This is me—the old guy in the read shirt—working with a charming kindergartener during Writer’s Workshop. Painting is by Marilyn Lowrey.

The New First “R”

In the era of ed reform, redefining the Three R’s is a political pastime. “Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships” seems to be a common favorite. This reframing is well-intended, and sometimes enlightening, but it doesn’t translate well from catchphrase to classroom. No matter how pundits, pols, and policy wonks market education reform, “readin’, ritin’, and rithematic” remain the core of our curriculum. But as society changes, so must what we teach. The Three R’s are still the right R’s, but in the 21st century the first “R” is writing.

It’s not that reading doesn’t matter but that writing matters more. Billions of us have cell phones, tablets, and laptops. That’s “billions” with a “b’; half the world’s population by some estimates — and still growing. Many of us spend time almost daily engaged in text-based communication peer-to-peer and on social media sites. We contribute to blogging platforms and personal websites, and we still produce most of the traditional forms of writing that proceeded the Internet age.

In the world of work, writing is how we get things started and often how we wrap them up. Try even getting a job today without a well-written LinkedIn profile. Try keeping that job if you can’t write 20 good emails a day or a two-page report on what you’ve been doing in past six months for your semi-annual performance evaluation. Writing isn’t just an arbitrary bar we all have to clear; it’s the way things work when we work in a global economy with a highly diverse and widely distributed workforce. More importantly for our purposes here, a focus on writing is also the most straightforward fix for struggling schools.

Time is Learning

Thanks to Ben Franklin, we all know that “Time is money.” In school, time is learning. It’s the most precious resource we have, and there’s never enough of it. Doug Lemov, founder of Uncommon Schools and celebrated author of the popular book, “Teach Like a Champion”, proposed a baseline by which we should evaluate our use of time in teaching. He pointed out that anything we teach kids ought to provide more learning opportunities than simply having them read. We could use the entire day, he suggested, just for reading, and surely kids would learn something. But perhaps they would learn more if they spent that time writing.

Minute for minute, writing is the best brain workout our kids can get. It requires all the skills of reading, some of the logical skills of science and math, social and emotional skills when kids write for real audiences, small motor skills for little kids, and technology skills for bigger kids as new ways to publish writing emerge faster than at any other time in history. With instruction time at a premium, and more curriculum to cover than ever, writing provides the best bang for the buck.

The Early Literacy Advantage

When I work with pre-K and kindergarten kids, I teach them to write before I teach them to read. Most learn to read faster as a result. Our language is a sound-symbol system in which letter sounds are more valuable than letter names. (Letter names are only truly necessary when telling someone how to spell a word.)

As small children attempt to put their thoughts on paper, they naturally do exactly what we need them to do to learn phonics: choose letters that match the sounds they hear in the words they want to communicate their ideas. There’s no better example of the Alphabetic Principle in action. Nor is there any faster way to learn an alphabetic language than through its direct application.

Kids can do this in reading but they often don’t because we teach them exactly the opposite with ideas like “This letter says…” or “That letter is silent”. Letters don’t “say” things, they represent sounds as shapes. As for silent letters, I was scratching my beard on that one long before I knew I could grow one. Put these two tried-and-not-true ideas together (letters say things + some letters are silent), and you’ve got a bunch of confused kids in your classroom. (And we’re only getting started with dozens of myths about language that we struggled with when we were in school and that are perpetuated today by the inertia of tradition.)

That kind of confusion can’t happen with writing. Even if a kid starts the word “dog” randomly with an unintelligible squiggle, we can teach effectively by articulating the /d/ sound and showing that the symbol that matches it in this case is “d”. As kids improve phonemic segmentation, we can insist that they write at least one alphabetic symbol for each sound they hear. Tell them about vowels, consonants, and syllables, and they’ll quickly be spelling CVC words (“consonant-vowel-consonant” word like “dog”) with ease. And with that, reading becomes something kids already know they can do — because if they can write it, it’s obvious even to them that they can read it back.

With a little help from a parent, teacher, or classroom aide, small kids compose simple sentences. Kids who write their own words read their own words. Often, the first words a child reads independently are words he or she has written. If we can accept that “A-is-not-for-Apple,” and that teaching letters before sounds directly contradicts the way our language works, we can move kids more quickly into the Literacy Club through writing than we can through reading where it’s just too easy to do things backwards.

