective integrated instruction. The Reading Teacher, 51, 12–19.

Shanahan, T. (1998). Readers’ awareness of author. In R. C. Calfee & N. Spivey (Eds.), The reading-writing connection. Ninety-seventh Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (part II, pp. 88–111). Chicago: NSSE.

Shanahan, T. (2004). Overcoming the dominance of communication: Writing to think and to learn. In T. L. Jetton & J. A. Dole (Eds.), Adolescent literacy research and practice (pp. 59–74). New York: Guilford.

Shanahan, T. (2006). Relations among oral language, reading, and writing development. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 171—186). New York: Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (2016). Relationships between reading and writing development. In C A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, & Jill Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 194-210). New York: The Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (2019). Reading-writing connections. In S. Graham, C.A. MacArthur, & M. Hebert (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction (3rd ed., pp. 309-332). New York: Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (Ed.). (1990). Reading and writing together: New perspec­tives for the class­room. Nor­wood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Shanahan, T. & Lomax, R. (1986). An analysis and comparison of theoreti­cal models of the read­ing-writing relationship. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 116–123.

Shanahan, T., & Lomax, R. (1988). A developmental comparison of three theoretical models of the reading-writing relationship. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 196–212.

Shanahan, T., & Tierney, R. J. (1990). Reading-writing connections: The relations among three re­search traditions. In J. Zutell & S. McCormick (Eds.), Literacy the­ory and research: Analyses from multiple paradigms. (Thirty-ninth Yearbook of the Na­tional Reading Confer­ence, pp. 13–34). Chicago, IL: National Reading Con­ference.

Tierney, R., & Shanahan, T. (1991). Reading-writing relationships: Proc­esses, transac­tions, out­comes. In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Hand­book of Reading Research (vol. 2, pp. 246–280). New York: Longman.


Here is a link to the original posting of this blog in case you would like to see the 26 comments that were made in response to it.

LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Patricia Apuzzo-Powell, M.S., Ed. Jan 20, 2024 02:21 PM

I teach world languages and took a "Science of Reading" course, because I believe that reading is central to learning anything. Listening and reading are the two receptive skills. Speaking and writing are the two expressive skills. In order to meaningfully communicate in the outside world, all of those skills are a part of the puzzle. The OP's school is teaching to a flawed test and is setting up those students to fail. I used to work in a school system that told teachers to teach to the test. I always have believed to teach beyond the test. The goal is to produce students who can solve problems in the real world, not wait for someone to give them the answer. The field of medicine, among many others, is full of people who are problem solvers.

Joan Sedita Jan 20, 2024 02:30 PM

So glad you reposted this topic. The "Writing to Read" research guide (Graham & Hebert, 2010) highlights multiple ways that writing supports reading. The first recommendation is to have students write personal reactions to text, learn to take notes from text, and answer/create questions about text in writing. Summarizing is also a key recommendation, something that we have long known supports comprehension, and was also identified in the "Writing Next" research guide (Graham & Perin, 2007) as one of the 11 instructional practices that improve student writing.
In my book "The Writing Rope: A Framework for Explicit Writing Instruction in All Subjects" and in the two professional development courses I developed for Keys to Literacy (Keys to Early Writing, Keys to Content Writing), I emphasize the importance of integrating writing and reading instruction. This includes using model texts that students "read as writers" to analyze with the teacher and then emulate in their writing. The focus of these sample texts should be specific and purposeful, such as how to write a claim for an opinion piece, how to use transitions, or how to write a good paragraph topic sentence. I have also long emphasized the importance of using writing to learn, which can be simple quick writes, teaching students to use two-column notes, and writing summaries about something read, said or done in the classroom.
For followers of your blog, there is a large collection of free resources at the Keys to Literacy website, including blog posts I have written related to writing, and free archived webinars: and My Feb 2023 post was "Teaching Text Structure to Support Writing and Comprehension."

Dr. Bill Conrad Jan 20, 2024 02:37 PM

Of course, we need to address the elephant in the room! How can so many teachers and administrators be so clueless as to the important relationships between reading and writing that you so expertly describe?

Could it be that the woeful colleges of education fail to help teachers make these critical connections before releasing them to the schools?
Could it be that education leaders allow too much autonomy in what gets taught in their classrooms?
Could it be that it takes too much work and writing expertise for teachers to assess student written work with written descriptive feedback to help children improve their writing?

The reality is that classroom walls should be filled with student writing aligned to specific learning targets with careful descriptive feedback from the teacher. Additionally the history of student writing should also be included to demonstrate student writing improvement over time!

