On Unifying the Teaching of Reading and Writing – Prior Knowledge, Purpose, Strategies and Skills


On page 30 of Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools , journalist and teacher Carl Nagin disputes the widely-held premise that “reading should be taught before writing.”

Research shows that the two processes of literacy – reading and writing – are “intertwined.”   Intuitively, this makes sense to me.

“Numerous studies and assessments have shown that reading development does not take place in isolation; instead, a child develops simultaneously as a reader, listener, speaker, and writer. … integrating reading and writing has multiple benefits for development of literacy” (33).  Okay – makes sense.   I can see direct applications for preschool and elementary instruction, but how can I integrate reading and writing instruction in my secondary classroom?

Here’s one idea :
“Readers and writers use the same intellectual strategies.  …  The biggest difference between good and poor readers and good and poor writers is their strategy use, not their skill use” (32).

Here’s another :
“The reading and writing practices are similar.  The first step in both processes, for example, involves activating prior knowledge and setting a purpose” (32).

Prior knowledge … purpose … strategies, not skills …

Even though the examples Nagin uses are from early childhood education, I keep thinking about Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, who taught adult workers to read and write by having them write … then read what they’d written.   If I remember correctly, the idea was that they learned literacy faster using their life experiences as reading material. Giving them more agency and activating their prior knowledge made it easier for them to learn – at least that’s the idea that’s stuck with me.

You can read more of Friere’s theories of education in his 1968 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which argues for a model of education that’s more empowering for learners.  It probably doesn’t sound as radical now as it did when it was translated into English in 1970.  American education has changed a lot since then.

So … prior knowledge … purpose … strategies, not skills …


In an interview included in Because Writing Matters, David Pearson, dean of the Graduate School of Education, U Cal, Berkeley, says  : “Another obvious synergy is that the texts we write in a classroom are potentially texts for you and me and our peers to read to one another. That’s a wonderful kind of expectation to promote in classrooms: what we write is written to be read”  (35).

What we write is written to be read. 

I think that’s the key.  Personal writing that comes out of prior knowledge, with the purpose of being read by an audience of peers – not just their teacher.  Perhaps even a more public audience.    Authentic audience would mean shedding the idea that writing is something you do in school for a grade, and embracing writing as a means of communication … which, of course, is what writing is.

“The biggest difference between good and poor readers and good and poor writers is their strategy use, not their skill use” (32).

It’s important to move beyond “finding a voice” with personal writing.   I’m a believer in process-oriented writing instruction … but I also know that all students need to learn to write well.  I do a disservice to my students if I tell them that punctuation, spelling, subject/verb agreement, sentence fluency don’t matter, because they do.   Standard written English is the “gatekeeper and language of power” (37).     Power.  That’s why grammar and usage matter … because writing is a sophisticated skill that allows students to open doors, to communicate clearly, to create choices for themselves.

The “difference between … good and poor writers” may be “their strategy use, not their skill use” … but I’m pretty sure effective strategies lead to the mastery of skills.


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