Category Archives: writing makes better readers

A few students in my class read quickly. What do I do to keep them on task?

You could prepare a quiz ahead of time on the reading selection. Let the quiz focus on the pages to be read.  Ask students to raise their hands when their reading is done, give them the quiz and watch.  Since the quick readers are often gifted students, ask questions not at the knowledge level, but at higher level thinking.  Ask inference questions too which everyone finds tough.  Ask students to write not only the answer but the page and paragraph or line number which proves their answers.  Collect and check the quizzes to know if the quick readers are skimming or truly gaining knowledge.

dhild running with book in hands

You could ask quick readers to outline the reading passage. If it is nonfiction, then the outline could name the way information is presented, such as chronological, problem and solution, cause and effect, or whatever is appropriate.  Then the students could write one sentence per paragraph describing the information in each paragraph.  If the reading selection is fiction, then the outline could state the type of writing, such as description, dialog, action, or whatever is appropriate.  Writing one sentence per paragraph might not work for fiction, but one sentence per scene or character might.  The point is for the students to prove to you that they comprehend what they have read.

You could ask students to choose five words from the passage that they don’t understand or that they think their classmates might not understand and use a classroom dictionary to look them up. Then students should write each word in sentences to show what the word means.

You could ask students to write one (or two or more) questions about the reading which require thoughtfulness to answer. Collect them, shuffle them, and then use them for class discussion or homework.

Notice that all of these assignments focus on the original reading selection and either extend or deepen students’ understanding of it.  Students need only paper and pen and possibly a dictionary to do the work.  If you have the extra assignments printed up to use as needed, you can pass the appropriate one out any time a student finishes early.  And most of the ideas work well in science and social studies classes as well as in ELA classes.

Of course you could always have early finishers take out books and read them.  If the books’ Lexile numbers fit the students’ reading levels, this works.  But it does not enrich the reading lesson, and it could cause resentment among the slower readers who might feel punished for their slower progress.

How to make reading anything easier

boy reading on the floorBefore you read:

  • Read the title and look at the photos, drawings, charts, and maps. Try to figure out what they mean without reading  the text.
  • Read the subheadings. Ask yourself, “What is this about?”  Try to predict the topic you will be reading about.
  • Read vocabulary words out loud, find out how to pronounce them (ask an adult) and ask or look up what they mean.  If there are vocabulary words in the margins, or if words are highlighted in the text, they are there because they are important and because you might not know them.

girl with ipad in bed

While you read:

  • Figure out the main idea. Usually in nonfiction it is named at the end of the first paragraph.  If you own the book, underline the main idea.  If not, start a mind web with the main idea in the middle.
  • Figure out what details are important. Add those to your mind web.  It’s easier to study a mind web than it is to study a whole lot of paragraphs.
  • Highlight or write down every word you don’t understand.
    • Look for clues in the nearby words.
    • Ask an adult to help you.
    • Or look up the words in a dictionaryWrite down what they mean, and read over the words and meanings until you know them.
  • If something is difficult or confusing, ask an adult to explain it.
  • Define important words on your mind web.
  • Summarize each paragraph into one or two sentences to be sure you understand it.  If you can write down what it means, you understand.

Writing more leads to better reading comprehension

Yes, writing more does lead to better reading comprehension. Research proves it. But why?

Student holding paper and reading it as he is writing

The authors of The Reading – Writing Connection (2010) suggest many reasons:

  • Both reading and writing are forms of communication. When writers create a text, little light bulbs go off as they think about their audience and what that audience needs in order to understand and want to continue reading their texts.  Students write, but at the same time they act as readers, their own first audience.
  • Writers think about composing skills when they read the texts of other writers. Why does the author use that vocabulary word? Why does the author have a first person narrator? How does the author identify characters through their dialog?  Does an autobiography have to start with a birth?  Does a story need to go in chronological order.? If not, how can  ideas be arranged?  How do other authors do this?  They read to find out.
  • How do other writers connect sentence ideas or paragraphs? How do they explain things—with figures of speech or with examples? How do other authors make a difficult idea clear? Do they depend on charts, graphs or maps?

When writers read, they are not merely enjoying or gaining information. They are also aware that what they are reading was written by someone who had to make writing decisions, the same kind of writing decisions they have to make. By thinking about those decisions, student writers understand better what they are reading.

How can writing improve reading?

When educators combed research on the writing / reading connection in 2010, they found three writing activities which improve reading comprehension.


  • Having students write about the stories and texts they read by writing personal responses, analyses, or interpretations; by writing summaries; by writing notes; and by answering or asking questions in writing about what they have read.
  • Having students learn about the process of writing; about how texts are structured; about how paragraphs and sentences are put together; and about how to spell.
  • Having students write  frequently.

