Writing: Why It’s Up There with Reading

I have a love affair with reading. Not surprising—given the work that I have chosen to do. But I also love writing. For me, it’s a given that these two literacy activities work hand in hand. That’s why I set up my teaching programs so that from the outset, both activities are fostered.

That has led me to be somewhat surprised when parent raise questions which basically say that “of course, reading is important, but why bother with writing? Can’t a child simply read without having to write?”

For me, that’s like saying, “of course, listening (the spoken language equivalent of reading) is important, but why bother with speaking (the spoken language equivalent of writing)? Can’t a child simply listen without having to speak?” Naturally, this question would never be raised. It is unimaginable to consider abandoning that key part of our language system. Though it is not readily acknowledged, a comparable situation holds in literacy. Just as spoken language would be greatly weakened if it were limited to one of its two major components, so too is literacy weakened if it is limited to one of its two major components.

It may not seem “right” to equate the power of writing with the power of speech. Our intuition seems to tell us that children’s spoken language is “obviously” more valuable than their writing. However, it’s important to recognize that the “obvious” value attributed to spoken language is relatively recent. It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth century that investigators turned their sights on documenting what children were doing when they were learning to speak. Those studies revealed an amazing set of skills that had been almost totally ignored.

Even now, it’s commonly said that children learn to speak to “get what they want.” That is far from the case. The studies show that young children do much, much more with their language. They ask endless questions, they create rhymes, they experiment with metaphor, they produce jokes and on and on. Chukovsky, the Russian poet, described the child from two to five as a “linguistic genius:” Albert Einstein was reported to have said that he achieved what he did because he never stopped asking the questions that young children ask. In other words, in learning to speak the language, children create and experience huge leaps in intellectual development.

Is comparable growth possible in the realm of literacy? I believe it is. Admittedly, because there’s been so little work in early writing, that question cannot be answered definitively. Still, given what we have learned from studies of spoken language, the potential seems enormous. This can only happen, however, if we expand instruction to go beyond reading to include a solid curriculum in writing that is put in place at the very outset.

The significance of this area becomes even more important when we recognize that the resistance to or disinterest in writing is not limited to the early years of development. Throughout the years of schooling, relatively little attention is given to writing instruction. The end result is that writing continues to pose difficulties for students throughout their school careers. While reading achievement in our nation is poor, writing achievement is even poorer. Not unexpectedly, the poor performance is accompanied by even stronger negative feelings. As parents and teachers can testify, students commonly report that they “hate writing.” In other words, the neglect that attends the early instruction in writing is never overcome.

None of the above should be interpreted to mean that the situation is not amenable to change. There is no better way to effect that change than to begin to teach writing effectively from day one and to continue to teach it effectively each day thereafter. It has been said that if we teach children today the way we taught them yesterday we rob them of tomorrow. In no area is this idea more relevant than in the realm of writing.