This instructional practice would go a long way in improving student writing and yes reading skills as well.

Will it ever happen systematically? Not until there is a total transformation of K-12 education. Highly unlikely. We will have to live with special case successes!

Read The Fog of Education.

Miriam Giskin Jan 20, 2024 03:04 PM

Great post. So important to do both. Carol Chomsky was a professor of mine (invented spelling) and I have found having kids tap spell before writing the word is so powerful, especially if they first tap phonemes to see how many taps, and then articulating the graphemes within those taps. This way they know "hmmm sigh has two taps but hmmmm si doesn't look right let me check that". It is useful to have a reference for the spelling of phonemes. Keeping charts, "graphemes that represent the phoneme _____" works well and can be added to as new spellings are discovered as the child/class progresses. "Hmmm sie? sy? sigh? Can't be i__e because there is no consonant." Even if they ultimately choose the wrong one in their piece they are learning the possible graphemes that respresent that phoneme.

Allen Berger Jan 20, 2024 04:39 PM

Tim, the letter I wrote that was published last week in The New York Times (January 11) is on this very topic.--Best wishes, Allen Berger, Heckert professor of reading and writing emeritus, Miami University (Ohio)..

Tammy Elser Jan 20, 2024 05:30 PM

Oh thank you for reposting on this important topic! I teach all future and current teachers the importance of writing, how to analyze a child's writing and developmental spelling, and employ writing to support emergent readers in conceptual understanding and use of the alphabetic principle. I have developed multiple grade level clustered online courses (free and asynchronous) in writing development for my state. It is a huge lost opportunity and missing link in a speech to print approach (expressive to receptive) to reading foundations and so much more! Thanks to you for your continued advocacy for the importance of writing and to Joan for a useful teacher friendly new text on the nuts and bolts. In classrooms I visit, copying from board or book is often called "writing." No words for how frustrating this is understanding the depth of this lost learning opportunity. All reading foundational skills are richly practiced in the act of writing.

Miriam Trehearne Jan 20, 2024 06:50 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

In August 2022 I posted a review of Shifting the Balance 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates:

Having written six successful literacy focused professional books for teachers, having been a classroom teacher, an Early Childhood and Early Literacy Specialist, Program Specialist (exceptional needs students) Literacy Coach, and University Associate and having worked with teachers and administrators around the world, I am aware of the politics and the challenges involving the “reading wars”. They are numerous. Pendulum swings often disenfranchise teachers, students, and parents. Many experienced teachers suffer as they continue to live through pendulum swings (e.g. whole language versus phonics, as if the two are, or ever were, mutually exclusive).

The review focused on one very key area which was omitted and provided the research-base behind it.
Burkins and Yates did not include writing when discussing the Balanced Literacy Classroom. This is a serious omission. The research described by Bill Teale in his article “The Curriculum Gap Ensures a Continuing Achievement Gap” (2007) is important. This research indicates that writing is one of three key areas often neglected in early literacy classrooms. This curriculum gap means that many young children are being shortchanged and will suffer the consequences in later grades (Teale, 2014).

In her landmark research, Dolores Durkin (1966) discovered that the parents and caregivers of children who had learned to read before coming to kindergarten had read with their children. However, they did more than this. They gave their children many writing opportunities. It became clear that early readers generally are very interested in writing, and many write long before they read. Writing often provides a foundation for reading. Many experienced teachers have seen young children develop both reading skills and the love of reading, in part, through writing.

In a study of beginning literacy learning, kindergarteners’ writing behaviors were found to be predictive of subsequent (Grade 1) reading achievement, even after controlling for the effects of IQ (Shatil, Share and Levin, 2000).

A complex theory of literacy learning acknowledges that writers have to know how to do certain things that overlap with things that readers have to know or do. The two processes are concurrent sources of learning and contribute to each other in early literacy learning. Reading and writing are reciprocal and interrelated processes (Marie Clay 2001).

Canadian researchers, Harrison, Ogle, McIntyre, and Hellsten (2008), reviewed K–3 studies on early writing conducted in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The findings, published in a paper titled “The Influence of Early Writing Instruction on Developing Literacy,” indicated that early writing
---Supports the development of phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, and phonics
---Enhances early reading (word identification, decoding, passage comprehension, and word reading) and often precedes early reading.

