Opinion
Professional Development Opinion

What Works in Writing Instruction

By Leslie Laud — October 30, 2013 6 min read

The importance of developing strong writing skills seems to be gaining more and more attention almost daily. Employers spend billions remediating writing skills. With the new SAT, college admissions hinge even more strongly on writing. The new generation of assessments associated with the Common Core State Standards will require students to show what they know via writing more so than previous high-stakes tests ever have. As social-media influence grows beyond merely chatting with peers to include outreach and professional communication, so does the importance of writing well. The list goes on.

What are the best ways to prepare students for the shifting landscape? In fact, evidence-based practices for teaching students how to write are clear, yet not widely implemented, according to a 2008 survey published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. In a study just published in the School Psychology Review, researchers Gary A. Trioa and Natalie G. Olinghouse summarize these essential evidence-based practices for teaching writing, including: daily writing practice, strategy instruction, self-regulation and meta-cognitive reflection (as in the Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach), peer collaboration, and regular feedback through formative assessment. Unfortunately, the study concludes that most schools do not have sufficiently comprehensive, sustained, and focused systems for offering professional development to teachers to support such writing practices.

But this is not true of all schools, of course. In fact, schools that do succeed in implementing and supporting these practices report powerful and rapid gains in student-writing achievement.

To take one example: The Worcester Arts Magnet School in Worcester, Mass., held a two-day professional-development workshop this past August on evidence-based practices for teaching writing, as outlined in the Troia and Olinghouse article. The professional development was offered by HILL for Literacy, a Boston-area-based literacy professional-development provider for which I am a facilitator. The two-day workshop was structured around building teachers’ knowledge of the evidence-based practices for teaching writing, with a strong emphasis on the role of formative assessment. As we defined it, formative assessment includes specifying and conveying clear standards, using continuous assessment before and during instruction to guide teaching decisions, and involving students in using the assessment data to guide their learning.

In addition to delivering this information, the bulk of the course’s approach was grounded in Learning Forward’s professional-learning standards and the work of theorists such as Deborah Ball and Linda Darling-Hammond on best practices for professional development and facilitating adult learning. These include practice-based simulations of actual teaching, designing materials that teachers would then use in their classes, and developing common-core-aligned assessments. The activities in the course were hands-on and concrete, providing ample time for grade-level teams to work collectively on integrating the new approaches into their instruction and to make them best suited to meet their individual students’ needs. The teachers gave an average of a 4.9 on a 5.0 scale when evaluating the quality of their experience in the course, suggesting strong teacher buy-in from the start.

Immediate Results

In the fall, following the two-day professional development, the school provided sustained and job-embedded follow-up support during weekly professional-learning-community meetings and monthly faculty meetings. During the first week of school, just after having had the professional development, teachers in grades 2 through 6 collected initial writing samples written in the opinion text-type, as we began writing instruction with an opinion unit and planned to spend three months on each of the major text types outlined in the common standards (narrative, opinion, and informative/explanatory).

Teachers met in grade-level teams to score these opinion samples with the writing scales they had developed during the course, all scales being tightly aligned to the common standards in writing. At that time, the data showed that, on average, the students’ writing met only 20 percent of the elements specified in the common standards for opinion writing.

In early October, however, the teachers reviewed a new round of writing samples using the same rubric, and they found that their students’ writing, on average, now contained 75 percent of opinion text-type elements in the common standards. As of this writing, teachers are reporting that most students have now mastered all of the elements.

These gains have only further strengthened the already strong teacher morale at the school. Teachers and students alike are brimming with enthusiasm about their success. The teachers have marveled at how quickly their students have embraced practices such as formative assessments. The students, meanwhile, appreciate the clear criteria, the feedback provided, and the process of learning to evaluate their own work. “Students don’t line up at my desk to ask me what I think of their writing now,” Sue Teixeira, a 4th grade teacher, commented. “They immediately self-score their own work now that they understand the criteria and how to evaluate their work for this.”

Another 3rd grade teacher, Amy Benoit, added, “I see children writing better, but also liking writing. No more huffing, puffing, lamenting—just great gains.”

Whenever I visit the school, students excitedly share how much their writing has improved since early September. Teachers with decades of experience claim they’ve never seen students grow this fast and enjoy writing so much.

Writing to Learn

While there is still refining work to be done, the nuts and bolts of writing mastery were put in place with remarkable speed at Worcester Arts simply by following the evidence-based practices around formative assessment and writing instruction. The school is ready to move on to include even more powerful writing practices—using writing now as a tool to learn.

Once students master writing, how can writing best be used to deepen student learning? Just as students first learn to read, then read to learn, students must first learn to write and then use writing as a vehicle to support the deepening of their learning. After laying the foundation of proficiency with text types and conventions, teachers are then freed up to give even greater emphasis to having students write as a way to deepen and crystallize how they think about texts.

The common standards ask that students grow in sophistication in how they write each year, but also that students use writing as a tool to address and grapple with increasingly demanding content and sources. Learning to write has been a hurdle for many students. Now that we have an understanding of evidence-based practices for teaching students to write well, along with model schools using these techniques successfully, it is time to move ahead and offer students a powerful tool for learning that is highly under-utilized. A large-scale research project has already confirmed the enormity of the impact that high-quality writing instruction has on all dimensions of reading comprehension, including critical thinking. A writing revolution may accomplish more than just help students to write more proficiently; it could also help them think more deeply across all academic domains as well.

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