Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Writing Undergoes Renaissance in Curricula

Its ascent stems from the common core, college feedback, and new research
By Catherine Gewertz — November 13, 2012 11 min read
Diana Leddy works with kindergartners and 1st graders at the Blue School to complete writing, reading, and drawing exercises using scenes from the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax. Built in 1858, the one-room schoolhouse in Landaff, N.H., is using the book as a way to fuse lessons in writing and reading.
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Teachers are focusing on writing instruction like never before. More and more, they’re asking students to write about what they read, helping them think through and craft their work, and using such exercises as tools not only to build better writers, but to help students understand what they’re studying.

The shift is still nascent, but people in the field are taking notice. It marks a departure from recent practice, which often includes little or no explicit writing instruction and only a modest amount of writing, typically in the form of stories, short summaries, or personal reflections, rather than essays or research projects on topics being studied.

In Oak Park, Mich., high school students are reading and rereading texts, taking notes on different features and levels of meaning each time, to inform their reading and discussion as well as the writing they will do about those texts.

First graders in South Strafford, Vt., are reading Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, for fun, then for greater understanding, and then to hunt for evidence. They look for events in the plot that illustrate how the whimsical protagonist tries to protect the Earth and assemble examples into a simple paragraph to support the theme of the story.

On a literacy landscape that rarely features explicit writing instruction, and where the writing that does take place is often unconnected to reading, experts say, these kinds of projects are unusual for the way they connect writing and reading. Attention to reading has persistently been high, they say, but a focus on writing has waxed and waned in the past few decades.

“Now we’re seeing a lot more attention to the idea that writing about a text can improve reading about that text,” said literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, the chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Driving Change

Several forces are bringing about that change. One is the Common Core State Standards, which tie reading and writing together by placing a heavy emphasis on writing in response to one or more texts. Another—echoed in the standards—is feedback from college professors and employers, who bemoan young people’s weakness in the analytical writing most needed in college and training for good jobs.

Research, too, is sparking reconsideration of the role writing can play in making better readers. “Writing to Read,” a 2010 meta-analysis of 93 studies of writing interventions, found that writing had consistently positive effects on students’ reading skills and comprehension. Writing about what they read was particularly helpful to students’ comprehension, but so were taking notes on what they read, answering questions about it, and simply writing more often.

An expert panel brought together by the International Reading Association and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded in a report earlier this year that reading and writing require “independent instruction.” Too little still is known about the “reading-writing connection,” the panel said, but it is sufficiently promising to warrant further research to inform classroom practice.

In 2010, the Newark, Del.-based IRA revised its standards for teacher preparation to include a greater emphasis on writing “as a way of emphasizing the importance of the reading-writing connection,” said Rita M. Bean, who chaired that committee and is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Pittsburgh. A recent policy brief from the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill., calls for having students write about and discuss complex texts and use those texts as models for writing.

Reading has occupied a higher profile than writing on the literacy landscape in part because of the focus on discrete reading skills that emanated from the National Reading Panel report in 2000, experts say, and the ensuing emphasis on those skills in the federally funded Reading First program and in state tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Noting with alarm the growing gap, the National Commission on Writing in 2003 called for schools to double the amount of time they spent on writing.

Elise Tyler rewrites a scene from the book on a worksheet.

“For all intents and purposes, ‘literacy’ became synonymous with ‘reading,’ and writing became the stepchild of literacy rather than an equal partner,” said Andrés Henríquez, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which underwrote a string of studies on reading and writing, including “Writing to Read.”

Students still spend little time writing in school. Teacher surveys by Steve Graham, the author of “Writing to Read,” and colleagues show that students spend less than half an hour writing each day in elementary school, and much of what they write is lists and fill-in-the-blank answers to questions. Even at the high school level, seven in 10 teachers reported that their preservice training had not prepared them adequately to teach writing, and nearly half did not assign a single multiparagraph writing task per month.

“What we have, typically, is kids not writing more than a paragraph of text, all the way through high school,” said Mr. Graham, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. “It’s not very promising for writing or for writing instruction.”

Poor Performance

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reflect correspondingly lackluster writing skills. The report issued in September, for the 2011 exam, shows only one in four middle and high school students writing at the “proficient” level or better.

The national picture of student writing led the authors of the common standards to elevate its role in literacy instruction and to tie it closely to reading, not only in language arts classes but across the curriculum. Assessments for the standards, being designed by two groups of states, are expected to reflect those connections as well, with tasks that combine research and writing.

The idea, said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead authors of the standards, is to reduce writing “opinion untethered to evidence” and “decontextualized” writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there. That shift reflects what young people can expect in college and work, she said.

“In faculty and employer surveys, the kinds of skills that score high are the argument and evidence-related skills, developing ideas with relevant details and reasons,” Ms. Pimentel said. “Telling stories scores very low. Expressing one’s feelings, very low.”

Increasingly, educators are seeing the need to make explicit connections between writing and reading and to teach genre-specific types of writing, said Barbara Cambridge, the policy director for the NCTE.

“Writing hasn’t always been taught, especially outside of English/language arts classrooms,” she said. “We know writing helps reading. But avid readers aren’t necessarily good writers. This stuff has to be taught.”

