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Scientific evidence on how to teach writing is slim

14 high-quality studies of writing instruction point to "exciting, social and noisy" classrooms

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Proof Points

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writing instruction

A writing assignment from a middle school classroom.

The poor quality of student writing is a common lament among college professors. But how are elementary, middle and high school teachers supposed to teach it better? Unfortunately, this is an area where education research doesn’t offer educators clear advice.

“What’s very odd about writing is how small the research base is,” said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “There’s remarkably very little high-quality evidence of what works in writing.”

Compared to subjects such as math and reading, the amount of research on how to teach writing is tiny. Earlier in 2019, Slavin searched for rigorous research on teaching writing from second grade to high school. He and his Johns Hopkins colleagues, along with researchers in Belgium and the United Kingdom, found only 14 studies that met their standards. By contrast, he quickly found 69 studies just on teaching reading to high school students.

To meet Slavin’s standards, researchers had to compare how much students improved in writing with students who weren’t exposed to a particular writing method and were taught to write as usual. Most studies on writing instruction didn’t have control groups like this. Without them, we can’t know if a new writing approach is better than an old one. Slavin also required that student writing be evaluated objectively. Writing tests could not be made up by the creators or marketers of the curriculum and they could not be scored by the teachers who taught the classes.

Many popular writing programs used in schools around the country, such as Writer’s Workshop or the Hochman Method, haven’t been put to the test like this. These might both be excellent teaching methods but there are no controlled studies of their effectiveness. However, a large scientific study of Writer’s Workshop is underway and results are expected in 2021. (A preliminary report came out in October 2019.) The organization that markets the Hochman Method, a much newer curriculum, told me it hopes to conduct rigorous research in the future.

The 14 studies looking at 12 different writing programs were described in Slavin’s 2019 review, “A Quantitative Synthesis of Research on Writing Approaches in Grades 2 to 12.” Some of the approaches focused on explicitly teaching the writing process from planning to drafting to revising. Others emphasized working with classmates and making writing a communal activity. Another approach was to integrate reading with the writing.

It turns out all three approaches worked some of the time but none of the approaches clearly outshone the others. There was also a lot of overlap among the three approaches. For example, one writing program both explicitly taught the writing process and had students edit each other’s work communally.

The husband-and-wife team of Steve Graham and Karen Harris, both professors at Arizona State University, dominate the research literature on writing instruction. Many of their theories were developed with students with disabilities and were rigorously tested on a broader student population, not here in the United States, but in England. In one study, their methods of explicit writing instruction worked spectacularly. In a bigger second study, their method didn’t show writing improvements for students. That’s the way education is. Not every idea works every time.

Related: Three lessons from the science of how to teach writing

One broad lesson that emerges from the 12 tested programs was that students benefit from step-by-step guides to writing in various genres. Argumentative writing, for example, is very different from fiction writing. The What Works Clearinghouse, a federal government website of scientifically proven ideas in education, also highlights the importance of explicit writing instruction that varies by genre for both elementary and high school students.

Another lesson is that students also need explicit grammar and punctuation instruction but it should be taught in the context of their writing, not as a separate stand-alone lesson.

Beyond a well-structured writing course, Slavin and his colleagues noted that in these studies of writing, the classes were “exciting, social and noisy.”

“Motivation seems to be the key,” Slavin and his colleagues wrote. “If students love to write, because their peers as well as their teachers are eager to see what they have to say, then they will write with energy and pleasure. Perhaps more than any other subject, writing demands a supportive environment, in which students want to become better writers because they love the opportunity to express themselves, and to interact in writing with valued peers and teachers.”

I was wondering, as I was reading this review, if nearly every thoughtful writing curriculum is likely to produce results because it’s making kids write more than they currently are. In this country, pressure to score well on reading and math tests has pushed writing instruction down the priority list so there isn’t a lot of time spent on writing instruction.

I’d like to see some good studies on dosage. How much should kids be writing every day or every week to become respectable writers when they enter the college gates?

This story about writing instruction was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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