Author: Jovi Nazareno, EdM Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education

To begin unpacking how to develop writing skills, it becomes important to define what exactly is writing. Is writing an artifact of language etched onto some physical (or virtual) object? Does writing make our thoughts tangible? Is writing then a product we create? Is it a process? Where does writing fit in with other skills we have?

We often think of writing as a product—the essay we turned in, the report we worked hard on, the novel we read, the words we see on paper (or screen). We also think about the process—the time it takes to write and re-write and the steps we might follow to do so. We can also appreciate how writing progresses and changes over time, in the sense that how and what we write at 5 years old differs from that of 40 years old.

What we might underappreciate are all the systems of cognition that support our ability to write. At a very basic level, to write, one needs basic language skills and knowledge of the content/subject. This requires neural/cognitive systems to support learning, all in the context of one’s environment (see figure below).

writing as language graphic

Nazareno, 2020

By thinking about writing in the context of all other interrelated skills, we can ensure that all of writing receives attention. Let’s begin by defining writing as part of a larger language system.

Language interconnected

The knowledge of written language and the understanding of how to write rely on language development. Language includes oral, auditory, reading, and writing, often studied apart from one another. Yet these four language systems are connected, such that the skills of one system contribute to the skills of other systems in unique ways.1,2 Further, the four language systems (i.e., oral, auditory, reading, writing) are all multileveled (i.e., subword, word, syntax, text) and interact with other brain systems (e.g., motor, attention).3

What does this mean?

To write, one must know the patterns and rules of written language. Writing relies on an ability to string sentences together. Pulling sentences together requires that a person know the order of words, can select and place the words in the right place, and can build or combine sentences. Writing sentences also relies on knowing about the genre or subject matter and the format or patterns that dictate the word choices and sentence structures.

To write a sentence, there is the assumption that a person knows the correct spelling of words (including contextual spelling). There is also the assumption of knowing the vocabulary being used (or being required to be used) in the instructions, books, or subject matter for which the writing is being done.

Taking another step back, to write a word, a person needs to know morphology (e.g., bases, affixes), phonology (e.g., graphemes, phonemes), and orthography (motor output).

All of these subword-, word-, and text-level knowledge must be taught, learned, and rehearsed, but just as important, they must be usable. In other words, one cannot just know the rules or patterns but must also know how to use these levels of language all together.

Furthermore, individuals will vary in their proficiency with earlier oral language and reading skills,4 potentially impacting their later reading-writing skills.

Why these language connections matter

At a minimum, this tells us that understanding language systems is critical to how written language is acquired, especially because language skills build upon and interact with one another throughout development. Lack of skill at one level of language might, therefore, lead to difficulty in integrating all levels of language needed to write because written language depends on all other levels of language.

But let’s not presume that writing depends on the other language systems, as reading, for example, also relies on writing. In the Montessori5 method, writing builds the basic language skills for reading. Because a child can write, they can also read the individual sounds that compose a word, and can then learn to read the sounds at a quicker pace until linking the sounds to the meaning of the word (semantics). Language skills in one area help the other areas.

The types of language we use—speaking, hearing, reading, writing—are too often separated from one another. However, they can and do actually complement one another. Rather than focusing on how to improve one skill at a time, we should instead ask how leveraging the strengths in one domain can lead to development in another.

1Abbott, R. D., Berninger, V. W., & Fayol, M. (2010). Longitudinal relationships of levels of language in writing and between writing and reading in grades 1 to 7. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 281–298. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019318

2Berninger, V. W., & Abbott, R. D. (2010). Listening comprehension, oral expression, reading comprehension, and written expression: Related yet unique language systems in grades 1, 3, 5, and 7. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 635–651. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019319

3James, K. H., Jao, R. J., & Berninger, V. W. (2016). The development of multileveled writing systems of the brain: Brain lessons for writing instruction. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (Second, pp. 116–129). New York: The Guilford Press.

4Berninger, V. W. (2015). Interdisciplinary frameworks for schools: Best professional practices for serving the needs of all students. American Psychological Association.

5Montessori, M., Holmes, H. W., & George, A. E. (1912). The Montessori method. Frederick, A. Stokes company. //catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001117393