The Reading-Writing Connection

08/02/2016  |  By Steve Peha
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A strong correlation exists between reading ability and writing ability. But it’s much stronger in one direction than the other. Some students who read well, write well. But almost all students who write well, read well. Why is the correlation stronger from writing to reading? 

To read well, a student has to decode text, understand vocabulary, and use background knowledge to determine meaning. Writers do each of these and many more.
To write well, a student has to consider the topic and what needs to be written about it. Readers don’t have to do either of these things. Writers may need to perform research. Readers generally don’t. Writers have to figure out how to start a piece of writing and to end a piece of writing. Readers have the beginning and ending given to them. Writers have to formulate ideas, turn those ideas into units of meaning like phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Readers have only to interpret these things. 
The complexity of writing compared to reading is even greater when we consider the pro-cess of putting words to thoughts. In order for writers to communicate effectively, they have to take a thought, often abstract, and render it in concrete form. Writers have to shape every phrase, construct every sentence, and sequence ideas logically while also meeting the conven-tions of spelling, punctuation, usage, and grammar. Sentences have to be arranged into para-graphs, paragraphs into sections, and sections into whole pieces or chapters. When working in a digital medium, writers are even responsible for formatting. Even very young writers must write legibly by hand.


Good writers also have to do something good readers never have to do: they have to revise. Revision occurs on many levels. Sometimes writers change a single word, phrase, or sentence. Sometimes they change many words, phrases, and sentences in a single pass only to discover that they’ve created new problems, which require another pass. Sometimes writers try different organizational structures. Much of the time, they delete large sections and start over. Writers also consider adding new material which triggers yet another round of rereading and possible revising.
Done well, revision is reading at the highest level. Writers have to read closely just to draft. But to revise, they have to reread closely and reconsider their ideas in light of others they’ve al-ready written or those that may come later. In revision, writers have to consider multiple ver-sions of a text and make decisions as to which will be best suited to the writer’s message and the reader’s needs. Sometimes no version is satisfactory and the entire process must begin again from scratch. Revision always requires comparative evaluation. Roughly equivalent tasks occur rarely in reading, especially comparative literature at the level, but this is highly special-ized endeavor that few people pursue.
This brings us to one more thing writers have to do that readers don’t: while in the act of writing, they have to put themselves in the place of their readers to predict how effective their writing will be. This is the key to the evaluative process required in revision. It demands general knowledge of audience, as well as mode, form, and genre, and specific knowledge of the read-ers’ reading level and degree of background knowledge about the subject. Readers might do some of these things occasionally but the stakes are much lower because their success is not dependent on a group of individuals whose actions they do not control. To reduce all of this to a maxim: “Writers sweat out every word; readers sweep over every word.”
Writing requires all the skills of reading and many other skills as well, some that readers never have to use. Reading, especially close reading, is a demanding activity. Synthesizing mean-ing across multiple texts also requires a high level of skill. But even these activities do not corre-late as strongly with writing skill as the ability to write well correlates with reading ability.
How many elementary kids can subtract but not add? How many high school juniors and seniors can drive a car with a manual transmission but not an automatic transmission? How many basketball players shoot more poorly from the field than they do from the free throw line? In each of these cases, exceptions exist (in basketball, consider Shaquille O’Neal), but they are few.
When one ability subsumes all the skills of another, while requiring additional skills, chances are good that the correlation in skill level from the more complex task to the less complex task is stronger than the reverse.
This is not about stage-based development. There’s no absolute developmental barrier that precludes kids from learning subtraction before addition. Nor do strict developmental bounda-ries exist in the other cases I mentioned. With many pairs of closely related academic skills where one skill subsumes the other, focusing first and with greater attention on the subsuming skill makes a dramatic difference in achievement. So it is with writing and reading.

 

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