What Works in Teaching Writing?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”   -Maya Angelou

It’s not hard to make an argument that creative writing is the noblest of all school subjects. To test this, try replacing the word “write” in this beautiful quotation from Maya Angelou with “read” or “compute.” Students must be proficient in reading and mathematics and other subjects, of course, but in what other subject must learners study how to reach the emotions of their readers?

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Good writing is the mark of an educated person. Perhaps especially in the age of electronic communications, we know most of the people we know largely through their writing. Job applications depend on the ability of the applicant to make themselves interesting to someone they’ve never seen. Every subject–science, history, reading, and many more–requires its own exacting types of writing.

Given the obvious importance of writing in people’s lives, you’d naturally expect that writing would occupy a central place in instruction. But you’d be wrong. Before secondary school, writing plays third fiddle to the other two of the 3Rs, reading and ‘rithmetic, and in secondary school, writing is just one among many components of English. College professors, employers, and ordinary people complain incessantly about the poor writing skills of today’s youth. The fact is that writing is not attended to as much as it should be, and the results are apparent to all.

Not surprisingly, the inadequate focus on writing in U.S. schools extends to an inadequate focus on research on this topic as well. My colleagues and I recently carried out a review of research on secondary reading programs. We found 69 studies that met rigorous inclusion criteria (Baye, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, in press). Recently, our group completed a review of secondary writing using similar inclusion standards, under funding from the Education Endowment Foundation in England (Slavin, Lake, Inns, Baye, Dachet, & Haslam, 2019). Yet we found only 14 qualifying studies, of which 11 were in secondary schools (we searched down to third grade).

To be fair, our inclusion standards were pretty tough. We required that studies compare experimental groups to randomized or matched control groups on measures independent of the experimental treatment. Tests could not have been made up by teachers or researchers, and they could not be scored by the teachers who taught the classes. Experimental and control groups had to be well-matched at pretest and have nearly equal attrition (loss of subjects over time). Studies had to have a duration of at least 12 weeks. Studies could include students with IEPs, but they could not be in self-contained, special education settings.

We divided the studies into three categories. One was studies of writing process models, in which students worked together to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in many genres. A very similar category was cooperative learning models, most of which also used a plan-draft-revise-edit cycle, but placed a strong emphasis on use of cooperative learning teams. A third category was programs that balanced writing with reading instruction.

Remarkably, the average effect sizes of each of the three categories were virtually identical, with a mean effect size of +0.18. There was significant variation within categories, however. In the writing process category, the interesting story concerned a widely used U.S. program, Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), evaluated in two qualifying studies in England. In one, the program was implemented in rural West Yorkshire and had huge impacts on struggling writers, the students for whom SRSD was designed. The effect size was +0.74. However, in a much larger study in urban Leeds and Lancashire, outcomes were not so positive (ES= +0.01), although effects were largest for struggling writers. There were many studies of SRSD in the U.S, but none of them qualified, due to a lack of control group, brief experiments, measures made up by researchers, and located in all-special education classrooms.

Three programs that emphasize cooperative learning had notably positive impacts. These were Writing Wings (ES = +0.13), Student Team Writing (ES = +0.38), and Expert 21 (ES = +0.58).

Among programs emphasizing reading and writing, two had a strong focus on English learners: Pathway (ES = +0.32) and ALIAS (ES = +0.18). Another two approaches had an explicit focus on preparing students for freshman English: College Ready Writers Program (ES = +0.18) and Expository Reading and Writing Course (ES = =0.13).

Looking across all categories, there were several factors common to successful programs that stood out:

  • Cooperative Learning. Cooperative learning usually aids learning in all subjects, but it makes particular sense in writing, as a writing team gives students opportunities to give and receive feedback on their compositions, facilitating their efforts to gain insight into how their peers think about writing, and giving them a sympathetic and ready audience for their writing.
  • Writing Process. Teaching students step-by-step procedures to work with others to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in various genres appears to be very beneficial. The first steps focus on helping students get their ideas down on paper without worrying about mechanics, while the later stages help students progressively improve the structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation of their compositions. These steps help students reluctant to write at all to take risks at the outset, confident that they will have help from peers and teachers to progressively improve their writing.
  • Motivation and Joy in Self-Expression. In the above quote, Maya Angelou talks about the importance in writing of “sliding through the brain to get to the heart.” But to the writer, this process must work the other way, too. Good writing starts in the heart, with an urge to say something of importance. The brain shapes writing to make it readable, but writing must start with a message that the writer cares about. This principle is demonstrated most obviously in writing process and cooperative learning models, where every effort is made to motivate students to find exciting and interesting topics to share with their peers. In programs balancing reading and writing, reading is used to help students have something important to write.
  • Extensive Professional Development. Learning to teach writing well is not easy. Teachers need opportunities to learn new strategies and to apply them in their own writing. All of the successful writing programs we identified in our review provided extensive, motivating, and cooperative professional development, often designed as much to help teachers catch the spirit of writing as to follow a set of procedures.

Our review of writing research found that there is considerable consensus in how to teach writing. There were more commonalities than differences across the categories. Effects were generally positive, however, because control teachers were not using these consensus strategies, or were not doing so with the skills imparted by the professional development characteristic of all of the successful approaches.

We cannot expect writing instruction to routinely produce Maya Angelous or Mark Twains. Great writers add genius to technique. However, we can create legions of good writers, and our students will surely benefit.

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly.

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C. Inns, A., Baye, A., Dachet, D., & Haslam, J. (2019). A quantitative synthesis of research on writing approaches in Key Stage 2 and secondary schools. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Photo credit: Kyle Tsui from Washington, DC, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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