The quality of writing support for 4-year-olds is highly related to their language and literacy growth at the end of Kindergarten and Grade 1 (Dickinson and Sprague 2001). Writing is an activity that promotes alphabet letter knowledge, phonological awareness, phonics, concepts of print, including the fact that the end of a line is not always the end of a thought (Snow, Burns, and Griffin 1998). So, writing (including drawing) helps children to make sense of their world.

And finally, the evidence from a meta-analysis shows that having students in Grades 2-12 write about material they have read, enhances their comprehension of it. This was true for students in general and students who were weaker readers and writers, in particular (Graham and Hebert, 2011).

“Learning to write assists children in their reading; in learning to read, children also gain insights that help them as writers. But writing is more than an aid to learning to read; it is an important curricular goal. Through writing children express themselves, clarify their thinking, communicate ideas, and integrate new information into their knowledge base.”
—Every Child a Reader, CIERA 1

And Tim, (2017) you sum it up beautifully with:

Reading-writing relations start when reading and writing start. Many folks delay writing until a solid reading base is established. Research doesn’t support that: kids are able to draw reading benefits from the beginning. When young children first try to write, they have to think hard about print concepts. When young children first try to spell, they have to think hard about phonemic awareness.

The impact of writing on reading must be considered part of any acceptable definition of science of reading instruction (Shanahan 2020). So, how can writing be eliminated from the Balanced Literacy Classroom when shifting the balance? Clearly the instructional practices identified by Burkins and Yates are too narrow and not complete.

Thanks, Tim, for again providing a clear research-based and proven posting supporting the reading-writing connection, at all grade levels. Miriam Trehearne

LWJ Jan 21, 2024 04:21 PM

My fairly large urban district has not had a writing program in over 10 years. For the last 5 years they have used an expensive purchased CORE curriculum which has a teacher reading out loud a grade level chapter book to students; "discussing something" and then writing this discussion together to be copied from the projector where it was typed. These are collected and made into a book for that topic. This happens 1-5 grades. No handwriting. NO spelling. NO sentence analysis or practice, No paragraph etc. No vocabulary help from the program. Because there is an enforced pacing guide and testing, teachers are loathe to add and teach anything other than what is presented in the manual.
One topic for 4th grade for a lesson: compare and contrast the American historical fiction genre with another type of historical fiction genre. I sent this topic around to high school English teachers, none of whom could do it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on this. Classes are heterogeneous and our El's are to remain in the classroom and be "supported" during this instruction.
This is for 45-60 min daily. Phonics time lasts 30-40 minutes. It consists of a 10-15 minute "conference" with an individual student while the entire rest of the class reads from leveled books, alone. The teacher can conference with about 3 kids per day. After much yearly agitation from experienced teachers, we are now allowed to "conference" with small groups of the lowest students more often. I would love to have reactions to this!

Timothy Shanahan Jan 21, 2024 05:00 PM

ARD-- Except for the phonics time, this sounds horrible to me.


ard Jan 21, 2024 02:39 AM

We spend tons of time writing in my class. I don't see how people don't, but based on conversations with other teachers at my school, writing is the FIRST to go. For me, we are doing writing, reading, math and writing EVERYday.. At the beginning of the year ...I read these kids writing and I'm just like....absolutely not, we need to improve this. I remember being in college and knowing adults who had no idea how to structure an essay. this kind of thing starts early.
The curriculum my district not the best IMO. It's focused on genre, but mainly on kinda the free right, workshop approach....which is fine for some kids. but I've realized that a lot of kids need structure or they literally won't write, or they will and it'll be...concerning.
I started using the writing revolution's techniques and I've been having tons of success. the kids know what to expect when we do writing, and because of the structure I've taken care to provide, they know what to do and there isn't as much anxiety

Ashley Evans Jan 23, 2024 12:04 AM

I think we just became best friends! "BIG MISTAKE...HUGE!"

Ellen McGrath Jan 23, 2024 12:52 PM

As a third grade teacher, I struggled to teach writing until I took a class on using a writer’s workshop method to teach writing. This time became the most exciting and effective part of our language arts class. Not only did my students test scores increase, but they couldn’t wait until the next lesson came to work on their writing pieces. We treated those pieces like a painting. It was YOUR piece and you made the decisions on how to communicate your ideas. As a result, we ALL learned to read like writers. We discussed how writers chose to communicate their ideas and thoughts. Reading scores increased and their desire and knowledge of different types of books soared! I actually became an avid reader myself once I started reading like a writer. Time spent on teaching writing is essential for all schools.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Blast from the Past: How Can We Take Advantage of the Reading-Writing Relationship?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.