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Explaining the Symbiotic Relationship Between Reading and Writing

Students who understand how reading relates to writing and vice versa can develop into better writers.

September 7, 2023
Johner Images / Alamy

For elementary school teachers, the saying is, students learn to read and then read to learn. At the middle and high school levels, teachers may experience the relationship of first writing to read, and then reading to write. Although this expression is not so common, there are resources that point to such a relationship, including ”Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading” or books such as The Write to Read.

While the relationship of “writing to read” and “reading to write” represents a symbiotic one, there is a distinct difference that may help us better understand what we are teaching students.

Writing to Read

When a student is writing to read, they are using writing as a tool to truly understand the reading. Writing to read is driven by the text the student is studying.

Examples of writing to read

  • Write a high-level summary to remember and consolidate the content of the reading.
  • Write a claim about the reading, and use three pieces of evidence to support it.
  • Respond to open-ended questions about the reading as a way to connect to or analyze the text.
  • Write an essay on a book to illuminate a particular theme or provide evidence to trace tonal shifts in the piece.
  • Write about the content of a particular text or texts to understand, analyze, or evaluate the text(s) at a deeper level.
  • Annotate during reading to capture important terms, ideas, or content.
  • Fill in graphic organizers or take notes to track the reading.
  • Write in response to a prompt.
  • Write an essay about a particular literary device or critical feature of the text(s).

Reading to Write

When a student is reading to write, they are using reading as a tool to improve their writing. Reading to write occurs when students first learn how to imitate their favorite authors, historians, scientists, or researchers. This is the deliberate use of mentor texts to mold a student’s writing ability.

Examples of reading to write

  • Read memoirs or personal essays to prepare to write a college essay.
  • Read several articles from a particular journal or newspaper to increase knowledge of stylistic expectations in preparation to write a piece for publication.
  • To help relieve writer’s block, use reading to think about different ways to write.
  • Read widely on a topic to consider one’s own writing approach and background knowledge.
  • Review multiple texts to write for a particular purpose or on a specific topic.
  • Read a lot to write more by picking out the ideas that spark thinking.
  • Maintain an annotated bibliography of mentor texts that serve as a writing coach.

Moving Toward Reading to Write

The developmental progression from reader to writer is specific to each student’s experience; however, we do know that in order to strengthen their ability to write, students must continue to read more.

Reading feeds writing. When writing dries up or stalls, the best way to revitalize it is to feed your brain with more reading. Reading may be compared to eating the nutrients we need for the energy to write. Reading feeds the writer with ideas for structure, rich language, literary moves, and compelling ways to illuminate a writer’s purpose.

After filling our brain with reading, turning back to writing typically gives one the energy needed to continue. This is one reason why writing to read is so important early on, then gradually becomes just as important as reading to write. As students develop confidence and competence as readers as the content and vocabulary become much more sophisticated, they build capacity to see the text as both a reader and a writer.

There are potential benefits of looking at the writing-to-read and reading-to-write relationship as teachers continue to challenge themselves with the best way to teach students how to write. Many times at the middle and high school levels, experience with writing to read is the dominant one. If this is the case, it might be a good time to rethink instructional goals and associated assessments.

Here are some practical suggestions for how to weave the two more seamlessly so that students grow into stronger writers.

Assignments that Weave in Reading to Write

After students complete a writing-to-read activity, have them complete a second activity that asks them to use the same text as a reading-to-write activity. (Models and research on how to use mentor texts can be found in books by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.) The second activity may be practice captured in the writer’s notebook for the student to use as a resource to support their writing throughout the year. Some examples of such activities may include the following:

  • Write a high-level summary of the text, then pick sentences from the text that use punctuation or sentence structure in a way that is powerful.
  • Write a claim along with supporting evidence, then look at the text to pick out the best use of transitions.
  • Annotate a book to trace character development, then pull out parts of the book that were written with vivid, descriptive language.
  • Write an essay on the theme of a book, then write a reflection on the author’s craft.
  • Write a response to reading to analyze the author’s line of reasoning, then break down the formal structure of the argument.

After high school, students contribute even more to society, so they need to know how to cogently express their thinking to others. Empowering students as writers requires practice, and it’s important that students understand how writing to read and reading to write serve them in markedly different ways.

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  • Literacy
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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