Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Young Writers Need Structure to Learn the Craft. How Much Is Enough?

By Sarah Schwartz — January 17, 2023 11 min read
Third graders identify the different components of a strong paragraph, practicing with a sample piece of writing. Teachers at Kegonsa use models like this to help students master the frameworks that they will use in their own writing.
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There’s a lot one could write about Galileo, the Italian astronomer and physicist.

But on a snowy Friday morning in December, during a lesson helping students draft essays about outer space, teacher Julie Alexander was focused on just one specific piece of the scientist’s legacy: his study of the moon.

Projected on a smart board at the front of the room was a sample paragraph’s topic sentence: “Galileo used a telescope to observe the moon.” Alexander wanted her 3rd graders to evaluate whether the evidence in the paragraph supported its main idea. What facts from the book they’d read about Galileo would fit here, and which wouldn’t make sense?

“Are we going to talk about how Galileo ended up in lockdown?” Alexander questioned, referencing his imprisonment by Catholic officials. “No, we’re not, are we? It doesn’t match our topic statement.”

The exercise required students to analyze the paragraph in painstaking detail. Students pored over their own copies of the excerpt, heads bent, highlighting sentences in different colors to demarcate different parts of the paragraph structure—the thesis and supporting details.

But the intense focus was in service of an often-elusive goal: to make explicit how good writing works—and to equip students with the tools to do it themselves.

Mackenzie Weber, a student in Julie Alexander’s 3rd grade class highlights the topic sentence in a sample paragraph in front of the class at Kegonsa Elementary School in Stoughton, Wis. The school takes a structured approach to writing, teaching students frameworks that help them craft strong paragraphs and essays.

At Kegonsa Elementary School here, where Alexander teaches, teachers try to demystify how different styles of writing are structured, down to the sentence level. They work with students on mastering the building blocks of paragraphs and essays, and they introduce tools students use to craft their own writing.

All the while, kids are writing about the texts that they’re reading—linking together these two core components of English/language arts instruction.

These components are hallmarks of a specific approach to writing instruction, one that favors explicit instruction and lots of modeling. The method, and curricula that feature them, stand in contrast to the “process writing” techniques that have dominated classrooms for the past few decades: exercises like free writing or journaling about personal experiences.

Teaching students the rules of writing—things like how to write complex sentences or structure different types of text—can help them become better at the craft, said Steve Graham, a professor who studies writing instruction at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Explicit instruction helps kids acquire the skills, the processes, and the knowledge they need to be successful as writers. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

But he cautioned that it’s important for students to have the opportunity to practice these skills in context—that they’re not just filling in worksheets. “That would be like practicing basketball skills all the time and never playing a game,” he said.

The connection of writing and structured literacy

Kegonsa is among the schools that have adopted this more structured approach to writing as they’ve moved toward the “science of reading.”

The phrase refers to the evidence base behind how students learn to read. Many refer to instruction based on this research as “structured literacy”—an approach that teaches the building blocks of reading in an explicit, systematic way.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

Kegonsa began to adopt the approach in 2019, and the shift prompted Principal Erin Conrad and her district colleagues to examine their writing instruction, too. If explicit instruction had a place in reading, did it have a place in writing as well?

For some aspects of writing, the answer is a definitive yes, said Graham. Explicitly teaching handwriting and spelling can lead to improvements in those skills—but also to writing ability overall. That’s because making those processes automatic “frees up cognitive resources” for students as they’re composing, he said.

Teaching other skills leads to stronger writing, too: Studies have shown that teaching students how to construct complex sentences helps them apply that knowledge to their writing. A similar effect has been found for lessons on text structure. Evidence also shows that it’s helpful to teach students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their own pieces.

“It’s about opening up the black box and making the processes that expert writers do explicit,” said Leslie Laud, a researcher with thinkSRSD, which offers professional development for teachers in its structured-writing strategies.

Expert writers aren’t born knowing how to use these structures and skills—they’re taught them, internalize them, and grow their abilities over time, said Diana Leddy, a co-founder of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, a group that provides professional development and teacher resources for another structured writing approach.

