Reading or Writing, Which Comes First?


Sometimes reading is a struggle, but there are other avenues to literacy that appeal to those children who are concrete and tactile. Know anyone like that? We thought so.

Many people think that children first learn to read and then learn to write. Some even see writing as a completely separate skill. But research shows that reading and writing develop along a similar timeline in young children 1. Children’s ability to read words is interwoven with their ability to write letters and words 2. All letters have their own sounds and corresponding letter symbol.

Knowing the letter’s sound and its corresponding symbol is important when trying to read OR write a word. Reading and writing are similar but not identical cognitive processes. But they both depend on the child’s ability to link the sounds and letters of the alphabet to the spelling of words 3. It’s a little like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? For some children the beginning stages of writing are easier than reading. They enjoy making marks, using tools, and the sensory input.

When a child begins to understand that writing is a form of communication, and their marks on paper convey a message they are called an “emergent writer.” Emergent writing progresses along a developmental continuum just like reading and talking. The stages a young child moves through begins with random marks, progresses to conventional spelling and ends with the ability to puts their thoughts on paper in a way that others can understand.

In the beginning phases the child uses a tool to

  1. make marks
  2. draw things they see
  3. scribble to represent words
  4. create letter-like forms
  5. create strings of letter-like forms
  6. create invented words, and
  7. create conventional words.
  8. Later they are able to construct sentences, paragraphs and reports/stories.

Why bother teaching a child to write? He will, after all, be using technology and not writing by hand in the future. When you encourage your child to “write,” you are helping her to become literate. Even in the earliest phases of literacy children can begin to understand that what we say can be written down, and when we read a book, the words represent someone else’s thoughts.

When children begin to write, they learn the principles of spacing, writing (and reading) from left to right, and writing (and reading) downward from one line to the next. As opposed to word processing, they learn the shapes of letters not only visually but through their kinesthetic (muscle) memory. Finally, when you pair the letter sounds with writing, the letter form and sound relationships become concrete and therefore more accessible.

Writing can be very challenging for some children with autism. Some may not like to pick up a tool to make marks, others may write very legibly but only write letters and words that they see, still others may write the same word(s) over and over. Many of these children have delays in their fine motor and motor planning skills (the ability to plan and carry out motor actions) and these delays make the task of writing more difficult. 

Ways to help:

  • Model the behavior you want to see: In this era of technology, children have much less opportunity to see handwriting. Instead of using a word processing devise to make lists when your child is occupied with other things, make an effort to print information in front of your child so that they get the idea that writing is important. Spell the word as you write it and repeat the word once it is complete. If your child is verbal, ask them what they want to put on the list and write this as well.
  • Consider your child’s preferences: If your child only likes green then find green materials for him to explore. If your child prefers certain textures, have them available. Sensory materials like sand, dirt, water, pudding, shaving cream are great materials for “writing” exploration. Tools like a favorite toy truck, stick or vibrating pen may draw a reluctant child into writing.
  • Accept all levels of your child’s writing: In the beginning your child will make marks on surfaces incidentally with a stick (in sand), with a finger (in spilled food!), with a utensil. This is the beginning of learning to write. When you reinforce these initial attempts by imitating the line and/or acknowledging the line by saying simple things like, “You’ve made a line” with enthusiasm, the child will be encouraged to repeat what he has done. Encourage even the smallest effort. Be patient! It takes time for some children to understand the connection.
  • Ask your child to read their writing to you or tell you about their drawing: Accept whatever they say and expand on it if you can. For example, the child says “a bi gunch.” If you know for certain this is a Grinch you can say “Ah! This is a big Grinch! Or, if you don’t have clue, “ Ah! This is a ‘bi gunch!’ If a child is non-verbal or unresponsive, tell them what you see on the paper, keeping in mind that they are probably writing something they have seen or heard. The same concept applies to drawing. Encourage your child to talk about their drawings even when you do not recognize anything. Write it down and include their name on their works of art.
  • Provide opportunities to explore printed materials: Written materials are everywhere. Pointing out and reading these materials not only encourages reading but also encourages the child to write to express themselves.
1 Learning About Literacy
2 Domico,M (1993). Patterns of development in narrative stories of emergent wrtiers. In C. Kinzer & D. Leu (Eds.) Examining central issues in literacy research, theory, and practice (pp. 391-404). Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Richgels, D. (1995).  Invented spelling, phonemic awareness, and reading and writing instruction. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.) The Handbook of writing research (pp. 142-155). New York: the Guilford Press.
3 Ehri,L., Nunes, S., Stahl, S., & Willows, D. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: Evidence form the national reading panels meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 71, (pp. 393-447).

Author: Kathy

Kathy, MA, OTR, works with families living with autism, using her expertise in occupational therapy to inform her whole family interventions. She has been working through organizations and public education for over 40 years. Read her full bio here.


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