How Should We Combine Reading and Writing?

  • Classroom organization, Writing. Reading-Writing relationships
  • 23 February, 2017

Teacher question: So today I was conducting a workshop. I was told the teachers wanted information about reading/writing connections. Easy, right? Then I was told that they departmentalize K-6! At every grade they have a reading teacher and a different writing teacher. Any thoughts, comments, best practices, or research that would go against or support this practice? I know what I believe to be correct, but would love to have your opinions in this conversation.

Shanahan response:

Wowee! For the past several years I’ve been complaining about how schools are organizing themselves with regard to reading and writing. These days, the most common elementary school organization seems to be the 90-minute reading block, with writing taught some other time of the day (if at all). And, in middle schools and high schools many schools have readers’ and writers’ workshops—managed by different teachers.

I think both of those schemes are dopey and counterproductive.

But you’ve found a structure that is even worse!

These folks sound like the type of people that would separate Romeo and Juliet... Yin and Yang....Lennon and McCartney... love and marriage... Bert and Ernie...spaghetti and meatballs... You get the idea.

Reading and writing are related in many ways. And, though teachers can take advantage of these relationships in ways that can improve achievement, doing that would be very difficult and inefficient when taught separately as in your example.

The combination of reading and writing doesn’t just change instruction—it can affect the curriculum itself. For instance, the Common Core State Standards require teachers to teach kids how to combine reading and writing for various purposes.

I wondered if this is a CCSS state? (your letter didn’t specify). If so, that would be one of my big questions—how are they teaching kids to write about reading? Perhaps those goals can be accomplished within this odd organizational plan, but that would require a great deal of cross-classroom planning (the kind of planning that tends to impinge on teachers’ personal time—and that rarely happens, no matter what the theory).

Admittedly, I’m aware of no studies that directly measure the impact of such organization, and the organizational studies that do exist suggest that organizational plans usually don’t matter much in terms of learning). I guess I could praise this district at least for teaching writing—there are still too many places that haven’t figured out the need for that yet.

However, a major purpose for teaching writing is its strong impact on reading achievement. Recently, some administrators who had been discouraging writing in their districts contacted me. Their concern was that writing took up a lot of time and their state was heavily stressing reading achievement. Time devoted to writing would “obviously” interfere with reaching their reading goals. They wanted to know why I was telling their teachers that writing was a must.

I explained to them that there were several reasons behind my urgings.

First, research shows that reading and writing are closely aligned. That is, reading and writing depend upon many of the same skills, strategies and knowledge—though those are deployed in different ways in reading and writing. In fact, about 70% of the variation in reading and writing abilities are shared.

For example, to read one has to decode words. That means being able to look at the word, recognize its elements (letters and letter combinations), retrieve associated pronunciations for those letters, and to blend those into a word pronunciation. For that to work, of course, you have to do that very quickly—and eventually with little conscious attention.

In contrast, to write one has to spell words. That means being able to listen to the pronunciation of a word, to recognize its elements (phonemes—that is language sounds), to retrieve letters that match those sounds, and to recognize whether they are combining properly to make a well-formed word. And, again, fluency is essential.

Decoding is arguably easier than spelling, but learning to bothpronounce and spell words simultaneously helps to increase decoding fluency. It provides a kind of overlearning that enhances one’s ability. The same argument can be made concerning phonological awareness, and the use of vocabulary, grammar, text structure, tone, and other text elements—and the same kinds of connections exist between the routines one uses to pull up background knowledge, to set purposes, to predict, and so on.

Given the extensive overlaps, it should be evident that combined instruction would be a lot more efficient. When a school is trying to accomplish higher achievement that kind of efficiency and teaching power is indispensable.

Second, reading and writing are communicative processes, and there cross-modal benefits to be derived from having students engage in each. Readers, who are writers, can end up with insights about what authors are up to and how they exert their effects, something of great value in text interpretation. Likewise, writers by being readers, can gain insights into the needs of other readers. Imagine how that can help one to write better.

This kind of insight sharing is unlikely without some teacher guidance—and making those kinds of connections across reading and writing experiences depends on sharing those experiences with the students. It would be hard for a teacher to know what came up in the various shared reading experiences that took place in the other class.

Third, reading and writing can be used in combination to accomplish particular goals. The Common Core emphasizes two particular goals for such combining: using writing to improve learning from text, and using the reading of multiple texts to improve the writing of syntheses or reports. The first of these is the most pertinent to these queries.

Steve Graham and Michael Hebert (201) carried out a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies in which students wrote about text. They found that writing in various ways about what one had read improved comprehension and learning, and it did so better than reading alone, reading and rereading, or reading and discussing.

Students should not just be writing about text, they should be learning how to write about text effectively: how to write to text models, how to write summaries, how to write extended critiques and analyses, and how to write syntheses.

So, my reading of the research says: Teach kids to write and use this instruction to improve reading achievement. Do it separately and you are leaving achievement points on the table. No question this could be accomplished by two different teachers, but what a complicated mess that makes of it. Simplify.

(Pass the popcorn and butter, I'm going to watch some Laurel and Hardy films. Some things just go together).


Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence of how writing can improve reading. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

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

Shanahan, T. (2008). Relations among oral language, reading, and writing development. In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, and J. Fitzgerald (Eds.),Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 171-186). New York: Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (2015). Relationships between reading and writing development. In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, and J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 194-210). New York: The Guilford Press.

Tierney, R. J., and Shanahan, T. (1991). Research on the reading-writing relationship: Interactions, transactions, and outcomes. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, and P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research (pp. 246-280). New York: Longman.

Reading Writing Relationship Powerpoint


See what others have to say about this topic.

Apr 05, 2017 05:46 PM

Any recommendations on structuring this at the junior high level where the master schedule rules everything and there's less opportunity for integration? I have a specific reason for asking this. I teach in a super small district, and a few years ago we went from our middle school kids having one reading and one ELA class each day to having just one 45 minute ELA period. We have a lot of kids reading below grade level, so the district is considering moving me from 5th grade (where I teach reading and writing in the integrated manner you recommend in this post) to the junior high so our kids can have reading classes again. The principal has asked for recommendations on how to schedule this. The current junior high ELA teacher and I were thinking that I would teach reading while she would focus on grammar and writing in ELA. Another option would be for me to teach reading and ELA for 6th grade, the other teacher to teach reading and ELA for 8th, and split 7th grade with me teaching on How Should We Combine Reading and Writing? Feb 27, 2017

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 05, 2017 05:47 PM

Karen-- In a way you are asking me a question that there can be no satisfactory answer to. 45 minutes is simply not enough time to teach students what we want them to know about reading and writing. I would argue for a double English period, and the division could be with one devoted to reading and one to writing. That would help a lot... but I would argue for more reading and writing work in the various content classes to supplement the ELA classes. But what if the district just likes having high goals with no commensurate investment in possible success (like wanting kids to be college and career ready up the road, but only devoting 45 mins. per day to reading)...even then I would find a way to use some of the time for writing. Even with low readers. hope that makes sense. tim 2/27/17

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How Should We Combine Reading and Writing?


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