“The problem with leaving students to internalize these on their own is that only some of them will,” she said.

Balancing explicit teaching with time to ‘create text’

Still, some skills don’t always improve through explicit instruction. Grammar is one of them.

Graham and colleagues found in a 2012 review that teaching grammar didn’t improve students’ use of it in their writing. But a forthcoming meta-analysis, also by Graham, finds that it does. He thinks this could have to do with context: In most of the papers in the earlier analysis, grammar instruction was decontextualized. Students weren’t practicing it in their writing—instead, their teachers used unrelated examples.

The finding underscores dual imperatives. Kids need to be taught the structures of writing, Graham said. But also, “we need students to create text.”

“At the elementary level, when you engage students, you ask them to write more, there’s a small positive effect on improving the overall quality of their writing. It’s not enough to move kids forward strongly as writers, but it’s not nothing,” he said.

At Kegonsa Elementary, teachers are trying to do both. The curriculum they use aims to build students’ skills systematically, progressing from paragraphs to longer pieces. As they learn, though, students write their own compositions.

In one 2nd grade classroom at the school last month, students worked on a matching assignment, putting the pieces of a paragraph in order.

They drew supporting points from the story, working from an “evidence organizer” that the class had put together as a group. Spread throughout the room, clustered at desks, and sprawled on the rug, they drew lines between details on one side of the page to the spot on the other side of the page where they would fit into the paragraph structure.

The Painted Paragraph
At Kegonsa Elementary in Stoughton, Wis., 2nd graders learn how to compose a paragraph using this “painted” model, adapted from the nonprofit Vermont Writing Collaborative and embedded in the curriculum that the school uses. The paragraph includes an attention-getting introduction, a green thesis, and details in blue and yellow—two colors that when mixed together support the “green” focus. The paragraph ends with a green conclusion sentence, which restates the thesis.

Others who had already finished the organizer were writing out their paragraphs, modifying and adding to the sentences from the evidence organizer to put their own spin on the piece.

As these students progress through this year and the next, they are expected to take on more of the organizing and planning work themselves—and eventually, write longer, multiparagraph pieces in 3rd grade.

Kegonsa doesn’t only do this work with expository writing. In 4th grade, for example, students learn how to structure a narrative story, sketching out the rise and fall of the plot and filling in organizers with details about their characters and setting.

Overall, the approach is much more regimented than what teachers at the school had previously done, said Alexander, the 3rd grade teacher. But more structure has helped students be more confident writers, she said.

“Years ago when we were teaching, you’d have the kids go, ‘I’m not writing. I don’t know what to write, I don’t know how to write. I’m not doing it,’” she said. “The last couple of years, [that’s been] very minimal. There might be a kiddo who has a tricky day, but the next day, they’re picking right up where they left off—and they’ll write.”

How structured approaches differ

Kegonsa’s approach is based on strategies from the Vermont Writing Collaborative, the organization that Leddy co-founded.

The group takes what Leddy calls a “whole to part” approach—identifying the end product that students should be able to create, whether that’s a paragraph or an essay, and then teaching students how to master the component pieces so that they can write a “whole” themselves.

The Painted Essay
In a structured approach to writing, children progress from writing individual paragraphs to longer pieces. This example of an essay structure was developed by the Vermont Writing Collaborative.

The goal is for students to learn how to structure their writing but also to develop a deeper understanding of the subject they’re writing about. The connection between reading and writing is key, Leddy said.

Teachers have to make sure that students have the background knowledge and vocabulary they need to write well. And they need to teach students how to pull out relevant pieces of the texts they read—rather than just regurgitating the whole thing in an essay format.

Other structured-writing approaches differ somewhat.

There’s Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, a technique developed by writing researcher Karen Harris and Graham. It also explicitly teaches writing structures and centers writing to text.

In addition, the program aims to teach skills like goal-setting and self-monitoring, designed to help students apply these strategies on their own. Multiple studies of the approach have found that it’s effective in improving students’ writing. Other researchers and educators, including Laud, provide professional development and implementation support for schools to apply versions of the method.

