Reading and Writing: A Reciprocal Relationship

If you were to choose the best writers from a group of students, I would bet heavily that they are also avid readers. Pupils who read widely and regularly are often better at writing than pupils who rarely read at all. Timothy Shannahan  points out that 70% of the variance in reading and writing ability is shared. This strong correlation points to a reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. Combining instruction, therefore, can be immensely beneficial and this is because reading and reading instruction can help pupils to improve their writing and vice versa.

But why is this? What is the link between the two modalities?

Shared Knowledge Theory

According to this framework, both reading and writing rely upon the same body of knowledge. As Steve Graham puts it:

‘We write so others will read, and we read what others write’

There are four main knowledge sources that pupils rely upon for both reading and writing:

  1. Domain Knowledge

Pupils who know more about a text are more likely to comprehend what they are reading. Knowledge is important for writing too: it is far easier to write about a topic that you know a lot about.

2. Metaknowledge

This includes knowing the function and purpose of reading and writing and how readers and writers interact. Writers, if they are to be truly effective, need to write with a reader in mind , ensuring that what they write is suitably pitched and coherent. If students are to read effectively, they need to develop and employ a high standard of coherence in that they need to care about whether a text makes sense to them or not. Similarly, if students are to write well, they need to care about and monitor the ideas that they generate and how they are turned into sentences.

3. Knowledge about Texts

Knowledge about the function and purpose of texts is crucial for both modalities. When reading, this knowledge might assist with interpretations, helping pupils to notice the tone or mood of a piece. When writing, pupils use it to ensure that what they are writing fits the task at hand. For novices, this knowledge is best built up by studying worked examples. Pupils should experience a high volume of reading at school and they should regularly deconstruct relevant exemplar texts in order to better understand what it is that makes them effective. Understanding is often predicated upon conceptual depth and breadth and this can be achieved by teaching through examples.

4. Knowledge of universal text attributes

To read and write effectively, students need to know their Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences. When reading, this knowledge allows them to decode and correctly pronounce written words; when writing, it aids accurate spelling. Reading and writing also rely upon syntactical knowledge or the rules and grammar for composing sentences and using punctuation. Finally, knowledge of text structures, formats and organisational elements like the relationships between graphics, diagrams and text underpins both modalities.

5. Procedural Knowledge

This involves knowing how to set goals, retrieve relevant information from long term memory and employ higher level strategies like questioning, drawing analogies, analysing and summarising. When reading, these can be used to aid comprehension; they can also make writing more focussed as students regulate the writing process.

Rhetorical Relations Theory

According to this theory, reading and writing are forms of communication, each involving a conversation between readers and writers. Expert writers produce texts in a constant interaction and conversation with an imaginary reader. Skilled readers do the opposite as they try to tease out or analyse the absent author’s intentions or purpose. This theory proposes that these dialogues help students to develop new insights and knowledge. By reading closely and paying attention to specific word choices and turns of phrase, a reader may acquire new knowledge about writing as they realise how a writer employs specific techniques or achieves certain effects. Similarly, writers may gain new insight into reading as they juggle mental representations, striving to compose text that will appeal to a reader.

Empirical Support

Writing Instruction Improves Reading

The theories above suggest that this is true but what is the empirical support for these ideas? Graham and Hebert (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of 95 true and quasi-experiments and here is a summary of their findings:

Spelling instruction can improve reading fluency and enhance word reading

Teaching students how to spell provides them with the necessary knowledge about how sounds and letters connect, allowing them to recognise and decode words that contain taught grapheme phoneme correspondences. The process of connecting and building from the smallest units of letters to words and then sentences is likely to provide them with further advantage when reading.

If you write about what you have read, this can help with comprehension.

Richard E Mayer, one of the authors of Learning as a Generative Activity, would explain this benefit through his SOI model of generative learning:

  1. Select relevant information
  2. Organise it into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrate it with relevant prior knowledge from long term memory

When asked to write about a text, students have to engage in all 3 stages of cognitive processing. If all three stages are successfully engaged, then it is likely that they will understand what they have read. There are, however, many things that may preclude this from happening such as a lack of relevant prior knowledge or the fact that the text contains too many unfamiliar words.

Graham and Hebert found that note-taking, answering questions, writing summaries or writing extended answers can all aid comprehension. Interestingly, they found that the benefit was greater for middle school students compared to high school students.

Reading Improves Writing

Students who read a lot tend to be good at writing but is this assumption also supported by empirical findings? Graham et al (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of 92 true and quasi-experimental studies that examined whether reading and reading instruction improved students’ writing. Here’s a summary of the findings:

Increasing how much students read can result in an improvement to their writing

Reading allows students to acquire new knowledge and understanding about how texts have been written. Students will be exposed to a wider range of sentence structures and vocabulary, some of which will rarely exist in speech or functional written communication. Similarly, students who read more will be used to thinking about and considering word choices, effects and intentions.

If students read and analyse the work of their peers, this can improve their writing

When giving feedback on extended writing, I almost always show a couple of good pieces under the camera and we discuss what makes the writing effective. This can be really powerful, demonstrating to the class that what I have asked for really is achievable, and giving a massive confidence boost to the person who is being praised. As well as deconstructing whole pieces, I often draw a star next to exceptional sentences in different books, noting the names down in my class exercise book. These pupils are asked to read out their brilliant turns of phrase and the class are invited to explain why the sentence is so effective.

Finding a Balance

A curriculum that involves lots of challenging and varied reading as well as providing lots of opportunities for pupils to practise their writing is probably on the right track. However, for a curriculum to be maximally effective, it also needs to focus upon the relevant components that make up the composite skills of reading and writing. Novice writers will benefit from increasing the volume of their reading, but they will also benefit from writing fluency practice, sentence level instruction and strategy instruction. Novice readers, who do not decode securely, will also benefit from being read to as this will help build their background knowledge which will then aid comprehension. They will, however, also need systematic instruction that focusses upon the components of reading, if they are to clear up their decoding problems.

Many of the ideas in this post are based upon ‘The Sciences of Reading and Writing Must Become More Fully Integrated’ by Steve Graham (2020)