August 2014: Developmental Relations Between Reading and Writing

Ahmed, Y., Wagner, R. K., & Lopez, D. (2014). Developmental relations between reading and writing at the word, sentence, and text levels: A latent change score analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 419–434.

Summary by Dr. Yusra Ahmed


Although historically, most research and pedagogy have separated reading and writing instruction, teachers often wonder whether there are effective ways to integrate reading and writing practices. Theoretically, children’s reading development has been hypothesized to be a component of writing development and to draw on common knowledge and overlapping cognitive processes. Most studies find that reading and writing are highly related, and neuroimaging studies have shown that reading and writing activate overlapping brain regions. Furthermore, interventions that have focused on transfer of skills show that reading instruction can have a positive effect on writing and writing instruction on reading. However, less is known about how these interrelations might change as children develop reading and writing skills.

This chapter by Ahmed, Kim, and Wagner (2014) introduces to teachers and educators the statistical models of reading and writing presented in Ahmed, Wagner, and Lopez (2014). This research reviews previous studies that use various models of literacy and describes ways to determine whether each of the following is true:

  • What a student learns about reading affects writing development
  • What a student learns about writing affects reading development
  • Reading and writing are equivalently affected
  • Reading and writing do not affect each other

Interrelations Between Reading and Writing

Although some studies show both that reading influences writing and that writing influences reading, other studies suggest that the influence is in one direction. Some studies have reported that writing influences reading, particularly because spelling influences word reading for students in the early grades as they learn to read and write. Graham and Hebert (2011) conducted a review of studies in which they reported that intensive writing instruction improves reading comprehension, reading fluency, and word reading. The researchers indicated that increasing how much students write enhances their reading comprehension. On the other hand, most of the studies that find bidirectional relations suggest that reading-to-writing relations are stronger than writing-to-reading relations (e.g., Shanahan & Lomax, 1986).

Levels of Language Approach

Recent studies have separated the contributing skills of reading and writing based on levels of language (e.g., word, sentence, passage). Although these levels are typically not related in a one-to-one fashion for reading and writing, they provide a way to compare components of each domain that are similar. This approach is supported by the finding that differences exist in how individual children perform at different levels of language (word, sentence, and text) for reading as well as writing. Some children can be adequate at decoding but not reading comprehension or adequate in spelling but not sentence or text writing.

Decoding and encoding words. Alphabetic writing systems rely on a relatively small number of letters (orthographic units) that map roughly onto the phonemes of speech. The alphabetic principle holds that there is at least a rough correspondence between phonemes and the letters in an alphabetic system of writing and that we rely on this grapheme-phoneme correspondence to read and write words. Writers rely on graphophonics, which requires phonological awareness, grapheme (letters and letter combinations) awareness, and morphology. For example, to decode the beginning of the word sure, a reader chooses between the potential phonological representations /s/, /z/, /sh/, or a silent letter. For encoding the same word, however, a writer chooses from the s, sh, or ch orthographic paths. Most researchers suggest that encoding is not a reversal of decoding, although both rely on knowledge of the alphabetic principle.

Sentence reading and writing. The grammatical rules and punctuation used in creating sentences are attributes of syntax. Both readers and writers rely on meaningful syntactic ordering of words as well as the knowledge of punctuation marks to create sentence boundaries. Several studies have shown that children are sensitive to linguistic constraints in oral language and written language. Most of the syntactic structures found in written language are learned through many years of schooling, during which children also learn to read. Research on combining sentences suggests that writers first acquire syntax and semantics at the level of the phrase but that they are unable to form larger units of meaning without error. Research has shown that the syntactic complexity of writing generally increases as children develop writing skills, although how this development occurs is still unknown because most research has focused on the development of writing at the text level or has used cumulative measures of writing.

Text reading and writing. Recent studies have shown that the correlations between passage comprehension and text composition are moderate to high for both children and adults and that reading comprehension and composition are mutually predictive over time. Readers apply a series of inferences and construct propositions based on the information provided by the text. Additionally, they form mental models of the text that represent the situation described in the text. Analogous to reading comprehension, composition is also a complex process, requiring translation of ideas as well as transcription skills. However, the pattern of reasoning is different for each process—readers focus on gaining support for their interpretations, and writers focus on strategies to create meaning.

