It was the first day of the semester, and my Creative Writing professor asked us to introduce ourselves to the class. As part of the introduction, we were to name the book we were currently reading. I froze. I wasn’t reading a book at the time. It had been a busy month, and I hadn’t taken the time to read anything beyond a few news articles and the back of the cereal box. As my turn approached, I weighed my choices. I could either lie and name a book I had read in the past, or I could tell the truth and risk making a bad first impression. I’m a terrible liar, so I chose the latter. “I’m not actually reading a book at the moment,” I said, nervously.

The professor smiled. It was clear she had been waiting for me, the non-reading student, to make her point. The words she said next have stuck with me ever since. “If you want to be a writer,” she said, “you have to be a reader. The two go hand in hand.”

Literacy expert Tim Shanahan shares the same wisdom in How Should We Combine Reading and Writing?, a recent post on his popular blog. Shanahan asserts that reading and writing should be taught together as much as possible. When schools treat reading and writing as two completely separate subjects, taught at separate times and by separate teachers, opportunities for growth in both areas are lost.

Shanahan gives three key reasons why reading and writing should be taught together. First, he says, there is significant overlap in the skills needed to read and to write. When taught together, they “provide a kind of overlearning that enhances one’s ability.” For example, learning to both decode and encode (spell) words at the same time helps increase fluency. The same is true for learning phonological awareness, vocabulary, grammar, text structure, and so on.

Shanahan’s second point gets at what my Creative Writing teacher was trying to emphasize. A reader who is also required to write pays more attention to text elements and becomes more skilled at interpreting the text. Similarly, a writer who reads often is a much better writer. Each book s/he reads provides more information about what works and what doesn’t, what makes the text come alive and what makes it fall flat.

Finally, Shanahan cites research showing that, when students were required to write about what they had read, their comprehension and learning significantly improved. Teaching reading and writing together led to more improvement than reading alone, reading and rereading, or reading and discussing.

Because writing helps solidify reading skills, and vice versa, Read Naturally programs require students to write as part of the Quiz and Retell steps. Open-ended quiz questions require students to write or type a short response to a question about the story. The Retell step requires students to summarize the story. Expectations for the Retell step depend on the student’s grade level and writing skills. A student working in a lower level may retell the story in just a couple short sentences. As the student progresses in reading, s/he works her way up to writing a higher quality summary. These writing steps hold students accountable for comprehension and also help solidify phonics, fluency, spelling, and vocabulary.

Sometimes, a student struggles significantly with keyboarding and writing. When these struggles take a large portion of the student’s time away from reading, the teacher may use discretion in allowing the student to answer the open-ended questions verbally or do an oral retelling of the story. Ideally, though, students will do a bit of writing as part of a Read Naturally intervention.

As Shanahan says, reading and writing go together like, “Romeo and Juliet... Yin and Yang....Lennon and McCartney... love and marriage... Bert and Ernie...spaghetti and meatballs... You get the idea.” It’s a lesson I haven’t stopped learning since that memorable day in college.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find my book.