Tuesday, September 4, 2012

8 Ways Reading Helps Writing

The desire to write appears early
In the late 1970s and early 1980s academics began to talk a lot about the relationship between reading and writing. The first paper I ever presented to an Australian national literacy conference in 1983 was on this topic. Those of us who were writing about the key relationship between reading and writing back then, eventually moved on to talk more about the vast range of text types and modes of delivery (multimodality), and the relationship between a person's experience of varied texts, including image, film, video, experience, story, anecdote etc (intertextuality). Great terms that I've researched, used and written about elsewhere. But I thought in this post I'd narrow my focus back to one question, how does reading help writing? My motivation for this has been my granddaughter Elsie, who also inspired a post by my daughter recently as well (here). She is a prolific writer in just her first year of school. She couldn't read just 6 months ago, and yet now she is reading chapter books and writing varied texts on a daily basis.

After 30+ years reading the research of others and doing my own research as well, I can conclude that if a child is read to, and eventually begins to read themselves, that there will be an influence on writing. So what does this mean for teachers and parents of young children? In simple terms, it means that reading to and with your children is critical, as is talk, word play and use of language in all its forms. It has an impact on writing and also learning. Here are eight ways it does this.

Photo from TTALL Literacy Project
1. Being read to and reading oneself offers us a rich experience of story - I've written in other posts about the importance of story to life and learning (e.g. here). Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives...make up the fabric of our lives...'.  Jerome Bruner and others have gone further to suggest that story is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.'

2. Reading offers models for writing - But reading also introduces us to varied ways to share a story, and how to start a story and end it. It helps us to learn how to develop a character, the art of description, humour, rhyme and rhythm. Dr Seuss is a master at such lessons.

3.  Reading teaches us about 'readership' -When children begin to have books read to them and later to read them for themselves, they begin to realize that these stories have been written for them, the reader. Good writing requires a sense of audience, and stories read teach this. When my granddaughter Elsie began receiving letters from family she suddenly wanted to write letters herself. She learned that you write for readers and that this is enjoyable and strengthens relationships.

4. Reading enriches language - There is no doubt that reading feeds children's writing. It introduces children to new words, novel use for old words, and the ever so important need to 'play' with language if you are to be a successful writer. Robert Ingpen's book 'The Idle Bear' demonstrates this well. It is essentially a conversation between two bears. He starts this way:

"What kind of bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy." 
Later in the story a very confused bear asks:

"Where do you come from, Ted?"
"From an idea," said Ted definitely.
"But ideas are not real, they are only made-up," said Teddy. "You have to come from somewhere real to have realitives."
"Not realitives, relatives!" said Ted trying to hide his confusion.

Elsie's TV instructions
5. Reading introduces us to varied written genres - While children experience story from a very young age, reading also introduces them to the fact that language can be represented in different genres. Through reading at home and within their immediate world, children quickly discover that people write and read lists, notes, labels on objects, poems, jokes, instructions, maps and so on. Parents read and point out these varied text forms and eventually children try to use them.

Elsie's 'TV Instructions' (left) is a priceless set of instructions that she wrote for her Nanna just before she went to bed, so that Nanna could watch her favourite programs while babysitting.

6. Reading helps us to understand the power of words - Stories and other texts quickly teach children that words can have power. Signs give clear instructions in powerful ways - STOP, BEWARE OF THE DOG, CHILDREN CROSSING, KEEP OUT. But well-chosen words express emotions too - "I love you", "It was dark and scary". Children also discover that words can do other things. With help they will enjoy discovering language forms like onomatopoeia, e.g. atishoo, croak, woof, miaow, sizzle, rustle etc.

7. Reading offers us knowledge - But reading also offers us knowledge that can feed writing. Without content there won't be writing. Books can captivate children and offer new areas of learning and interest. As they are read books, they also learn about their world. For example, they might discover that trees don't just have green leaves, but sometimes these leaves change colour, fall off and create a habitat for many creatures. Trees drop seeds which animals eat, offer shelter for animals, material to build homes and so on. But they are also homes for elves and animals that talk, places where strange lands appear regularly, and where a lost dragon might rest. Reading feeds writing with knowledge as raw material for writing.

8. Reading helps us to imagine and think - As children are introduced to varied literary genres and traditions, imaginations are awakened to the realms of fantasy, time travel, recreation of life in other times, the perils of travel through space. But at a more realistic level, reading can help young writers to imagine childhood in other places and times, 'within' the bodies of other people and with varied life roles. Through reading, children are given the examples and the fuel to imagine and write about themselves in the shoes of others, sharing their life circumstances as well as their challenges, fears and hopes.

I'd be keen to hear of your experiences with young writers and the way reading has been related to the writing of children you have taught.

  You can read my other posts on writing HERE

(i) Cairney, T.H. (1983) Reading and writing: Making connections, paper presented to the 9th Australian Reading Association Conference, Launceston (Tas), September 10-14.


Sandy Fussell said...

I printed this out and files it for future references. Lots of excellent points and I can see myself using a few in the future

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Sandy, nice to hear from you. Glad you liked the post. Hope your writing is going well.