This is Your Brain on Writing

Writing is hard work. That’s why it’s good work. Because writing requires an active mind, it’s a powerful tool for helping kids consolidate content knowledge. In previous articles here (in Psychology Today) and here (at Tom Vander Ark’s “Getting Smart”), I reviewed the landmark Dunlosky study on learning techniques. This landmark meta-analysis of more than a century of clinical evidence shows that common study techniques related to reading like rereading, highlighting, and reviewing highlighted passages were inferior to other techniques that emphasized active recall and fluid intelligence.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is defined as the ability to use learned knowledge and experience. Both fluid and crystallized intelligence are required for critical thinking. While it’s certainly possible to exercise both types of intelligence while reading, most of the things kids write in school — from notes that synthesize a lecture or textbook passage to argumentative essays and formal reports — require both. With reading we can never be certain of this. Furthermore, crystallized intelligence, or background knowledge, is the key to comprehension.

We really do all learn best by doing, if for no other reason than because thinking is one of the things we all do. Writing encourages kids to think more and more deeply. Instead of passively tracking words across a page with perhaps little thought as they move from left to right and top to bottom, kids get more learning and more long-lasting learning through writing — especially in situations where we want new information to be transformed into crystallized intelligence.

Besting the Testing

Where test scores are a concern, a cross-curricular writing focus is the simplest and most powerful way of affecting significant change in student achievement for two reasons: (1) We know how to teach writing very well these days; and (2) It works. Writing has played the key role in many school transformations and turnarounds. The most famous of these is the well-known story of New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY. Long considered a failing school, it made a spectacular turnaround by focusing on writing across the curriculum.

I’ve seen this occur in my own less famous work. For years, writing scores at Picnic Point Elementary School in Mukilteo, WA languished between 20% and 30%. In our first year working together with a small set of cross-curricular writing strategies, more than 60% of kids passed the state writing test. After the second year, that number was over 80%. Even more interesting was the fact that scores in reading and math were by then also over 80%, up about 40 points each from where we started (with no PD or other emphasis in either area). Disaggregating the data showed that the rise in the other two “R’s” came from gains in the new first “R” via better results on problems requiring 1- and 2-paragraph constructed responses.

Finally, and perhaps most compelling of all, is not the research or the reality of trends in technology and global economic change, but a simple realization: there exists an almost perfect correlation between reading skill and writing skill, but it holds in only one direction. Many kids who read well write poorly but few, if any, kids who write well read poorly. Of all the kids who read well, only a small percentage write well. But of all the kids who write well, almost 100% read well — and often very well.

The Last Word

If we’re going to put the effort into changing the emphasis in our schools to make writing the first “R”, we’re going to have to have a way to know that it’s working right from the start. But this is yet another advantage of a “write-first” approach to instructional leadership.

Writing is the easiest, and in many cases, most reliable evidence we can gather of student learning. No PET scan or FMRI allows us to see the ideas kids capture from our teaching. Writing does. In the classroom, this helps teachers make better choices about what to teach next. But as school-wide change agents, there has to be an advantage for us, too. Fortunately, there is.

Choosing writing as a single school- or district-wide change initiative is something we can manage and execute well because it’s just one thing and we know exactly what it is. Change initiatives tend to bog down in complexity and concurrency: too many overly complicated unfamiliar things happening all at the same time. Writing is one thing, well-understood, research-proven, and transformative when effectively implemented — a topic I’ll turn to in my next article.

For Title I schools, and other schools with significant needs, this is even more important. These schools face many challenges, so it’s natural to react with many solutions. But this is often where we are most challenged as we struggle to find the time, energy, and mental bandwidth to attend to many different problems with many different approaches.

Writing-driven change is different: more easily understood, less difficult to lead, much easier to execute, low risk, high reward. When we recognize the new first “R”, we lay a foundation that helps us achieve and maintain success based on a shared academic tradition of what works in writing as a tool for learning across the curriculum and up and down the grade levels.

At a time when, according to the most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher morale is at an all-time low and 75% of principals say their job is too complex. There’s no doubt that to make change, we need simpler solutions that ensure high implementation rates, low-friction adoption, improved student engagement, greater teacher satisfaction, and significant gains in student achievement. When we pick writing as a single academic focus, and we focus on it sincerely, we see not only great gains but also the emergence of a repeatable pattern of progress that can be used as a template to tackle even tougher challenges. Toward this end, the best decision we can make is to make writing the new first “R”.

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