Want Stronger Readers? Focus on Writing Instruction

When it comes to education in the United States, it seems that whenever there’s a heavy focus on one thing, other things tends to get overlooked, or even ignored.  Right now, there’s a very heavy emphasis on phonics instruction.  Many, many dollars are being spent on curricula for it, and a great deal of our time is being devoted to it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of schools that needed to ramp this up.  And to be sure, there’s plenty of science to back up that need.  But something is being sorely neglected with all this focus:  writing instruction.

I think this all begins almost 25 years with the National Reading Panel Report.  The Panel members culled through the available research on teaching reading to arrive at what’s now known as the 5 pillars of reading instruction.  But here’s the rub:  reading and writing have somehow sadly long been thought of as very separate things–so there wasn’t a focus on writing instruction research as it relates to reading.  At the time, there weren’t very many studies about writing instruction at all, much less quality studies that focused on the impact of writing instruction on reading comprehension.  This meant that although the Panelists may have thought writing to be an important part of reading instruction, there weren’t enough studies available to review.  

So it got left out.  

“The Panel’s silence on other topics should not be interpreted as indicating that other topics have no importance or that improvement in those areas would not lead to greater reading achievement. It was simply the sheer number of studies identified by Panel staff relevant to reading that precluded an exhaustive analysis of the research in all areas of potential interest.”

National Reading Panel: Reports of Subgroups

But now, as the research in the past quarter century has become more robust, the science has begun to point out more and more how very important writing instruction is for reading.  The reading-writing connection is clear.  As Graham and Harris (2018) point out, “There is clear and consistent evidence that writing instruction has some of the largest impacts on reading comprehension and in education more broadly.” 

Let me repeat that. 

Writing instruction has some of the largest impacts on reading comprehension.  

In their article Writing to Read: Parallel and Independent Contributions of Writing Research to the Science of Reading, Chandler and Truckenmiller (2023) found that “writing about a topic is one of the best ways to increase content knowledge and has the highest quality of evidence for improving reading comprehension.

That’s why it’s critical that we don’t neglect it.  Even if the curriculum we’re handed doesn’t include it.  Which it likely doesn’t.  

Take a careful look at what you’re using.  Many of the curricula that I’ve seen lately fall woefully short in this department.  They tend to merely assign writing about reading tasks, but not actually help teachers show students how. Assigning writing is not writing instruction.  Most of what I’ve seen is random and disconnected (write a safety brochure this week, an opinion piece the next, an article about an animal the following, and write about the whole class reading sprinkled in).  It’s no wonder there’s not much actual teaching of writing if this is the approach these curricula are designed.  

Image shows grade of A+ with gold star and the words great work.
Image from AlphaBaby via Depositphotos

To ensure that your writing instruction is truly hitting the mark, we can again look to gurus Graham and Harris, who years ago developed the SRSD model.  SRSD stands for self-regulated strategy development.  Isn’t self-regulation the goal we want for all of our students?  To write with independence?  The SRSD approach  guides students to independence through a series of phases.  These phases are, arguably, the core of any strong writing instructional model.  I’m a huge proponent of writing workshop, and every single phase of the SRSD model is inherent in a strong, well-run writing workshop. 

Here’s a breakdown of what strong writing instruction looks like

First, background knowledge in that genre of writing (and the topic at hand, if applicable) is developed. 

In terms of writing, kids must first be immersed in it.  If we’re talking about a content-specific topic, this means kids must know the topic well in order to write about it.  If we’re talking about a genre of writing, then kids must well understand how that kind of writing goes.  

Second, the skills and strategies for the writing process are discussed.  We have to explain how it works.  

But I’m going to add on to this idea of discussion.  Because writing is a form of oral language, kids must first have to talk about their words before they write them.  In other words, planning must take place.  Writers always plan before putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard).  Ellin Olver Keene talks about this at length in her book Talk About Understanding.  Oral rehearsal, whether out loud, in the head, or outlined on paper, is paramount.  

Four students smiling and talking at a table and holding pens.
Image from Syda_Productions via Depositphotos
Third, and this is an element too often neglected or glossed over, is modeling. 

We have to model with explicit instruction in the how of writing, not just the what.  We have to be very clear, and model it well, every step of the way.  Not just show examples, which is part of that first background building phase, but actually demonstrate how.  Truckenmiller and her colleagues are wise to point out that  “writing practice should not replace explicit instruction in the writing process. In fact, simply providing students with more writing practice without providing feedback produces no short-term gain in writing performance.” (Truckenmiller et al., 2014) Teachers often feel nervous about modeling writing in front of students, but I promise it’s painless!  I have tips for making modeling writing easy here to get you started.  

Teacher leaning over three students to  help with writing.
Image from Syda_Productions via Depositphotos
Next comes practice and support. 

It’s critical that we coach our students as they write, and to provide explicit feedback.  This is how our students come to internalize the process, and are then able to do it independently.  Conferring is a key component here.  This is where self-regulation (and therefore growing independence) is developed. It’s in helping students set goals, monitor their own progress, and assess their work.  All of these practices are at the heart of a strong writing workshop.  

An important caveat when it comes to writing instruction

Young girl with chin in hand holding pencil looking frustrated with writing.
Image from Yacobchuk1 via Depositphotos

We cannot wait for students to develop perfect sentence or paragraph writing before they are allowed to write for more authentic purposes.  Just as we all get better at anything (cooking, running, knitting) by doing that thing, kids get better at reading reading (along with clear instruction) by reading, and they get better at writing by writing. “Some sentence writing advocates call for sole focus on sentence writing in early grade levels to the exclusion of text composition instruction; however, the research evidence does not appear to support that conclusion, as skills interactively develop and may need to be taught in tandem.” (Kim, 2022)  

Alongside the kind of instruction that I’ve described above, which includes explicit instruction in sentence and paragraph development, kids need to be invited to write.  It’s ok that it’s imperfect.  It’s a process, and it takes time to develop.  

Let’s make sure we’re making the space and time for writing instruction.  It’s far too important to neglect.  

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Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls!  Simply email me at [email protected] or reach out for a coaching call!

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