All of these writing activities improve students’ reading. In future blogs, we will look at why these activities improve reading, and how these activities can be incorporated into a student’s schoolwork or work at home. We’ll start in the next blog with the last idea, that students should write more to improve their reading.

Meanwhile, for more information, see Writing to Read.  At this site you can read the full report, Writing to Read; evidence for how writing can improve reading by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert for the Carnegie Corp. of NY, 2010.

You might also enjoy reading Shanahan on Literacy, a blog about reading by an expert in the field. In his current blog, Dr. Shanahan comments on ideas in this report.

What is the right age to start a child writing essays? Is first grade too young?

3rd grade student writingFor 20 years I have tutored children in how to write. Only one rising first grader and two children already in first grade were ready to write essays. Essays require thoughtful organization for which most first graders don’t have the patience or organizational skills. They want to jump right in without planning.

What qualities do I look for in students ready to write essays?

  • Children who already write long narratives—the fronts and backs of notebook paper. Sometimes this is the sign of a gifted child who is more advanced than her peers in writing skills.
  • Children who can read at a third grade level or better. Through their reading, these children have encountered lots of writing which subconsciously will influence their style, vocabulary and topics.
  • Children with strong vocabulary skills. During a writing class, students will hear new words, or will hear words used in new ways. Liking to work with words is a sign that students are ready for essay writing.
  • Children who can spell well (not perfectly) with more correct spelling than phonetic spelling. A writing lesson is not a spelling lesson.
  • Children who speak English well, using words and grammar correctly. Writing lessons include fixing up grammar errors, but in general, the student’s command of English grammar and usage should be good. A writing lesson is not a grammar lesson.
  • Children who can focus for up to an hour. Many skills come together during writing classes—holding a pencil, forming letters and words, organizing thoughts, spelling, finding synonyms in a thesaurus, listening to a teacher’s instructions, sitting (or standing) for most of an hour, and asking questions. Writing is a process, not a single skill, and parts of the process are best worked on while the ideas are flowing, so the child needs to be able to hang in there.
  • Children willing to take direction. I have taught talented first graders who had all the above qualities but they were not willing to listen to my suggestions or to follow my directions. Children need maturity to begin essay writing.

Third grade is a good time to start essay writing for some children. For others, fourth grade is better. During kindergarten, first and second grade, students can focus on writing sentences or paragraphs. Invite to EnglishWritingTeacher.comThey can also learn from reading with an adult. You can point out to your child why a certain sentence sounds good, or how a writer gets the child’s attention. You can point out how a certain character in a book sounds like a child because of the words she uses or the way she uses them, while an adult sounds differently.

Can writing make my child a better reader?

Yes.  The skills are entwined and reinforce one another if taught together.

  • Brain research shows that the more modes of learning which we use, the more apt we are to remember.  Children who are learning how to recognize a letter shape, or to distinguish between two similar letter shapes, will reinforce reading these shapes if they write the letters as well.
  • Children with poor reading skills often have poor handwriting skills. Yet practice at handwriting (drawing letters with their fingers, forming the shape of letters with their bodies, tracing letter strokes and patterns,  or giving directions to another person on how to write a letter) can improve not only writing skills but reading skills.
  • If a young child likes a certain genre, say fairy tales, and attempts to write one (even just a few sentences), she may encounter problems—how to begin, sequencing, spelling, or how to describe the frog’s voice.  The next time she reads a fairy tale, or has one read to her, she will be more aware of the way another author handled the same problems.  Her reading comprehension will develop in more sophisticated ways than if she had not written her own fairy tale.
  • Sounding out letters and then assembling groups of letters into words is one of the first steps of reading.  Many methods from flash cards to letter tiles help children grasp the connection between letters and sounds, but one of the best methods is writing.  The child wonders about the spelling of a word and sounds it out before writing it down, sometimes erasing, until he is satisfied.
  • Kindergarteners might not be ableGirl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister. to read many words, but if they know their letter sounds, they can write any word they can think of using phonetic spelling.  Then they can read their passage back.  With adult help, they can understand that stories, emails and even books are within their grasp both as writers and as readers.
  • The phrase “reading and writing” puts the reading first, but research in the past thirty years has shown that writing comes first for most children.  The old philosophic idea of a child being an empty vessel who needs to be filled up with knowledge (often from reading) has been shown not to be true.  Children are vessels bursting with ideas, longing for an audience to share them with, sometimes through writing.  –Mrs. K

When my son was in kindergarten, phonetic spelling was called inventive writing.  I loved it since I could read his thoughts even in kindergarten.  But many parents didn’t like it.  They claimed that their children would never learn to spell words correctly.  That has been an ongoing criticism which young adults now blame for their not being able to spell well.  However, with spell-check, this is becoming a moot point.  –Mrs. A