Need Cited for Secondary-Level Writing Instruction

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With adolescents’ reading skills garnering increasing attention in school improvement discussions, a report released last week urges educators and policymakers also to address the need for effective writing instruction in middle and high schools.

The report, by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based organization that promotes high school improvements, outlines 11 components of writing instruction that have been shown to be effective in rigorous research studies.

The meta-analysis, conducted by Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Dolores Perin, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, is the first review of experimental and quasi-experimental research on precollegiate writing instruction in two decades.

Harnessing Writing

Researchers identified 11 elements of current writing instruction found to be effective for helping adolescents learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning.

Writing Strategies: Involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions.

Summarization: Involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts.

Collaborative Writing: Uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions.

Specific Product Goals: Assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete.

Word Processing: Uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments.

Sentence Combining: Involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences.

Prewriting: Engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition.

Inquiry Activities: Engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task.

Process Writing Approach: Interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing.

Study of Models: Provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing.

Writing for Content Learning: Uses writing as a tool for learning content material.

“Writing well is not just an option for young people—it is a necessity,” the report, “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools” says. “Along with reading comprehension, writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy.”

The findings suggest that teachers incorporate explicit instruction in a variety of writing strategies: summarizing information, crafting sophisticated sentences, and writing in the content areas. The authors also found that building students’ skills in organizing their ideas prior to writing, and giving them opportunities to work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions, can improve proficiency.

“This shows that we actually have well-validated knowledge of what is effective for kids who are low-achieving writers,” said Andrés Henríquez, who oversees the adolescent-literacy program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which underwrote the study. “Rather than implementing writing in willy-nilly fashion,” he said, “we should be pushing the whole idea of advancing literacy to a much higher level, and the need to pay attention to the kinds of things that are really working.”

Limited Review

Because of the limited number of studies that met the authors’ research criteria, the study does not address instruction in spelling, handwriting, punctuation, and vocabulary. Nor was students’ motivation to write studied.

The authors did not look at a large body of qualitative studies on writing either, such as case studies and classroom observations.

Even the limited review of the research yielded much of what is widely agreed upon in the field and seems to reinforce many of the recommendations made by national organizations over the past three decades, said Randy Bomer, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill.

Mr. Bomer, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the field could also benefit from analyses of other types of studies, such as ethnographies, case studies, and other classroom-based research.

“For those people only persuaded by statistical-effect sizes, this report might be a useful marshalling of evidence for some things,” Mr. Bomer said. “For those people who would like to see how writing instruction works in classrooms, they have to go somewhere else.”

The report also takes on a topic that could now be viewed as out of date. One of the recommended elements of writing instruction is use of a word processor, which has been shown in studies to be a useful tool, particularly for low-achieving writers, the report says.

Mr. Bomer calls that recommendation “quaint” given that technology developed since those studies on word processors were completed—like text-messaging, Internet blogs, and other computer-based outlets for daily student writing—are widely accessible and allow for multimedia literacy activities.

Patricia Lambert Stock, a visiting scholar to the National Writing Project at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees with the report’s findings, and its recommendations for further research in the field. But making writing a priority amid many other curricular pressures is always a challenge for teachers, she said.

“We know a lot about how to do writing instruction well,” said Ms. Stock, who served on the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, which recommended in its own report in 2003 setting a national agenda for improving students’ writing proficiency. ("Panel Calls for Writing Revolution in Schools," April 30, 2003.)

“But often,” she added, “the working conditions in schools are not what they should be to enable teachers to put those strategies in place.”

Vol. 26, Issue 09, Pages 5, 18

Published in Print: October 25, 2006, as Need Cited for Secondary-Level Writing Instruction
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