For readers in 6th–8th grade, one impactful way to improve reading skills is to encourage more writing.
We spoke with Tracey Flores, assistant professor of language and literacy at The University of Texas at Austin, about why writing and reading skills go hand-in-hand—and how parents can encourage their middle schoolers as they continue to grow as readers.
Why should we think about reading and writing as skills that go together, and does learning one help with learning the other?
I really believe, and research [shows] that our students, our young children, are born storytellers … as children are growing, developing, and embracing languages in their household, they’re starting to understand the world through language and what the signs around them mean.
Some people believe that you learn to read first and then you learn to write, but they are side-by-side processes. If you’re reading, you can write. If you’re writing, you can read. These things can and should be happening simultaneously. You shouldn’t wait to master one before working on the other.
What are some ways that parents can engage their children to write stories and think with their imagination? To think through a story at the beginning, the middle, and the end in a way that engages them and supports that skill set?
In the car, you can start asking them questions about their day or they might want to tell you a story and then you can try to elicit more and more details. This helps them start thinking about beginning, middle, and end, and helps them come up with details. Ask questions or clarify things like, “Oh this happened, so how did they react?” Get some of those emotions in there. That oral storytelling also supports writing.
I always encourage my teachers to let their students talk. Oral storytelling helps them learn to get those details out because you get feedback from the person listening. And then, you might take it in other directions or realize, “I need to think more about this, about these different details,” like who was there and that sort of thing. Oral storytelling supports the development of writing skills without adding more to homework. It’s the way that we communicate. It’s the way that we live. It’s the way that we make sense of the world.
Let’s talk about middle school students who are starting to have an opinion about how they spend their time. Parents might be up against video games, the internet, TikTok—all the things. Why is it important that kids, especially in the middle school age group, see themselves as writers, and parents and teachers continue to hone that practice of telling stories, either written or verbal?
Writing is a very powerful tool to process our experiences. It’s a way for us to make sense of our day-to-day lives, our developing theories about the world, and our developing opinions to process what’s happening in the world. Kids are aware of everything that’s happening around us. They have access through social media, through 24-hour news, and they know what’s going on—and there’s a lot going on in the world.
And so I believe that writing is a place where they can get it out on the page without fear—fear of ridicule, fear of anything—and then taking a step back and looking at it.
And there’s also writing that’s just for us. Yes, we have these [school] assignments, but writing can help give them an outlet when they need it: when they might feel alone or when they might feel like there’s no one they can turn to.
I talk with my college students about what writing is; we talk about how writing has been used historically in different communities as a way to survive, as a way to thrive, as a way to pass on histories, as a way to rewrite the world, and a way to make sense of the world.
I really think the conversation needs to be: what is writing, broadly? Here are the different ways we’re going to write in class, here are the different ways that we’re writing in our lives, and we’re going to have opportunities to do all of these things.
Is there a way to approach writing in a way that helps take reading to the next level? For example, if parents know their child is reading a certain book, are there ways that they can encourage writing or storytelling to really deepen the relationship with reading?
Something that I really love about books is how they can be used as “mentor texts,” a text that inspires our own writing, or a text that we turn to and look at how the author or illustrator has crafted the story, how they’ve used images to enhance or tell the story.
And so with a mentor text, you can read about, for instance, body positivity and embracing all the things that are imperfect about yourself. And you can read this text, you can talk about it, and then you can relate it to your own life and write about a time when you kind of overcame this thing.
You can explore how the author started the text. What kind of lead did they use? Did they start with dialogue or did they start with opening the scene by establishing the setting? Then a student can look at their own writing. For example, how can we try one of these different leads? How can we try to open our writing in this way? So there are different ways that [books] can be revisited to look at how that relates to their life; how is that something that you’re experiencing, how’s that relating to what’s happening in the world, and how can we write about that?
You can also discuss things like what moves did the author make, how do the pictures support the mood, and what feelings does it elicit?
It sounds like thinking about writing makes children think more critically about certain elements in the books they’re reading. So, by having the experience of writing themselves, they can think about what they’re reading on the paper, rather than just passively absorbing it, and think more critically about what the author is trying to say.
And there are different lenses through which we approach the text, like, why do you think the author did that right here? They wrote it like this, so what do you think they wanted us to feel?
Explore Literati Book Clubs for middle school students ages 10–14 with book boxes at our Trailblazer, Wizard, and Legend levels, and educational resources for parents.