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OPINION: 7 in 10 students aren’t writing at grade level — we can do better

A "Strategic Inquiry" approach shows promise

It’s widely accepted that there is a crisis in reading in this country, but there is also a writing crisis that requires our attention. Regardless of where one stands on the education reform spectrum, we all must do everything possible to find the best, most comprehensive solutions to address this crisis.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 25 percent of students nationwide are writing on grade level, and 3 percent are considered advanced. This suggests that the problem is widespread and more than simply an issue of poverty. We are just not teaching writing in this country.

Indeed, having students write — focusing on the craft of writing by unearthing children’s ideas and having them put these ideas to paper — is not the same as actually teaching writing.

And it’s not the fault of teachers.

A systematic approach to writing instruction is missing from the knowledge base. Between 2005 and 2012, a teacher-led approach to drilling down to analyze what was missing, called Strategic Inquiry, identified that students across New York City were lacking the writing strategies necessary to communicate complex ideas.

In one specific example, high school students across the city did not know what the conjunctions “because,” “but” and “so” are meant to signal. The Common Core, in part a response to the poor quality of writing nationwide, pushes length and text complexity. But if a large percentage of students cannot identify and use these linguistic tools of thinking even at the sentence level, pushing for rigor without teaching the linguistic resources that provide access to it leaves struggling students further behind.

It’s true that there is no magic bullet for solving this problem. However, two essential ingredients have demonstrated big results — and it doesn’t matter what kind of school you happen to teach in. First is the ability of teachers to read students’ writing closely to identify what precisely they need. This allows learning to be driven by granular evidence of student need, instead of a generalized sense of “best practice” (because, let’s face it, best practices haven’t gotten us far enough).

Related: Beyond basic reading, students can learn to think like a good reader

The second ingredient is direct, explicit instruction in expository writing strategies that target and close the gaps that teachers find. These strategies improve oral language, deepen students’ content knowledge, and fortify reading comprehension and writing all at the same time.

We have found common ground in support of a program called WITsi (Writing is Thinking through Strategic Inquiry) — not only because it includes these two elements, but also because it works for general education students and with harder-to-reach populations, including students with disabilities and English language learners. WITsi closes literacy gaps through direct instruction in writing strategies across all content areas and by embedding them in the work of inquiry teams who analyze student work to see how the strategies have transferred, make adjustments, and select and design needed instructional responses.

It focuses on developing the ability of students to expand, enrich and connect ideas, beginning with the sentence as the most basic building block of writing compelling and thoughtful compositions. WITsi is different from how most teachers approach writing. Its commitment to building complex sentences with a focus on syntax (meaning and form) rather than grammar is a large part of what makes it work. Critical as well is the investment in deep capacity-building, supporting teachers to learn to respond to precise evidence of what students in front of them need.

It’s a rare model that has attracted the support of academics, administrators and teachers alike.

At the end of her first year of teaching at John Adams High School in Queens, New York, the same school where she herself was a newcomer student (new both to the U.S. and to English) 12 years before, Laura Pamplona was amazed by how learning WITsi made her a better teacher and accelerated the progress of her students.

“We didn’t have WITsi here when I was a student,” she said. “But I wish we had! When I first came here, I could understand everything, but my output was so limited. I couldn’t express myself, and I certainly couldn’t write. But with WITsi, I’m so much better of a teacher, and my students are learning English and growing on all parts of the state assessment so much faster, and that’s amazing.”

In addition, a recent study from Teachers College, Columbia University, analyzed the implementation of WITsi in New York City’s most struggling Renewal High Schools between 2014 and 2016, and found that WITsi students were almost two and a half times more likely to be on track to graduate than students in schools without the approach.

What’s more, while WITsi improved engagement for all students, the research found that its impact was most noticeable in the schools’ English language learner and special education populations. Finally, the study noted that the model was replicable and worthy of adoption in any kind of institution — charter, private or traditional public school.

Again, there is no magic bullet. But we are certain that what’s needed to improve academic performance is building the capacity of teachers to identify evidence of what students need and then to develop the skills to address those needs. That’s why we believe that WITsi, one example of a program with a track record of hitting both targets, is an extremely promising approach.

This story about teaching writing skills was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Hongying Shen is the New York City Department of Education ELL director for Manhattan.

Angel Rodriguez is the New York City Charter Schools’ ELL consortium manager.

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Hongying Shen

Hongying Shen is the New York City Department of Education ELL director for Manhattan. See Archive

Angel Rodriguez

Angel Rodriguez is the New York City Charter Schools' ELL consortium manager. See Archive

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