Carol Chomsky (1971) once stated, “children’s minds, at four, five, six, are far from linguistic empty space into which text information is to be poured …. Children should be permitted to be active participants in their literacy development. In fact, youngsters ought to direct the process themselves … by reversing the usual order …” This means that one of the best ways of teaching children to read is by teaching writing first.
Research has shown that reading and writing develop at about the same time in young children regardless of their native language. In fact, children’s ability to read is directly connected to their ability to write. It is through the cognitive processes of writing that students make the connection between text and meaning. When children begin to write, they learn the principles of spacing, concepts of print, writing from one line to the next, and begin to functionally use punctuation. Students learn the shapes of letters not only visually but through kinesthetic memory. When students pair the letter-sounds with writing, the letter form and the sound-symbol relationship become much more concrete and therefore more accessible (Teegarden, 2014).
Several different early childhood programs have shown great success when writing is introduced first (e.g., Montessori). These types of programs exhibit a number of benefits. First is the concept that early writing helps children crack the reading code (Gentry & Peha, 2013). Knowing the basic sounds makes “the cat sat in the hat” much easier not only to decode, but to comprehend as well. Second, the first words students read are often the first ones they write. These early experiences allow young writers to express their own thoughts. According to Gentry and Peha (2013), writing is a brainpower workout. At the early stages, the process of writing introduces students to the skills and techniques needed for composition and storytelling. It provides an introduction to purposeful writing, and to the consideration of format and audience. Finally, early writing is a useful assessment of reading ability, allowing a teacher to assess a student’s reading skills by monitoring their writing progress.
For example, let’s say Ms. Harding wants her students to write a memoir. She starts with a quick-write activity where students list six events in their childhood that stick out in their memories. From those six, the students then choose three that are the most prominent in their memories. From there, they choose one memory to write about. Now they have used an organizational technique to choose a topic and a purpose for their composition. From there, they create their memoir; allow their peers to read, comment, and provide feedback; and then create a full draft that will be reviewed and assessed by Ms. Harding using a rubric. Ms. Harding then goes on to conference with the student through several rereads and editing.
However, the question now is whether this process is the same for second language (L2) learners. Some research has shown that in learning to write, native English speakers and L2 learners follow a similar developmental process. For example, while still learning English, students can write and compose personalized text. Text produced by English learners is similar in style and format to those who are native English speakers. This demonstrates that the L2 learner is making predictions and is developing a working comprehension of how written English works.
One thing that should be taken into consideration is that the classroom environment, along with the students’ home culture, has a substantial impact, both positive and negative, on writing (García & Kleifgen, 2018). This impact might include the purpose for writing, functions of writing, and the personal view of the student as a writer. For example, a student may come from a culture where one writes an essay through an inductive process where all of the evidence is given first, then a conclusion is drawn. However, the student’s new culture may prefer a deductive format that begins with a general premise that must be proven. If the teacher is not aware of the cultural format for writing, they may mark the student incorrect. On the other hand, having this understanding may open up the classroom to diverse and enriching formats to try out when it comes to the writing process.
One tool to assist the L2 writer is the use of the native language as the conceptual base that facilitates the child’s ESL writing (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2019). It is important to take into consideration that L2 learners apply the writing knowledge gained from L1 settings to L2 settings (Hudelson, 1990; Huh, Jwa, & Lee, 2020).
As previously mentioned, one of the best ways of teaching children to read is by teaching writing first. Writing facilitates thinking processes, provides guidance as students learn and practice the process, and allows students to express ideas using examples, literary devices, and creativity (Aumen, 2006). Through this knowledge and skill, students are now open to comprehending how authors do the same. Therefore, reading becomes a partner skill where students not only decode, but also analyze, evaluate, and comprehend the written word in a much more personal experience.
By Marybelle Marrero-Colón, Associate Director of Professional Development, Center for Applied Linguistics
Watch the recoding of Marybelle Marrero-Colón’s webinar, First and Second Language Writing: Is Their Development Aligned?
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Aumen, M. (2006) Step-up to Writing; 2nd Ed. West Ed. Services
García, O., & Kleifgen, J.A. (2018). Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs, and practices for
English language learners, (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.
Gentry, R. Richard; Peha, S. (2013). 5 Reasons Why Writing Helps Early Reading. In Raising Confident
Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write. Da Capo Press.
Honigsfeld, A., Dove M. (2019). Collaborating for English Learners. SAGE Publications.
Hudelson, S. (1990). Children’s Writing in ESL. ERIC Digest; ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics; ED303046 1988-12-0.
Huh, M.H., Jwa, S., Lee, J. (2020). Reframing task condition: Repeating L1-L2 writing and L2 writing
performance. English Teaching; 75(2), 3-19; DOI: https://doi.org/10.15858/engtea.75.2.202006.3
Klemm, W. (2013). What learning cursive does for the brain. Psychology Today, Retrieved:
Teegarden, K. (2014). Reading or Writing, Which Comes First? Communities Engaging Autism.
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