Heidi or Giselle? Writing as a Response to Reading

  • 22 February, 2016
Teacher question:
“My students talk about the stories through collaborative conversations and class discussions, but I hardly allow time for students to write written responses.  How often should I have students write a written response and should students be taking notes on the story?"
Shanahan response:
Writing about text or talking about text… I used to consider that to be an impossible choice (like deciding whether to ask Heidi Klum or Giselle Bündchen out on a date).
Then I read the research on it. Conversation and discussion about what students read is certainly valuable, and, yet, if your goal is to raise reading achievement, writing has even greater value (not such a hard choice after all).
Stephen Graham and Michael Hiebert analyzed data from more than 100 studies on writing about text. What they found was that writing about text had strong impacts on reading comprehension.
In fact, writing about text was clearly better than just reading the text, than reading and rereading the text, and than reading and talking about the text.
I suspect the reason for this is that writing forces one to think through an idea more thoroughly. There are many times when I start to write a blog entry, thinking I know what I want to say, but as I compose the limitations of my thinking are exposed—in a way that speaking does not seem to do.
For kids, when they write about text, they tend to have to go back and reread—and that alone is a big benefit.
Of course, Graham and Hiebert did not find all writing to be equal.
For example, they reported that generally the better writers benefited more than the strugglers. However, that one was easily fixed with a bit of writing instruction and scaffolding. Teach kids how to do the writing that you are asking them to do, and you level the playing field.
Also, younger kids seemed to benefit a lot from writing summaries of text. But as they got older (like middle school and high school), then summaries gave a low payoff. Presumably because by then kids could summarize thoroughly without having to think as hard about it. At those advanced ages, analyzing, critiquing, and synthesizing texts through their writing had the biggest payoff.
That doesn’t mean that older students should never be asked to summarize, or that younger ones don’t need to write reports requiring them to combine info from multiple sources. It does mean that there should be proportionally more summary assignments—and summary instruction and scaffolding—in the elementary grades until kids become proficient. (And, vice versa).
Another difference is in the role of note-taking. There was only one study of that with kids in grades 3-4, and it had a very low payoff. However, in grades 5-12, there were many such studies and there was clearly a learning benefit both from structured and unstructured note-taking. This one I would probably only introduce when there was an actual benefit for the skill; that is the kids will need the notes to do something else.
In my classrooms, kids were expected to write pretty much everyday. Unlike when I taught, I’d probably make sure that between 20% and 60% of that writing (that is 1-3 days per week) would be writing about text; less of that in K-1 and more as students advanced through the grades.
Giselle or Heidi? Heidi or Giselle? There is a place for both choices in my fantasies and in your classroom.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dan Willingham Apr 09, 2017 07:02 PM

Great post, Tim, thanks.
Some readers might want to know the citation for Graham & Hiebert...could you provide it?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:03 PM

Good point, Dan. Here is the study itself:

Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.


Jo Ellen Latham Apr 09, 2017 07:04 PM

Great blog. I am planning to use this tomorrow with our principals as a way to keep our 'writing to learn' initiative going. We might make some 'George or Brad' comparisons as well. :)


Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:04 PM

Jo Ellen--

Fair point... What's good for the goose...


Kristina Armstrong Apr 09, 2017 07:05 PM

Great ideas! My question is though, what about those students who do not like to write. My fear is if we turn every reading opportunity into a writing piece that will hinder their love of reading and may even grow to hate reading. How do you balance? I want my students to grow but I also don't want them to get to the point they hate reading time because they have to respond. Thoughts?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:05 PM


I recommended 1-2 times per week. Kids should be reading (and writing) a heck of a lot more than that in their classes, and the writing doesn't have to be unpleasant--even for the kids who struggle a bit with writing (this isn't medicine, though it is good for them).


Ken Slentz Apr 09, 2017 07:06 PM

A very thoughtful entry. I worry a lot about the ability of elementary teachers to teach writing in general and the type of writing you are describing here to level the playing field in particular. That is, if their teacher prep was like mine, they received no preservice training. Any suggestions for effective professional learning on effective writing instruction? Thanks for any thoughts, Tim.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:07 PM

First I would encourage you to do some reading on the subject. I would encourage you to read Writing Next by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin (this is a summary of a research report and can be found on line for free). I would also read a book like Best Practices in Writing Instruction which I think highly of. And, a very different book (not as research based), but wise and useful, is Lucy Calkins Teaching the Craft of Writing.

In many parts of the country, there are professional development opportunities through groups like the National (or wherever) Reading Project.
good luck.


What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

Heidi or Giselle? Writing as a Response to Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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