Research School Network: How Reading Enhances Writing Using reading as a tool to improve writing


How Reading Enhances Writing

Using reading as a tool to improve writing

by Bradford Research School
on the

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”

Stephen King

Reading and writing have a reciprocal relationship, and a key recommendation from the EEF’s Improving Secondary Literacy guidance report is that we combine writing instruction with reading in every subject’.

Last time we looked at how writing enhances reading. We are perhaps a little more familiar with the role reading plays in enhancing writing, but how conscious are we at ensuring there is a direct cause and effect? Or is it easier to assume that the transfer happens naturally?

Mentor texts

Our choices of texts to read can impact the benefits on writing. Jeff Anderson, in Mechanically Inclined, writes: A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.”

One mentor text I have used is this paragraph from a review of the film Rock of Ages:

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

By drawing attention to this paragraph, we show students an effective model of writing. We can deconstruct it, discuss the effect of language and structural choices. We can ask pupils to emulate and innovate. [I have dusted down an old blog of mine from 2013 exploring this further here – I think it holds up ok!]

Mentor sentences are a simple form of mentor texts. In Everyday Editing, Anderson explains how he chooses sentences that:

  • connect to students’ worlds-their interests, humour, or problems;
  • show a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down;
  • model writer’s craft and effective writing-powerful verbs, sensory detail, or voice.

The great thing about mentor sentences is that they are everywhere. Whenever we read, there is an opportunity to learn from a sentence.

There are many examples available of great sentences. Chris Curtis, who was inspired by the work of Alan Peat, has collected a number of examples here. Here are a couple of our favourites:

Sentence, comma and list of verbs ending in –ing:
The road unspooled on and on, rising, falling, rising, turning, falling.

Colons to clarify:
A strange hint of something filled his nostrils and made his stomach lurch: it was blood.


Being aware of the role of texts as mentors’ to our writing, means we can be conscious in using them, rather than being passive.

Word-consciousness ‘ is a factor in vocabulary learning. This is one of our favourite concepts. (This blog, this blog and this upcoming webinar are cases in point). Graves (2008) describes word-consciousness as an​‘awareness of and interest in words and their meaning.”

Being conscious about the vocabulary we read, might mean it is more likely to appear in our writing. One example of this is the gift of words’, The Gift of Words research project lasted 7 years and aimed to develop word consciousness. There were many approaches taken, but one simple approach was to talk about language used by good authors, and to provide scaffolded opportunities to experiment with language as authors. (As recounted in Scott & Nagy, 2004)

Gift of Words 2

The conscious focus on word choices leads to better word choices from students. There is a greater evidence base for word-consciousness’, but what about sentence-consciousness?’ Punctuation-consciousness?’

Whether we are talking about mentor texts or word-consciousness, the teacher needs to play a part in scaffolding the learning. But the more we show how we can improve wiring from the reading we do, the more likely it is that pupils will benefit.

Mark Miller is Director of Bradford Research School at Dixons Academies

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