How Can We Take Advantage of Reading-Writing Relationships?

  • 22 February, 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 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 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; 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. 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. Myself 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.

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


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lyn Mar 27, 2021 12:40 AM

I'm curious about your thoughts on invented spelling. I understand your premise but wonder the impact of practising errors? Is it harder to "unlearn", than to just wait a bit until you've covered the phonemes? Or is that too limiting? Thank you.

Sam Bommarito Feb 22, 2020 06:01 PM

Couldn't agree more! Well said!

Julie Dinan Feb 22, 2020 06:35 PM

Thanks Tim. I've seen time blocks dedicated to journaling time which often involves a prompt for students to respond. This time block may be about 45 minutes in duration. Many of these students may not know the definition of a sentence, subject, predicate, etc. Your thoughts on teaching mechanics, diagramming? How do we balance the mechanics, having the idea and turning it into written language?

Dawn L. Smith Feb 22, 2020 06:37 PM

I think writing programs are ignored for the exact reason you stated- they are not directly connected to the reading. It’s typically a separate component and often overly structured. Quantity is valued over quality and meaningful content.
And you may have left a few young readers behind with the “Pretty Woman” reference ????

Donna Stark Feb 22, 2020 06:40 PM

I have found that the more kids resist or avoid writing, the more it benefits them when they are taught to approach it in a systematic way. Then there are students who just naturally enjoy the process. But both benefit from the experience It must be consistent and an integral part of reading instruction. Great post!

Joan Sedita Feb 22, 2020 06:46 PM

So glad you are writing about this topic! I'd like to share a link to access the 2019 report by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert "Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading"
This report lays out many of the points that you have just made in this post.

I'd also like to share a link to a blog post I wrote recently titled "We Need a Writing Rope!" It includes a graphic that lists the various components of writing with a nod towards Scarborough's reading rope.

Much has been written about the multiplicity of skills involved in reading, while writing tends to be referred to as a single, monolithic skill. When schools do focus on writing instruction, teachers are not sure what that instruction should look like. Many educators who are knowledgeable about effective reading instruction are stymied when asked to identify the components of skilled writing. The schema for writing components that I suggest in the writing rope metaphor includes these strands: Critical Thinking (skills needed to gather information to write from sources, stages in the writing process), Syntax (development of sentence writing skills), Text Structure (at the paragraph level, transitions, and broader structures for narrative, informational, argument), Writing Craft (word choice, literary devices) and Transcription (spelling, handwriting/keyboarding).

Debbie Feb 22, 2020 08:01 PM

Absolutely! Reading & Writing are reciprocal. That’s why it’s included in balanced literacy & is a component of Reading Recovery. As a reading support teacher - I’ve seen too many students who do not have the opportunities to write and it shows in their reading as well. We have done a disservice in all but eliminating the process writing. Writing needs to be taught with well designed mini- lessons & time spent conferring with students as they go through the writing process. Free writing (with no instruction and/or feed-back) will not grow accomplished writers (or readers).
Great blog Tim.

Mary Beth Monahan Feb 22, 2020 08:52 PM

One unintended consequence of the NRP Report was the privileging of reading over writing. Also, what gets assessed gets valued so reading has trumped writing since NCLB and Race to the Top. I always appreciated Shanahan and Fitzgerald’s work on reading-writing relationships and used it to promote writing when it was being sidelined. Glad to see this! Reinvigorating our commitment to writing is key.

Mark Pennington Feb 22, 2020 10:02 PM

I feel for kids grades 5-8 who are crippled in their writing because they are rarely taught spelling at those ages. Unfortunate that the National Writing Project and Writers Workshop, which did so much to help teachers see writing as a process, also de-emphasized spelling instruction and/or relegated it to the edit stage or a quick mini-lesson approach.

Thomas E. Zurinskas Feb 22, 2020 10:38 PM

Back in the 1980's IBM had a "Writing to Read" system on the IBM PC Jr. designed for teaching reading to k-1 kids. As many as 100,00 kids were taught using it and it worked well, but was pricey and it's founder John Henry Martin died, but I believe it's still around. It proved that a phonetics-first reading instruction system is the way to go. In fact, kids create their own phonetics in the absence of being taught one. Enter truespel phonetics which is designed to present a US English phonetic system that is writable and suitable for kids. ESL's also need phonetics as well to see pronunciation. See . However, ESL teachers are loath to teach pronunciation because of unfriendly IPA special symbols. See .

So I too believe that writing is the best way to teach reading. The way to do it is to teach truespel phonetics which links to phonics and is much better because there is only one spelling per sound. Only 40 spellings to learn to spell any phonetic word. For standard dictionary accent of US English use the converter at It' s free and tutorials and phonics frequency info are there.

Michelle Rispole Feb 23, 2020 03:43 PM

The reading/writing connection has been vastly studied and proven-especially in early development. A great resource for teachers of K-2 students is Leah Mermelstein's Reading/Writing Connections in the K-2 Classroom: Find the Clarity and then Blur the Lines.

