While much has been researched about competing educational philosophies and practices related to foundational reading instruction, writing skill development has remained relatively uncontentious. Considering the degree to which writing skills are connected to the development of reading skills and the inherent challenges and complexities of writing instruction, this comes as a surprise.
In this first blog of our multi-part Science of Writing series, focused on research-based best practices for writing instruction, we’ll explore the connection between literacy and writing instruction and practice, and how teachers can take a more integrated approach to both. By taking a more intentional approach to reading and writing instruction, we hope that teachers will be better able to maximize their classroom instruction time, while minimizing planning and preparation effort.
Reading and Writing in America: By the Numbers
The “Three Rs” – Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic – have been the bedrock of traditional elementary education for over 100 years. Other subjects, including science, technology, and history continue to compete for K-5 classroom time and attention. In some ways, it could be said that writing has been “squeezed” into the reading block as a result of this competition for every minute of the school day, without truly being integrated into reading instruction and practice. All too often this has meant that writing (measured by time on task) has essentially been squeezed out.
In spite of a continued focus on reading and foundational literacy skills, U.S. students continue to struggle. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of fourth graders in the U.S. read below their respective grade level1, and the same number graduate from high school still reading below their grade level.
Without the same allocation of resources and attention, writing proficiency has diminished as well. A decade ago, approximately two thirds of 8th- and 12th-grade students in the U.S. scored at or below the basic level on the most recent Writing Test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012)2. The relatively poor performance over time on this and other indicators of students’ writing skills led the National Commission on Writing (NCOW, 2003)3 to label writing as a neglected skill in American schools.
What Writing Instruction Research Tells Us
With the added pressure of learning loss during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, structured foundational literacy approaches, following a well-defined scope and sequence, have found their moment to shine. The Science of Reading, founded upon brain research and instructional best practices related to literacy, focuses on explicit instruction of fundamental skills and has risen in prominence.
Which begs the question – what about the Science of Writing? What does the current body of research tell us about the current state of elementary writing instruction in U.S., and what does the research behind the Science of Reading tell us about how students learn to write?
Since writing is rarely formally assessed in grades K-5, most descriptions of research-based writing instruction are likely to refer to those things known from periodic data about certain general conditions, criteria and qualities of effective writing instruction. This data is focused mostly on the performance of benchmarked students, and correlated to reading scores.
In 28 studies, four that examined how writing is taught in contemporary classrooms, there were two basic overall findings:
- Some teachers provide students with a solid writing program, and in some classrooms this instruction is exemplary (e.g., Wilcox, Jeffrey, & Gardner-Bixler, 2016)4.
- This is not typically the case, as writing and writing instruction in most classrooms are inadequate. These findings were generally universal, applying across countries and grades.
Steve Graham’s exhaustive survey on writing instruction research is the most comprehensive to date. His analysis concludes:
- Teachers do not devote enough time and effort to teaching writing.
- Most teachers are generally familiar with a broad array of instructional methods.
- Students do not write often enough, and they are seldom asked to write longer papers that involve analysis and interpretation.
- Teachers apply the instructional procedures they are familiar with infrequently, including evidence-based practices and adaptations for struggling writers.
- Digital technology, including word processors and computers, is not an integral part of most writing instruction in schools.
As recommended by Steve Graham’s Teaching Elementary School Students To Be Effective Writers: A Practice Guide (Graham et al., 2012)5, teachers who devoted one hour a day to writing and writing instruction used a variety of instructional practices to promote writing success and growth, including applying evidence-based practices.
But, even with some dedication of time and effort among some teachers, though evidence-based practices tend to deliver a return on investment, studies show that writing instruction is still uneven, and strong writing instruction is atypical.
The extent to which a teacher has been properly trained and given the right instructional resources as well as a curriculum that is easy to implement is one major variable in the equation that links effort to outcomes. So, too, is the degree to which that teacher is part of a collaborative, grade-level and vertical cohort that is supportive of writing instruction and practice.
Integrating Writing Into K-5 Literacy Instruction
Beyond research and best practices, fostering a culture of exceptionalism in K-5 foundational literacy skill development, establishing the key criteria for which writing can be consistently taught and evaluated, and ensuring that writing is an integral part of every aspect of the learning experience can go a long way in improving writing skills by empowering both teachers and students.
Graham’s research suggests that the diminished value of writing as a core value has resulted in a crisis in which explicit writing instruction must compete with other subjects in an already overcrowded curriculum. He rightly points out that a re-emphasizing of the science and art of writing, and the resulting empowering of students with critical thinking skill sets and communication tools, enhances students’ performance in other important school subjects.
This argument may motivate leaders to take another look at their time-on-task formulas:
- Students understand and retain material read or presented in science, social studies, and mathematics when they are asked to write about it (Bangert-Drowns et al., 2004; Graham & Hebert, 2011; Graham & Perin, 2007)6.
- Increasing how much they write and teaching writing improves reading skills (Graham & Hebert, 2011)7.
- Making writing a part of reading instruction further enhances how well students read (Graham, Liu, Aitken, et al., 2018)8.
For those decision-makers who focus on future competencies when building a foundation for college and career readiness, students need to learn to tap into their writing skills to express their opinions, support their arguments, demonstrate understanding of the subjects they are studying, and convey real and imagined experiences and events.
The challenge of shoe-horning writing into a K-5 school day that is already packed with competing subjects can best be solved by helping teachers integrate writing instruction and practice into every subject area.
If writing is valued as a central, and integrated, ongoing means of communication, then we will have ensured that students write as naturally, and confidently, as they read. And the sooner we resolve to implement science-based approaches to literacy, the better for all stakeholders, especially those most at risk.
Transforming Best Practices Into Better Support for Teachers and Students
In the next writing instruction blog in this series, we’ll explore the skills, resources, and best practices that can help teachers integrate writing into their school day without adding to the demands on their time and attention. With the right tools, the right training, and the right mindset, teachers can actually reduce the time and effort spent planning, preparing, reviewing, and grading student work, all while instilling the love of writing in their students.
At the Intersection of Writing and Fun!
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- Graham, Steve. “Changing How Writing Is Taught - Steve Graham, 2019.” SAGE Journals, Arizona State University, 22 May 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0091732X18821125.
- National Center for Educational Statistics . (2012). The nation’s report card: Writing 2011 (NCES 2012-470). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences.
- National Commission on Writing . (2003). The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution. Washington DC: College Board.
- Wilcox, K., Jeffrey, J., Gardner-Bixler, A. (2016). Writing to the Common Core: Teachers’ response to changes in standards and assessments for writing in elementary schools. Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29, 903–928.
- Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
- Bangert-Drowns, R., Hurley, M., Wilkinson, B. (2004). The effects of school-based writing-to-learn interventions on academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 74, 29–58.
- Graham, S., Hebert, M. (2011). Writing-to-read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 710–744.
- Graham, S., Liu, K., Aitken, A., Ng, C., Bartlett, B., Harris, K. R., Holzapel, J. (2018). Balancing reading and writing instruction: A meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 53, 279–304.