A more intentional focus on writing instruction is reaping big rewards for a Tennessee district.
In Sumner County, a district serving about 29,000 students, school leaders in 2019 were looking for a new, more effective way to bolster students’ comprehension skills, starting in the early elementary grades.
Reading comprehension—unlike foundational skills like phonics—takes years, even a lifetime to build. As they identify words, students need to know a lot in order to make sense of what they read, and so they have to be introduced to content systematically. The idea has roots in cognitive science and the work of educator E.D. Hirsch, though research about how best to build students’ background or “world knowledge” is still emerging.
Sumner County began implementing a new English/language arts curriculum that incorporates writing as a main focus of students’ lessons, pushing them beyond memoirs and personal essays to build this background knowledge. While the bulk of the writing instruction happens in students’ ELA classes, other courses, like science and social studies, now also incorporate more writing projects linked to their lessons.
Charles MacArthur, a professor emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Delaware who researches writing development and instruction for struggling writers, said more than 100 studies show that intentional approaches to writing instruction benefit students’ academic performance both in writing and reading—and in other subjects.
That’s because students are better able to comprehend and analyze their lessons, and have more background knowledge to support their class work, he said.
But actually implementing that instruction can be difficult. Teachers are generally used to assigning memoir-type writing, especially for earlier grades, that focuses on students’ personal experiences and feelings, rather than the content they’re learning or the world around them. Asking a 2nd grader to write opinion essays can feel counterintuitive, initially.
The benefits, though, can be impressive. Along with improved test scores, Sumner County students’ confidence has increased, both in their academics and in general, according to the district’s chief academic officer, Scott Langford.
Administrators from the district shared how they went about the transition to more intentional writing instruction and the results they’ve seen since. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to make an investment in writing instruction?
Scott Langford, chief academic officer: From my perspective, our reading and literacy scores were stagnant for many years. I always presumed we moved the needle for kids’ reading and writing performance in high school, but what I discovered is it’s a K-12 issue. You have to invest from the first time a child walks into your building.
The consensus [about our former approach] was all we ever did was: “Write about how this piece of literature makes you feel.” A couple of assessments were primarily driven by things where kids could easily read a paragraph and answer very simple facts.
So then the most common conversation you hear from students [when you ask them to write] is: “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t know how to get started.”
There wasn’t the background knowledge or the content knowledge around when we’re asking them to write narrative. And they might not have the experiences otherwise.
So that’s where we decided to invest in high-quality curriculum that builds that background knowledge and gives students work that they have a lot to say about because they just learned about it, rather than picking topics randomly.
In a fifth-grade module, for example, students learn the basics of strong, focused expository paragraphs, including informational text summaries, explanatory paragraphs, and comparison-contrast paragraphs. Students learn how to craft strong topic statements, support them with relevant text evidence, and elaborate on their ideas.
Students employ this structure to write two essays [for a module on the Nez Percé Native American tribe]—a comparison-contrast essay about the central characters of Thunder Rolling in the Mountains and an explanatory essay about Chief Joseph’s “Lincoln Hall Speech” for their culminating end-of-module task, in which they demonstrate understanding of essential ideas and skills they have developed over the course of the module.
How often do you ask students to write?
Frankie Skinner, supervisor of federal programs: To some extent, students are writing in some capacity every day. Along with assignments and projects, they keep what’s called a response journal, where students are constantly reflecting on what they’re learning in a written way that is more informal but still keeping them practicing their writing.
That response journal is used in almost every lesson—whether it’s just writing what they learned today, reflecting more deeply on what they learned, or just responding to how they felt about this.
How does this progress as students get older?
Skinner: As kindergartners, our students begin expressing thoughts orally—listening, thinking, and speaking. Over the course of the year, they progress from one to two sentences to more, based on the content knowledge built over the course of the year.
As students progress, they begin to develop the skills through Socratic seminars to connect their thoughts to specific facts and supporting evidence, developing the skills to support their points in different types of writing. [Editors’ note: A Socratic seminar is a teaching method that hinges on teachers asking probing questions of students, eliciting dialogue and consideration of a topic from multiple points of view.]
