09/09/2013 02:33 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

Reading Needs Writing! A Vital, But Neglected, Message

Every language system has two modes: one for producing messages and one for receiving messages. In spoken language, those two modes are speaking and listening. In written language (literacy), they are writing and reading.

A significant discrepancy exists in to the way we conceptualize the two systems. In spoken language (a "natural process" that normally occurs without formal instruction) both modes are highly valued. One would never choose between speaking and listening. We instinctively know that each needs the other.

But that view does not hold for literacy -- a process that requires formalized teaching. In that realm, far greater emphasis is placed on reading as opposed to writing. The difference is evident in many areas. For example, the number of research studies on reading greatly exceeds those on writing. Similarly, national reports on achievement stress reading far more than writing.

The general population has understandably been affected by this bias. As a result, when children are having trouble reading, parents eagerly seek help. With writing problems, that is rarely the case.

The source for those reactions rests not simply with societal influence. The simple fact is that writing is harder. Even the physical skills required to produce writing are far more demanding than those required for reading -- particularly for young children. For a start, writing requires fine motor movements that often prove to be difficult for them (that's why tying shoelaces can be such a challenge). While keyboarding has made the task a bit easier, smooth typing is still a fairly rigorous activity, particularly when viewed through the eyes of a five or 6-year-old. Even older children do not find it easy.

So rather than have yet one more battle with their youngsters, parents are tempted to minimize requirements for writing. Surprisingly, schools approach is not much different. Influenced many decades ago by the idea that "drill is kill," they stopped the endless handwriting exercises that were so prevalent in the early 20th century. Studies indicate that today, schools on average require ten minutes or less a week of handwriting practice in the early grades (and systematic keyboarding training is not even on the docket for children in that age range).

Unfortunately, the end result is that children are placed at a major disadvantage -- not simply in meeting the writing demands that increase in the higher grades. The failure to adequately teach writing is actually making the achievement of reading more difficult.

To understand why, let's consider some research findings on the effects that writing has on reading. It's long been recognized that a key ingredient in effective reading is rapid word recognition. You recognize its importance when it is absent. Then you see a child painfully struggling with each word -- trying to sound it out because he or she does not recognize it instantly. Many children who have to rely on this form of reading to get through a page understandably end up saying that they "hate reading."

The ability to spell (i.e., write) accurately greatly helps in making reading fast, easy, accurate and eventually pleasurable. For example, it has been found that requiring a child to write a word accurately only two times is as effective in facilitating word recognition as is reading the same word nine times. In other words, rapid reading is attained much faster via experiences in spelling (i.e., writing the word) than via far more extensive encounters in reading.

Research also suggests that reading does not improve spelling but spelling does improve reading. That's why it's not unusual to find good readers who are poor spellers, but the opposite is rarely the case. Good spellers are almost always good readers. It's not hard to figure out why this is so. Accurate spelling requires careful attention to every letter and the sequence of those letters.

By contrast, in reading a far less discriminating process can be used. If a child is reading about animals and sees a long word starting with "e," a good bet is that it is the word "elephant." If it ends in "t," it is an even better bet. This is termed "reading by partial cues." In other words, the details fade into the background and the word is a cluster of letters with one or two clear details. (You can see what is in the child's mind by asking him or her to write the word. Often you will get combinations such as elfut or lfnt.)

Given these findings, it is not surprising to find that when spelling and reading are taught together in a coordinated manner, reading performance improves far more than if the children received just additional reading practice on its own.

The greater ease and fluency that writing offers for reading is reason enough to make writing a key element in early literacy instruction. But the advantages do not stop there. Fluency in writing keeps delivering throughout life. Writing (referring not to handwriting but to the composing of well-organized sets of ideas) offers benefits for cognition, expression of emotions and overall success in school. Further, writing is an invaluable job skill. For example, in a survey of over 200 companies, the Council for Industry and Higher Education found that "good writing skills" were consistently ranked among the top 10 skills employers wanted.

None of these benefits, however, can be realized if we continue failing to offer children the time and training required for effective writing habits to take root. If we want to offer children the full benefits of literacy, it's about time that writing was given the place it deserves.