Best Writing Instruction Uses All Classroom Resources, Study Says

By Sheppard Ranbom — December 14, 1983 5 min read
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A synthesis of 72 studies of various methods of teaching writing indicates that the traditional mode of instruction--in which “the student acts as passive recipient of rules, advice, and examples of good writing” from the teacher--is about half as effective as the average experimental approach.

The study--presented at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (ncte) here last month--said the “natural process” method of instruction fostered by the National Writing Project and its numerous offshoots is 50 percent more effective than the traditional method of instruction but about 25 percent less effective than other experimental programs. That process, according to the study, “encourages students to write for other students, to receive comments from them, and to revise their drafts in light of comments from both students and the instructor.”

The National Writing Project, perhaps the best-known of many efforts to spur students to write more and better prose, began as the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974 with major funding from the University of California, the California State Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It expanded from California in a series of workshops that brought teachers together to teach other teachers.

Today, there are some 109 sites that host the staff-development programs nationwide. The project has received major support from the neh, a wide variety of foundations, state education departments, and local school districts. The Carnegie Corporation of New York funded a three-year assessment of the Bay Area project’s impact on student and teacher performance.

Instructional Methods

The new study of the efficacy of instructional methods, conducted by George Hillocks Jr., associate professor in the departments of education and English literature and language at the University of Chicago, compared the effectiveness of methods similar to the National Writing Project’s with those of other writing programs by developing a formula that statistically correlated and tabulated the findings of the 72 studies. By comparing the measurable results of the various methods, as shown in the studies, the researcher could evaluate which groups of methods produced more desirable results than others, according to the study.

A key limitation of the “natural process” method promoted by the National Writing Project, according to Mr. Hillocks’ study, is that “instructors do not plan activities to help develop specific strategies of composing.”

The most effective way to teach writing, the study states, “places priority on structured problem-solving activities planned to enable students to deal with similar problems in composing.” As an example, Mr. Hillocks cited a program designed to help overcome students’ weaknesses in formulating generalizations and in using data to support them. ''In one class, students were given data concerning a pollution problem in a town. The students were then asked to play certain roles--as an executive in the chemical plant responsible for pollution, as a representative of the tourist industry, as city officials. All had the same supply of data and all had to use the data in different ways,” according to the researcher.

The most successful approaches to writing instruction, the study argues, use “all resources of the classroom,” and “teacher, student, and materials fit more neatly into balance” than they do in the traditional or National Writing Project methods. According to Mr. Hillocks, such experimental approaches are “about five times more effective” than the traditional approach and over three times more effective than the instructional approach promoted by the National Writing Project.

The analysis of the 72 research projects, which involved nearly 12,000 students nationwide, also indicated that a heavy emphasis on the teaching of grammar could be harmful to students’ writing development.

“The study of traditional grammar has no effect on raising the quality of student writing” and, when overemphasized, can even be deleterious to the development of student writing,” Mr. Hillocks said, adding that “every other focus of instruction” that he examined had a stronger effect on improving student writing.

‘Gross Disservice’

“School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice, which should not be tolerated. ... Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems,” according to Mr. Hillocks.

Other findings of the study indicated that:

The use of good pieces of writing as models for students to imitate is significantly more useful in teaching writing than is the study of grammar, but instruction that relies almost exclusively on models is “considerably less effective” than other available writing-instruction techniques.

Free writing, which allows students to write about whatever interests or concerns them, was more effective than grammar instruction but less effective than any other focus studied.

Sentence-combining methods, which encourage students to build complex sentences from simpler ones, were shown to be effective in numerous experimental studies. Sentence combining was found to be “twice as effective as free writing as means of enhancing the quality of student writing,” Mr. Hillocks said.

The use of established criteria and specific questions that students use to judge their own or others’ writing has a “powerful effect” on improving student composition. When students take questions or criteria provided by the instructor and use them to analyze their own or others’ work, they “internalize” the questions and criteria for use in their own writing in the future, Mr. Hillocks argues.

Inquiry methods--which, for example, help students find and state specific details to convey personal experience or use information to develop and support explanatory generalizations--are “nearly four times more effective than free writing and over two and a half times more effective than the traditional study of model pieces of writing.”

Additional Research

Mr. Hillocks said more research needs to be done to determine “the most effective integration of these various instructional techniques.” But he noted that “policymakers, curriculum designers, and teacher trainers can ill afford to ignore the differences in treatment” that his analysis demonstrates.

“If we wish our schools and colleges to teach writing effectively, we cannot retreat to the grammar book or rely on the presentation of rules and advice, or expect students to teach themselves how to write effectively simply by writing whatever they wish for their peers,” Mr. Hillocks writes.

“We must make systematic use of instructional foci which are demonstrably more effective: sentence combining, the application of criteria, and inquiry. And we must make use of the environmental mode of instruction, which involves students with each other in the solution of problems parallel to those they will encounter in writing.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 1983 edition of Education Week as Best Writing Instruction Uses All Classroom Resources, Study Says


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