That’s what Linda Denstaedt and her colleagues are trying to do as they craft K-12 curriculum units to reflect the standards in Michigan. At the core of their work at Oak Park High School is the “multidraft read,” aimed at teaching students to delve into reading like writers, she said, which strengthens both their reading and their writing.

They read a text again and again, first to make sense of it and note their questions, as the teacher works the room to help, Ms. Denstaedt said. A second round of annotating focuses on looking for elements of the genre and how it works. They read again to spot structural decisions the writer made to create meaning, she said. The students then use what they learned in their own writing.

Wearing a mustache made of paper, Caleb Burns plays the role of the Lorax. Pupils took turns wearing the mustache and choosing their favorite scenes.

“All of this adds up to learning to read in layers, learning to read like a writer,” said Ms. Denstaedt, the co-director of the Oakland Writing Project, which is a consultant to Michigan on the project and is an affiliate of the Berkeley, Calif.-based National Writing Project. “And you’re learning how to read better as you write.”

Too often, she said, writing is “all about doing tasks, assignments. We get students doing reading, and maybe writing, but we’re not necessarily helping them learn how to think their way through a text.”

Schools in Westerly, R.I., found that better writing can offer new ways to demonstrate knowledge. Dismal state science scores led the district to focus on writing and an inquiry-based approach to science instruction, and it paid off.

Only 49 percent of the 4th graders at State Street Elementary School scored proficient on the state science test in 2010, but 80 percent did in 2011. That number slid to 63 percent in 2012, said Principal Audrey Faubert, but she is still pleased with the improvement.

“Maybe they learned the science concepts better because they had to explain things,” she said, “but I attribute it more to having a better way to show what they know, and that’s important, too.”

A math teacher in Brighton, Mich., found that writing had a powerful effect on helping her 6th grade students understand algebra concepts. Julie Mallia and a colleague from the English department, Don Pawloski, teamed up in spring 2009 to have students write 10-page “how to” books for the next fall’s 6th graders. Drawing both on math and on writing instruction, students had to explain concepts such as solving a problem with x.

Many students reported understanding the math concepts better after writing the books, Ms. Mallia said, because their writing brought them face-to-face with the spots where their conceptual understandings were weak. And it opened up a valuable formative-assessment tool.

Robert McNelly shares his worksheet of a scene from The Lorax during a lesson in reading and writing at the Blue School, where children’s literacy lessons include exploring and rewriting scenes from the book.

“I was really surprised at how many students who were able to get the right answers realized in trying to write the books that they didn’t get the ideas behind them,” she said. “That gave me a chance to work with them and reteach what they didn’t understand.”

‘A Strong Tie’

Writing is poised to occupy a heftier role in the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. In 15 schools, the organization is piloting two courses that, if completed along with three other AP classes, will lead to a new “capstone” credential.

A critical-reasoning course, taken during the junior year, includes a major research project that demands a 3,000-word group paper and a 1,200-word individual paper, said John Williamson, the project’s senior director. Students must also do a 15-minute written and multimedia presentation. The end-of-year exam will require three or four 500-word essays, he said. The senior-year course is in research-methodology, culminating in a 20-page paper.

“There is a strong tie between reading and writing all the way through these courses,” he said. “When students write about what they read, they come to new understandings about it. And it’s bigger than just the writing; it’s about communicating your disciplinary understanding to different audiences.”

Diana Leddy and Joey Hawkins, the teachers who developed the writing approach used with The Lorax, said the root of it is using writing to deepen understanding.

“To be able to write well, you need to understand the material well, and to do that, you need to be a good reader,” said Ms. Leddy. She and Ms. Hawkins work as consultants, primarily in New England schools, and also for the New York City-based nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, whose founding partners co-led the writing of the English/language arts common standards.

Ms. Leddy’s and Ms. Hawkins’ method reinterprets a tenet that has been central to many in literacy instruction.

“It’s been an axiom that children should write about what they know,” Ms. Leddy said. “That can mean writing from personal experience. But our interpretation is that we can help them know something, and that opens up a lot of areas for them.”

A memoir, a speech at a memorial service, and a college essay all offer testament to the need to know how to write from personal experience, said Ms. Hawkins. But “it’s a tremendous missed opportunity if all a kid writes about is what he knows.”

Accordingly, when Ms. Leddy teaches The Lorax, she walks through the text repeatedly with students, discussing it from a different angle each time. When they’re through, students learn to write short “hand paragraphs,” with the thumb as the topic sentence—the Lorax cares for the Earth—followed by three examples of how he does that and a “pinky sentence” restating the interpretation.

Catherine Snow, a literacy expert and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., welcomes the shift to text-based writing, saying that personal narrative has been overemphasized in most language arts classrooms.

But the risk in focusing writing exclusively on text, she said, is that many students will not be interested enough in the reading to analyze it. The text-based skills can be taught, though, through topics and texts carefully chosen to engage students, Ms. Snow said.

In a Harvard project being developed in several districts in Maryland and Massachusetts, 4th through 7th graders tackle topics that fire them up, such as whether Tater Tots should be served in the cafeteria, Ms. Snow said. Such questions drive them back to their readings to search for information they can use to build well-founded arguments, she said.

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Writing Undergoing Renaissance in Curricula


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