It’s been a rough few years for elementary teaching and learning. Concerns remain about the progress (or lack thereof) that US students are making in literacy, and there’s no one cause hindering this progress. Many factors have contributed to lower test scores, from the amount of money individual districts invest in their students to teacher shortages to pandemic-related learning loss.
And we must remember that even before the pandemic, scores were declining. According to some experts, the pandemic simply made a bad situation worse. Has the global health crisis left lingering effects? Absolutely. According to a McKinsey report, compared to pre-2020 scores, students were about four months behind in reading in 2021.1
In comparing schools with higher-versus lower-income demographics, the Brookings Institute found students attending impoverished schools were 15% more likely to have reading proficiency gaps.2
These numbers merely highlight the recognition that to improve students’ literacy skills, we need to improve reading and writing instruction, starting in the earliest elementary grades.
Enter the science of reading. We know the value that evidence-based instructional practices—those indicated by the body of research that comprises the science of reading—can provide. In fact, over 50% of US states have passed laws/policies mandating a science of reading approach to teaching literacy.3
However, the buzz around the science of reading can mean that a focus on writing instruction becomes lost in the mix. The term science of reading has telescoped to a narrow definition often used as shorthand for phonics. But the science of reading isn’t just about foundational skills; it also encompasses best practices for comprehension, making meaning from text, and communicating ideas.4
Perhaps it’s time for a new name. Instead of the science of reading, maybe we should refer to it as the science of literacy. Why? Because the processes of reading and writing are connected, and we should be thinking about how we teach reading and writing in a connected way in the classroom.
Reading is receptive and writing is generative, and these skills work hand in hand when we receive, process, and communicate ideas. We don’t separate them in the “real world,” so why separate them in the classroom? That would be an artificial separation.
The Reading–Writing Connection: A Missed Opportunity
We have significant evidence that reading and writing are connected processes and highly related to each other. Interventions focused on skills transfer show that writing instruction positively affects reading—just as reading instruction positively affects writing.
We know that transfer and benefits exist between the two areas, but the trick? Teachers must make the connections explicit during instruction to pay off.
Studies note that while reading and writing rely on a similar knowledge base, the processes are neither identical nor reversible—and they activate overlapping brain regions. Teaching reading or writing independently of the other doesn’t mean those learnings will automatically apply in the context of teaching (and learning) the other skill. So, it follows that instruction should be explicitly making those connections. Reading and writing must be brought together by the teacher in meaningful ways to realize the mutually beneficial returns to each domain.
What can this connection look like in a student’s learning progression? When students write about what they’ve read and learned, their reading comprehension improves because they’ve had to think more deeply and communicate their thoughts in written format.
Writing instruction improves reading fluency, too, because when students are forced to stop and think about spelling patterns and word choice, they make a stronger connection in their brains, improving their ability to recall those same sound–spelling patterns when they read.
Written language represents spoken code. The more students engage with that code through the act of writing, the more their skills grow in understanding the same code in reading.
Writing also improves reading comprehension as students become more adept at formatting their writing, using the same thoughtful text structures they analyze when reading. Think of reading as the inhale and writing as the exhale. But students must be taught to breathe properly.
However, despite clear evidence of the reading–writing connection, instructional practices leveraging the relationships between the two domains often aren’t firmly in place in classrooms. This lack may be in part because our alarm bells have been going off about reading based on what studies and test scores are telling us, and from what teachers are seeing firsthand in the classroom.
Additionally, we expect much of students’ information and learning experience to come from reading, which makes reading issues readily apparent to teachers. But in the younger grades especially, writing doesn’t come under as much scrutiny, since we often expect student responses to be verbal. This means that writing doesn’t necessarily surface as a concern as early as reading does.
And, historically, time for writing instruction and practice in classrooms has gotten short shrift, for several reasons.
• The time crunch. Elementary teachers are generalists tasked with covering multiple subjects each day. Add in lunch, recess, and specials, and the time shrinks considerably. With many standardized tests not requiring students to generate their own writing, class time can shift to those skills that educators and administrators know are going to be tested.
• Insufficient teacher training. Few college courses are explicitly geared toward preparing early elementary teachers with methodology to teach writing. A lack of adequate strategies could have less-experienced teachers shying away from teaching a subject they’re uncomfortable with.
• Writing can just plain feel difficult, even to adults. Many teachers have less confidence in their own writing, and their focus can gravitate toward teaching reading because it’s a more comfortable space.
Prime the Pump by Incorporating Meaningful Opportunities to Write in the Classroom
We can lean on the science of literacy to develop teaching practices that elevate all aspects of literacy in tandem, where instruction and practice support the end goal of guiding students to become excellent communicators both in and out of the classroom—reading, writing, listening, and speaking in thoughtful ways.
Here are some tips and tricks that elementary teachers can add to their toolboxes to incorporate additional opportunities to write and enhance reading skills and comprehension.
• Incorporate reading response, encouraging students to write responses to texts focused on their opinions or feelings. Younger students can include pictures or use sentence frames to help convey meaning.
• Teach writing skills in a way that mirrors the reading skills practiced during text analysis. For example, when looking at text structures together in a read-aloud, find opportunities for students to apply those structures to organize the ideas in their own writing.
• Encourage students to write in their own voices, using modeling to demonstrate how, and then inviting students to share their work.
• When teaching about plot in literature, have students try their hands at creating a new story ending that still makes sense given the setting, characters, and problem to be solved.
• Use sentence stems and scaffolding to set students on a path to success with independent writing.
• Create writing partners or groups, which empower students to collaborate, discuss their writing, and share their voices.
Leverage the Connection between Foundational Skills and Writing
In the younger grades, don’t overlook encoding, which can be underrepresented in early literacy instruction. Following the research, phonics instruction focuses heavily on decoding as students learn to map sounds onto graphemes to read printed text. Decodable texts, an essential part of a science of reading–informed classroom, then allow students to apply the specific, targeted phonics skills they’ve learned as they read.
But decodables can be valuable tools for developing writing skills, too. Writing, after all, has its equivalent of foundational skills—spelling and transcription, which are both natural extensions to the process of encoding. What might that look like? “Wordless decodables” can be an effective way to integrate decoding, encoding, spelling, and transcription skills. Consider a scenario in which students:
• Read a decodable to practice decoding words with their newly learned phonics skills.
• Receive the same decodable but without the text, and create a blank, or wordless, decodable featuring only the images.
• Write a story—as a whole class, in small groups, or individually—using their target phonics skills. During this step, students orally segment a word to identify its phonemes. Then, they map the phonemes to the letter representations and write them onto the page to spell the word.
This three-step process creates a natural bridge from printed text to sounds and back from sounds to printed text.
With so many ways to connect literacy skills—and knowing the inherent benefits of doing so—we must expand our view of what the science of reading really supports: evidence-based practices designed to improve the full spectrum of literacy skills.
Elementary students need a strong foundation in reading and writing. Evidence-based instructional practices employing a holistic approach to literacy education—including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocab, comprehension, writing, speaking, and listening—establish that foundation in reading and writing.
By building a literacy program informed by the research behind the science of reading and using a balanced approach to teaching reading and writing, teachers empower their students to understand and process information and communicate their ideas clearly and effectively.
Laura Fischer is the VP of learning design and content development at Learning A–Z. With over 20 years of experience in educational publishing, edtech, and classroom teaching, Laura leads the strategic vision, design efforts, and execution for content across Learning A–Z’s products. Driven by research and pedagogical best practices, she strives to ensure learning experiences that support all students where they are, in ways that are meaningful to them, to improve learning outcomes.