And then there’s The Writing Revolution.

The system was developed by educator Judith Hochman to support students with language-based learning disabilities. It’s since spread to a national audience, with one state—Louisiana—embedding the strategies into its homegrown materials for English/language arts.

If the Vermont Writing Collaborative takes a whole-to-part approach, The Writing Revolution takes a part-to-whole approach. It starts with the sentence.

“You don’t build a house starting with the roof. You build a house starting with the foundation,” Hochman said. “The sentence level, for us, is where we feel it makes sense for everybody to be beginning.”

Students learn how to use more complex sentence structures, employing words such as “because,” “but,” and “so.” They practice constructions that skilled writers use but that don’t usually appear in speech, like appositive phrases: “Stoughton, a city in Wisconsin, is home to Kegonsa Elementary School.”

But even at the sentence level, Hochman said, “the writing is in service of the content, period.”

If students are learning about the Industrial Revolution, for example, they’re writing about it, like this:

  • It was a seminal event because …,
  • It was a seminal event but …,
  • It was a seminal event, so …

The richer sentence structures push students to engage more deeply in the subject—filling in more details and nuances about the topic than they would in a sentence that simply stated, “The Industrial Revolution was a seminal event.”

The program has devoted fans. Serena White, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Monroe City schools, in Louisiana, said using The Writing Revolution has given students the tools they need to tackle challenging assignments—tools they didn’t have before.

“When I would walk around in classrooms and observe when students were given a writing prompt in any content area, you would have so many students sitting there not knowing how to start,” she said. “We very rarely see that anymore.”

ASU’s Graham said research supports the idea that teachers should help students learn how to craft strong sentences. But he worries that starting with sentences exclusively conveys the message that students can’t or shouldn’t be writing longer pieces until they’ve mastered certain skills. This sentence-first approach differs from other structured methods, including SRSD, which Graham helped develop.

Writing instruction shouldn’t focus on just the whole, or just the parts, he said. It needs to integrate skills instruction with opportunities to apply those skills at length.

‘Flexing’ the framework

For her part, Hochman said The Writing Revolution does just that. Students also learn how to outline, take notes, and write full pieces at the same time as they’re drilling down into sentences. “They don’t have to finish all the sentence work before they move to longer pieces of writing,” she said.

Writing, as most teachers acknowledge, is tough, and challenges still emerge.

At Kegonsa, 3rd graders in Jessica Davis’ class have internalized the reading-writing connection. Ask students where to find the supporting evidence for their paragraphs, and they’ll tell you: “You go into the book.”

But not all paragraphs are structured the same way, even though the paragraph structure Davis teaches says that the first piece of supporting evidence comes after the topic statement. If pieces of the paragraph are out of order, students don’t always pick up on that, she said.

Rachel Boersma, a 2nd grade teacher at Kegonsa, leads her class in a group editing exercise for a sample paragraph.

This is a place where teachers step in to correct misunderstandings, Davis said. They return to definitions—are you sure this is evidence? How do you know? Is it in the text? That kind of questioning puts students back on the right track, she said.

Teachers and school leaders are also still trying to figure out how to help students transfer their knowledge to other contexts—to use the writing structures they’re learning on state tests, for example, said Conrad, Kegonsa’s principal.

Students must come to understand that the structures they’re learning aren’t a rigid formula but a framework whose pieces each have a meaning and a purpose. And sometimes, the framework can be tweaked to enhance that meaning.

It’s a reminder that runs through classes at Kegonsa. In one 2nd grade classroom last month, a teacher showed an exemplar paragraph with five pieces of evidence. You need at least two, she told the students, but it’s also OK to have more. Sometimes, it helps to paint a better picture for the reader.

At heart, the structures are just teaching tools, said Leddy.

“If they’re used correctly, you’re using them to teach basic concepts of writing that they can flex easily,” she said. “If my students can’t do that by the end of the year, then I’ve failed. My instruction has failed.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2023 edition of Education Week as Young Writers Need Structure To Learn the Craft


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