Gudbjorg Feb 24, 2020 08:41 AM

Thanks Tim - I just love how straight forward your blog is!
I´m particularly interested in your first point (for now) , that is how reading and writing draw upon the same body of knowledge and skills. Could you point me to some books, articles or other resources on the topic? Particularly pertaining to reading acquisition in early grades?

Jeff Bowers Feb 24, 2020 02:21 PM

Great, another reason why researchers and teachers should consider Structured Word Inquiry that teaches GPCs and spelling (and vocabulary) together. Check out:

And for a response to a critic, see:

Tim Shanahan Feb 24, 2020 02:23 PM

One good choice is Charles Temple’s book on Early Writng.


Shawn Slakk Feb 24, 2020 04:02 PM

Without writing there would be nothing to read!

Heather Detrick Feb 24, 2020 04:32 PM

Love your blog post. I almost always wholeheartedly agree with everything you reference in your blogs. I especially loved your comments about synthesis writing, and I think that explicitly guiding readers through this process is so detrimental to how well a text in understood by the reader. I think having a good guiding structure with guiding questions/stems helps readers/writers become deeper thinkers/readers, and gives them a logical structure in order to produce, and publish their understandings. This will help readers to naturally go back into text to back up their points with text evidence in a purposeful way, and not just to do so as strategies for testing.

Also, your points on how writing instruction reinforces reading instruction particularly when it comes to phonics and decoding... I feel were spot on. I think writing is a huge aspect in guiding early literacy, and using it as a tool to help guide literacy instruction provides great insights for the teacher in the areas of phonics/decoding, syntax, and comprehension. This really helps the teacher to see what might be going on in the learners mind, and is especially helpful in being responsive.

Harriett Janetos Feb 24, 2020 07:45 PM

Jeff, my understanding is that Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) does not encourage invented spelling. Can you clarify? Tim writes: "Myself I’m partial to invented spelling because it provides such extensive and supportive practice with the sounds." And I definitely agree. Here's some research on invented spelling: Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1

Patrick Sutton Feb 26, 2020 02:22 PM

In the younger grades before mastery of the keyboard, cursive or print? Is there any value to cursive writing. It is endangered. Should schools teach it?

Patrick Sutton Feb 26, 2020 02:24 PM

DAILY FIVE. I am familiar with your previous thoughts on the Daily Five which you posted some years ago. Since then has there been any research on this method and are your thoughts still the same?

Bill Kearney Feb 27, 2020 09:22 PM

I completely agree, and feel that the closer we can connect what students are reading with what they are writing, the better their achievement on high stakes tests, and the better chance they will have at feeling empowered by the learning process. For the record, I like the Pretty Woman reference.

humairaumar Mar 10, 2020 05:09 AM

writing is more important for basic to learn knowledge...

Jolynn Pendleton Apr 22, 2020 07:52 PM

New knowledge that I gained from your post was that children learn to become better "decoders" through writing and not just reading. I was surprised to learn that the student who wrote the sentence about the crab used 38 phonemes! I do believe that the more senses we use as we learn we remember the information better. I was glad to read your article emphasizing both reading and writing. A question I have is, how can we encourage teachers to use writing more in the classroom? I find that teachers don't teach writing as much because of the time that it takes to read through and grade all of the work. I would like to apply this knowledge by encouraging our teachers to have the students write more in the computer lab that I teach in! Thanks for your insight!!!

Karie Erickson May 01, 2020 12:34 AM

This article was a good to reinforce the relationship between writing and reading. Writing and reading draw upon the same knowledge and go hand in hand. In order to become a better reader you need to be able to sound words out and recognize common spelling patterns. If students can not hear the phonemes, or recognize letters and sounds, they are not going to be able to read. I liked the correlation between the way a writer thinks. Writers think to communicate effectivley. This is important in so many areas in life. Working as a reading aide we use the first few minutes to kind of "warm-up". We start with word sorts or do a quick spelling test. This is something I want to expand on. This article reinforces to me how important spelling is to reading and becoming more fluent. I also love the idea of writing things down to better retain what you read. Many students love when a teacher reads to them. Especially when the teacher is very annimated. It makes reading much more enjoyable. I would like to find ways for students to enjoy writing. With all the technology now days, how can a teacher make writing more fun?

Sue Testerman Aug 08, 2020 05:06 PM

Are you familiar with The Writing Revolution? I read the book recently and I LOVE their method. I am hoping to put together a PD workshop for teachers in my district, but it will be more successful with the backing of top administration. You are highly respected in our district, so I am wondering what you think about Judith Hochman's methods. Thank you.

Angela Apr 16, 2023 11:03 AM

This is a very good article, and I agree with you reading scores seems to be the most important thing today, perhaps if the stipends reward is removed from the schools.( The school with the highest scores receives bonuses). Then maybe the care for writing will come back, then the teachers may return to a job they love to do. I agree with you on this article and I shared it with fellow educators.

Angela Apr 16, 2023 11:03 AM

This is a very good article, and I agree with you reading scores seems to be the most important thing today, perhaps if the stipends reward is removed from the schools.( The school with the highest scores receives bonuses). Then maybe the care for writing will come back, then the teachers may return to a job they love to do. I agree with you on this article and I shared it with fellow educators.

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How Can We Take Advantage of Reading-Writing Relationships?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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