Why We Need to Teach Reading AND Writing

  • 02 August, 2015

            Many educators trumpet the idea of reading-writing relationships, emphasizing how close reading and writing are. As a teacher I was a big believer in this—my kids wrote every day, despite the lack of a report card space for writing, a writing curriculum, writing standards, or even any professional development on the topic. I strongly believed that when you taught writing, you were teaching reading.

            Then I went to graduate school. My dissertation focused on the relationships between reading and writing. Boy was I surprised. Yes, indeed, reading and writing were related, but not to the degree I had assumed. The idea that teaching reading can have an impact on learning to write is correct; and so is the opposite.
            But the part that I hadn’t recognized was that reading and writing are really pretty different, too. There have been lots more studies of this since then—by researchers like Ginger Berninger, Steven Graham, Rob Tierney, Judy Langer, and so on—and with the same result. Reading and writing are related and they impact each other; and, yet, they are quite separate and different, too.
            In fact, that is why they can be such beneficial supports for each other. If writing was just another form of reading, it wouldn’t give readers any special insights that they wouldn’t develop some other way. 
            When I first started publishing research articles on this topic, I received a lot of criticism. The critics were upset that I was finding reading and writing to have unique properties, not just overlapping ones. That upset them because they felt it would discourage teachers from incorporating writing into their reading curricula (and school writing was pretty non-existent at the time). 
            However, as I worked with the problem more it became evident that the critics had it backwards. If reading and writing were so much the same, there was no real reason to teach them both if you could learn everything that you needed just from one or the other. In fact, that might be why so many schools taught reading and not writing; if you made students into competent readers, then they would be able to write, too. (Its sort of like ordering two desserts instead of a main course and a dessert; if the point is to satisfy all of your nutritional needs, then you need to eat different types of foods--and no, a slice of chocolate cake and a strawberry shortcake are not two different types of foods).
            The correlations among various reading and writing measures are high, but they are not a unity. The correlated and uncorrelated parts both matter. We need to teach both reading and writing because of the distances between them.
            In my classroom framework, I always encouraged substantial amounts of time for both reading and writing activity and instruction, and still do. Students need and benefit from explicit instruction in both, and they benefit from being taught how to integrate reading and writing; including how to read one’s writing with sufficient distance for revision, how to summarize the ideas from a text in your writing (or how to synthesize the ideas from multiple texts), and how to use texts as a model and source for one’s writing.
            When you are teaching reading, you definitely may be having an impact on student writing ability. But there is much to be learned about writing that can only come from writing instruction and writing practice. And the same can be said for writing’s impact on reading. 
            Make sure there is room on your daily table for all the necessary ingredients for a nutritional literacy diet, including writing. 
            Please pass the sticky toffee pudding.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Tia Clasen Jun 13, 2017 02:08 AM


This is a really timely post - I am planning a 90-minute workshop breakout session in late August for our district's new teachers on academic literacy and writing. In my session I talk about the unique characteristics of reading and writing and how they are intertwined yet different from one another. Wonderful!

Melissa Briggs Apr 28, 2023 12:50 AM

You mention "The correlations among various reading and writing measures are high, but they are not a unity. The correlated and uncorrelated parts both matter."
Are you able to expand more specifically on which areas correlate and which areas are uncorrelated? Or point me to some research I could read on this?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2023 02:55 PM

Melissa --

Some of those differences are surely due to the fact that readers and writers start out from a different place. For example, writers rarely use words that they don't know (sometimes they try to through the use of a thesaurus -- which doesn't often go well and which suggests some lessons on how best to use a thesaurus for that purpose), while readers are often confronted with unknown words. Vocabulary learning helps both, but that kind of difference should suppress correlations). The key here it seems to me, is that readers and writers need to learn the same things (like learning the structure of a story), but they need different lessons to fit this knowledge to r and w (recognition of structure by readers, use of structure to generate text in writing). -- if you want to hunt down some of these studies I'd suggest my studies, the works of Virginia Berninger, and Judith Langer's book).



What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

Why We Need to Teach Reading AND Writing


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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