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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Reading and Writing Link

This is just one post in a somewhat random series I’ve started on teaching writing. Feel free to jump in with your own observations.

Looking back on my own educational history, there’s one thing that really set me apart from my classmates: I loved to read anything, really. I read cereal boxes, newspapers, comic books, short stories, and novels. I even read the assigned reading, although textbooks did give me trouble.

Now, lest you think I am some strange breed and that I have no understanding of children with reading difficulties, I’m going to tell you a little something about myself. I was what they call a “late bloomer.” Learning to read was extremely difficult for me, and ultimately, it was my Mama who taught me to read, not the public school system.

And keeping the information that I read in my head has always been a challenge for me. I’ve since learned that I’m probably slightly LD (Learning Disabled? I really hate that term.). I have difficulty transferring things that I’ve read to long-term memory. In college, I had to read books for my classes over and over again, underlining like crazy, and writing numerous notations in the margins in order to hold onto the insights I arrived at. Good thing I didn’t want to sell back any of my books.;0)

So learning was, and still is, a challenge for me, and I have tremendous respect for anyone living with a learning disability or trying to teach someone with a learning disability. I understand. But that doesn’t mean that a child who has difficulty learning to read, or learning at all, can’t become a better writer and communicator through reading (or being read to).

Readers do tend to have an easier time writing than non-readers:

  1. Reading gives you plenty of concrete models to imitate in your own writing.
  2. Reading provides you with content for your writing.
  3. Reading can increase your vocabulary.
  4. Reading can help you impose order upon your own writing.

I’m sure there are other advantages to reading, but I’ll stop there. Let’s talk about each of these ideas briefly (I do plan to come back to them again at a later date, ahem ;0).

Reading gives you concrete models to imitate in your own writing. As Susan Wise Bauer points out in her introduction to Writing with Ease: Strong Fundamentals (pg. 4),

Written language is an unnatural foreign language, an artificially constructed code. Compare written dialogue with any transcript of an actual conversation, and you’ll see that written language has entirely different conventions, rules, and structures than spoken language. The rules of this foreign language must be learned by the beginning writer---and they have to become second nature before the beginning writer can use written language to express ideas.

What better way to learn the conventions and rules of the code than by immersing yourself in them through reading (or being read to)?

Now, to be completely fair, SWB goes on to claim that immersion techniques don't work well with teaching writing, but she's speaking of the active teaching of putting words on paper, as opposed to the mindful action of reading.

Reading provides you with content for your writing. Before we started homeschooling, my oldest child (now 11-years-old) attended a Catholic private school for kindergarten and first grade. Every week, he would bring home a new spelling list, and each day he would have a different assignment to do with the spelling words. One day each week, he would be required to write a story using the spelling words.

We are talking spelling words like “is,” “the,” “that,” “there,” and maybe occasionally something like “frog.” Do you have any idea how futile it is to give a small child a list of words like that and expect them to just come up with a story out of the clear blue sky?

There are two errors at work here. One is the idea that kiddos are just bubbling with ideas and can’t wait to put them down on grade-lined paper. Um, yeah, and all they need to organize them is a few vague spelling words.

The other is that the assignment is just too general.

So, the teacher gives what she thinks is a 20 minute homework assignment, and it ends up taking the student over an hour because he can’t figure out what to write about.

A better assignment would be to ask a child to imagine what it would be like to have a pet frog and to write a story using their spelling words.

An even better assignment for 1st graders would be to read a book about frogs and narrate what you read. Reading adds information, and provides us with content to write about. I’ll talk more about young children and composition at a later date.

A problem I see with many writing programs is too much focus on form and not enough focus on content. The whole point of writing in the first place is to share ideas. While form does come into play, if there’s no content to put into the form, what’s the point? One way to counteract this problem is to incorporate your writing lessons into your other studies. This is a topic I’ll definitely come back to in a later post, but in the meantime, this blog post at Permanent Things on the Lost Tools of Learning might interest you.

Reading can increase your vocabulary. When David was about 2 or 3 years old, one of his favorite books was The King with Six Friends (this is the actual cover of the copy we own!).

And one of the words in this book is “retinue,” and, of course, David asked what it means. “A group of friends or supporters,” his Daddy explained, and the word “retinue” forever remained in the vocabulary of our little boy.

Why is having a sizable vocabulary important to strong writing? It gives you options for expressing what you mean without always relying on a dictionary or thesaurus and possibly stumbling into using a word that doesn’t really a quite mean what you meant. It also helps you look at things and express them in different terms.

The key here, of course, is to use reading as a vocabulary builder, but it’s actually a lot easier than you might think (David will never forget what a retinue is, after all). Encourage your children to puzzle out meaning from the context, but also be willing to define words for them, or to show them how to look them up. If you want them to keep a vocabulary notebook, you can have them do that, but remember that the best way to learn new words is to use them. This applies to books they are reading on their own and to books your are reading to them.

Reading can help you impose order upon your own writing. This is probably technically part of #1, but it’s worth mentioning on it’s own. Our thoughts are sometimes in a jumble, but you can’t communicate a jumble (even on a therapist’s couch), so writing needs to be organized. With enough careful reading, we can begin to feel the organization contained in our favorite books, the rhythm of writing, if you will. As Susan Wise Bauer mentioned in the above quote, the point is for it to become second nature.

I would highly encourage you to read to your children, offer them plenty of interesting book choices, and let them catch you reading (little ones so want to be like Mama and Daddy). And read to your older children, too. It'll open new doors to material they might not otherwise be ready to tackle.

Reading is something that we can do with all of our children, whether we homeschool or send them to school, whether they are advanced students or have some difficulties, and it definitely adds to the quality of our lives. Even if you discount the academic advantages, what's cozier than snuggling up on the sofa with your children with a good book?

I'll sign off, here, but first: Do you find that reading helps your students become stronger writers? Have you found that reading has helped you in expressing yourself through the written word?

You might also enjoy the rest of this series:

On Teaching Writing


  1. I totally agree. Reading and even being read to has increased my kid's abilities I believe~it's certainly NOT MY teaching or transfer of skill! I believe reading is HUGE for this but also being READ TO. I still read to my kids sometimes. IMHO this helps loads of stuff educationally and in life. GREAT POST! THANKS so much ;-)) HUGS!

  2. I'm enjoying your series on writing. Reading certainly does improve writing and vocabulary, but curiously, this is not true for all students. An avid reader can still struggle with writing as though they were a non-reader. Nonetheless, as my reading on the internet takes me beyond the homeschool world, I've stumbled on author sites and almost every writer states they are a reader first then a writer. True for poets too; one must read poetry to write poetry.

  3. WildIris,
    I agree, reading isn't a cure-all for difficulty learning to write. And someone who doesn't read is not going to write, it's just doesn't follow naturally from our natures. The mind symbols we call "written words" are of a vastly different nature than, say, physical art (painting, sculpture, and even music).

  4. Oops, I should specify that writing one's name is different from say...writing a paragraph. One can be done in simple imitation, but the other requires a totally different thought process.

  5. SisterTipster,
    Thanks for visiting, buddy. Reading is a tremendous resource for learning, indeed. :0)


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