The important conclusion from the levels-of-language framework is that although reading and writing are not inverse processes, they rely on similar cognitive mechanisms that allow for simultaneous growth and transfer of knowledge. However, whether this theory holds for all levels of language is still unknown.

A Recent Study

Ahmed, Wagner, and Lopez (2014) studied 316 boys and girls who were assessed annually in grades 1 through 4 in Tallahassee, Florida. Following the Sunshine State Standards, schools in Florida prepare students for increasing their reading and writing skills by providing instruction on phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing. Specifically, students’ writing was expected to improve on focus, organization, support, and conventions. Several standardized reading and writing tests were administered, including tests of word and nonword reading, sentence reading, reading comprehension, spelling, and sentence combining. Students were also asked to write a passage for 10 minutes on a topic provided by the tester.

Key Findings

Reading-to-writing models were superior to writing-to-reading and bidirectional models, especially for the word and text levels of writing. At the sentence level, a bidirectional model was superior, although the writing-to-reading relations were weak. The findings suggest that in the presence of both reading and writing instruction, students who improve their writing apply knowledge of reading skills to their writing. Thus, it is possible that strategies used for reading are also useful for writing. Simply put, writing requires good reading skills, whereas reading may not necessarily require good writing skills.

Overall, children who made larger gains were low on reading or writing achievement the previous year. At the word level, change in spelling was predicted by earlier decoding, suggesting that skilled readers made greater improvements in spelling than less skilled readers. Children who improved on decoding between grades improved on spelling between subsequent grades. These findings suggest that the ability to read words correctly may facilitate writing them correctly via mastery of phoneme-grapheme relations that are learned through reading. The finding that an improvement in decoding leads to an improvement in spelling is also consistent with spelling interventions that are based on word and pseudoword reading.

Sentence reading fluency influenced change in sentence combining. Thus, the ability to read sentences facilitated writing them. One possible explanation is that an individual who is fluent at reading sentences is more familiar with sentence structures and syntactic knowledge compared to an individual who is not fluent. Writing sentences requires syntactic knowledge, which includes grammatical rules and punctuation rules used to form clauses. Furthermore, sentence construction requires considerable cognitive effort, as it is dependent on word choice, syntax, clarity, and rhythm. These results suggest that the knowledge underlying sentence comprehension facilitates sentence writing and that the reading-to-writing relation is strongest at the sentence level. Similarly, the significant effect of sentence writing on sentence reading suggests that writing sentences correctly also facilitates reading them—combining sentences requires knowledge of syntax and structures of sentences, which in turn facilitates reading sentences.

At the text level, reading comprehension facilitated growth in compositional fluency and quality. One possible explanation is that children who read for comprehension are more familiar with the format of larger texts and story structures and are better at writing stories.


These results show that typically developing children use the shared knowledge between reading and writing to improve their writing skills. Although it is important to teach explicitly each individual literacy skill (word decoding, sentence reading, passage comprehension, spelling, sentence writing, and text writing), general instruction and targeted interventions can also use the shared knowledge underlying reading and writing skills to teach children how to write. Specifically, children’s word reading skills can be used to influence their spelling because children who improved on spelling also improved on word reading. Thus, strategies used for strengthening the word reading skills of poor spellers can be beneficial for improving spelling skills. Although further research needs to be conducted on specific aspects of sentence-level literacy (e.g., syntax, grammar, punctuation) and text-level literacy (e.g., conveying of overall meaning, structure of text), the results show that overall, children who are adequate at reading sentences and paragraphs make improvements on sentence- and story-level writing. The bottom line is that specific aspects of sentence- and text-level reading comprehension should be taught explicitly in the context of literacy, as opposed to teaching reading and writing separately.


Ahmed, Y., Kim, Y.-S., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Why we should care about literacy models: Models of reading and writing and how they can elucidate the connection between reading and writing. In B. Miller, P. McCardle, & R. Long (Eds.), Teaching reading and writing: Improving instruction and student achievement (pp. 143–152). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2011). Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 710–744.

Shanahan, T., & Lomax, R. G. (1986). An analysis and comparison of theoretical models of the reading–writing relationship. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(2), 116–123.