By 5th grade, our students can create an original idea and develop supporting evidence from multiple texts and media. They can write an essay and express their thoughts through debates and seminars. But rooted and building on the content knowledge developed from kindergarten.
As writing standards spiral from K-5, students also spiral knowledge, expanding their understanding of literature, social studies, science, and fine arts.
The weaving together of these threads develops kids who can write, speak, and think critically and support those points with relevant content knowledge and textual evidence.
How did Sumner County convince teachers that these writing demands aren’t ‘too hard’ for students?
Skinner: Teaching is a craft, and teachers want to put their own stamp on things and make their lessons their own. So we use the word “integrity” a ton during implementation and just ask that they go through it as it’s intended before they make any judgment calls. Just commit to this one year and go through it exactly as it’s asking us to and then let’s get that feedback along the way.
Langford: I think part of the reason that there was so little writing over the previous decades was the fact that teachers just didn’t have time to do all the prep for lessons and at the [same] time to commit to giving feedback on student writing. It doesn’t really do any good to assign student writing if you don’t give feedback; there’s no point.
So, ... yes, initially there were concerns about whether this was going to remove their voice. But then, what it really did was it removed all of this extra-heavy lifting below the surface.
We were expecting teachers to do curriculum production, assessment production, and then also teach six or seven hours a day, in addition to everything else they carry. So this is one way where we can remove that burden. It made it so much easier for us to support what we were doing because we didn’t have hundreds of, say, kindergarten teachers across the county teaching something different because you start with a baseline text and support materials.
What was the biggest adjustment for teachers?
Skinner: Most teachers have been teaching one standard at a time, learning it one day then reviewing it tomorrow and having a test on Thursday, and so on. It took a little bit of time to get used to the fact that there wasn’t going to be a single standard mastered at a time, that it’s more of touching on several standards in a week, then coming back. It’s not a finality, it’s a building of knowledge along the way. It’s tough to go from being able to see a clear, definitive end goal to a standard to not necessarily seeing from the outset how everything’s connected.
There’s also this inclination to catch students up because they’re below grade level, so we’ve really had to communicate that a 2nd grader is never going to read or write at a 2nd grade level unless they’re exposed to 2nd grade content. So we’ve moved to giving that content and scaffolding where needed instead of assuming that we need to get them all the way there first. Don’t assume that you have to do all this work to get students where they need to be; let their needs reveal themselves first.
Langford: If anybody tells you that it’s not challenging to move from what’s traditionally been done to instruction with a commitment to writing and verbal expression, they’re lying. You have to give teachers permission to understand that it’s productive struggle.
We live in an age where we expect everything to be done perfectly the first time, and you have to give your teachers and administrators the freedom to understand that we’re not going to get this right from the very start. But it is worth the risk because we can see that our literacy rates have been stagnant, sometimes for five or 10 years. It’s worth taking that risk to see real growth.
What have you noticed in terms of students’ comprehension?
Langford: Before, I could tell the quality of the school I was in based on the type of student work hanging up in the hallway. Now, we routinely see English-learner students writing paragraphs and seeing their work displayed in the hallway, which we did not see anything like that before.
The self-esteem boost kids get out of that is a big deal, too, because they’re not just getting used to talking about what they see or how things make them feel, but they’re grounding that in knowledge that they’ve acquired, so their confidence grows by leaps and bounds.
Skinner: I would argue even with our work, we’re still kind of just beginning to figure out how to really assess comprehension. Before, we found some students were really good at guessing at their decodable readers, using cueing strategies to figure out the answers.
So now that we can tease it out and understand that kids have a strong foundational base and they’re able to sound out the words and understand, now we can truly begin to measure their comprehension. We’re going to be able to see where those gaps are between what they’ve read and what their finished product looks like to see where the holes are in their comprehension. Unless you have all those pieces of the equation, you can’t truly identify students’ needs.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2023 edition of Education Week as How One District Found Success By Overhauling Writing Instruction