5 Reasons Why Writing Helps Early Reading

Writing is one of the best ways to teach beginners how to read.

Posted Sep 15, 2013

Early writer.

Early writer.

5 Reasons Why Writing Helps Early Reading

What’s the best way to teach reading to beginners in preschool, kindergarten, first grade or home school and how can we do it better? Both research and practice are offering a novel idea: Teach kids to read by writing.

5 Reasons Why Writing Helps Early Reading

By Richard Gentry and Steve Peha

Early writing is of great benefit for learning to read. Yet this methodology seems not to be used to its best advantage. While it might seem novel it also has a powerful precedent: Maria Montessori (1870-1952) observed that children as young as two years of age were interested in tracing sandpaper letters and that many learned to write before reading.

Even though learning to read English with its complex and “opaque” spelling system is harder than learning to read Montessori’s native Italian, both research and practice reveal that many English speaking 3- to 6-year-olds write first and read later. [1] [2]

Here are five reasons why you want to show your beginning reader how to pick up a pencil or crayon and write.

1. Early writing helps children crack the reading code.

Because our language is a sound-symbol system, attempting to write the sounds kids hear is great phonics practice. It also combines segmenting and blending, the two fundamental early reading skills, in one purposeful activity.

Writing is great phonics practice because it requires kids to apply the Alphabetic Principle, the central concept of printed language: “Words are made of sounds that are written with letters.” To write a word, kids have to “hear” it. Then they have to associate the sound they hear with a letter symbol. Literacy is easier to acquire when kids work the way their language does. In the case of alphabetic language, that’s “sound to symbol.”

In a recent article, “Sounding Out Words” [3], we demonstrated techniques that make it easy for beginners to turn sounds into letters. Research now supports writing to read: brain scan studies show that early manuscript lessons help activate and coordinate reading circuitry. [4]

2. The first words kids read are often the first ones they write; early writing builds reading confidence.

The first words and sentences kids can read are often the first words and sentences they write. Writing gives them early and much needed confidence with literacy.

Writing first helps kids get the meaning connection because they are conveying their own thoughts. Often, the first words kids write will use unconventional spelling and even unconventional drawing of some letters. However, if we ask kids to read what they have written, and especially if we point to each “word” as kids read along, they can often remember their ideas and read them back.

3. Writing gives kids a head start on handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and other concepts of print.

Learning to write early on means kids get more chances to learn to practice handwriting, to learn to spell, to learn to punctuate, and to think about many of the conventions of printed text that are required to become successful readers.

Though we’re not aware of it as adults, there are many “concepts of print” (as psychologist and Reading Recovery inventor Dr. Marie Clay termed them) that kids have to learn. These include things like writing words left-to-right and lines top-to-bottom, putting spaces between words, understanding the relationship between words and pictures, and so on. Early writing then becomes a form of self-testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice of concepts of print and conventions—learning techniques that psychologists have found to be effective. [5]

4. Writing is a brainpower workout.

At a time when kids’ brainpower is growing extremely rapidly, writing may be the single best brain workout they can get: it requires all the skills of reading, some of the logical skills of math and science, small motor coordination, and even some emotional intelligence as well when they begin to consider writing for an audience.

This means that writing is very hard for little kids. But doing hard things is very good for learning. As long as kids aren’t pushed past the point of frustration, writing will naturally push them to the edge of their literate abilities—and move them past that edge very quickly.

Unlike basic reading books, and phonics programs, which introduce new words and letters in gradual and very controlled ways, kids wanting to communicate through print will want to write whatever words they want to write. As long as they have some basic techniques for doing this (sufficient handwriting practice, basic knowledge of letter sounds, a strategy for sounding out words, etc.), they’ll push themselves hard because they’re so invested in their own success.

Writing also conveys an interesting sense of ownership to many kids. Reading involves working with the words and ideas of others. While kids can and do take great pride in reading their favorite stories, the sense of agency and satisfaction they take in writing their own words can be even greater.

5. Writing is a useful assessment of reading ability.

Research shows that beginning reading and writing “are one and the same, almost.” [6 ] You can assess a kid’s early reading development and monitor progress by looking at their writing. [7]

Observing what kids do and how they are thinking when they write provides information that can guide instruction. Performance samples of written work are representations of activated reading circuitry and reveal a child’s reading skills. Unlike trying to guess what a kid can comprehend or determine a kid’s degree of fluency as they read aloud, teachers and parents can study kids’ writing carefully and learn a lot about which letters and sounds they know, how they spell, how they’re doing with handwriting, how they make sense of text, and many other important things that guide instruction.

Here are 5 things you can do to promote early writing:

  1. Give kids writing tools and encourage them to use them. The smaller the hand, the bigger the tool. For very small kids, sidewalk chalk is great. But as soon as kids can grip a fat pen or pencil, teach them how to hold it correctly.
  2. Have kids watch you when you write, especially when you write simple things like lists. Kids not only want to please adults, they want to be adults or “big kids”. Seeing that you write will naturally make them feel that writing is a “big kid” thing. Remember, that when you read silently, kids may not know you are reading. But when they see you write, they know exactly what you’re doing.
  3. Have kids write the alphabet once a day. Even if they can only form a few of the letters, have them write those. Concentrate on the lowercase letters. Over 95% of the letters we encounter in print are lowercase. Lowercase letters also take longer to learn, so kids need more time to learn them.
  4. Have your kids write “thank you” notes when they receive gifts. It’s a wonderful habit for kids to develop, and it gives them a real reason to write to a real person. Also, using many of the same words over and over (like “thank you” and “I really like…”) will help kids improve both their technique and confidence—even if you spell some or all of the words out for them.
  5. Have kids copy out their favorite stories from books. Kids can make their own books, either as copies of books they love or as original creations of their own. Many kids create their own entire libraries. You can write a book, too. Offer to create a book in front of your child. When kids see you fold the paper up correctly, number the pages, and make a pretty cover, it sometimes feels to them that you’ve done something magical—and that they can do magic, too!

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC specializing in literacy and instructional leadership. In addition to providing teacher training for schools and districts throughout the US and Canada, he writes regularly on education practice and policy. His work has been featured on The Washington Post, The National Journal, Edutopia, and many others.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

[1] Chomsky, C. (1971).Write first, read later. Childhood Education, 47(6), 296-300.

[2] Gentry, R. (2010) Raising confident readers: How to teach your child to read and write—from baby to age 7. New York: Da Capo/Lifelong.

[3] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201308/help-children-crack-the-reading-code-part-2

[4] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201201/handwriting-the-most-elegant-form-communication

[5] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201307/5-learning-techniques-psychologists-say-kids-aren-t

[6] Ehri, L. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C.Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory and practice across languages (pp. 237–269). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[7] Gentry, R. (2010) Raising confident readers: How to teach your child to read and write—from baby to age 7. New York: Da Capo/Lifelong.