Adapt writing instruction to students’ own writing strategies, researchers say

iStock_000008693718XSmallWhen teaching students how to write, educators frequently break down the task into three stages–planning what to say, translating those thoughts into written text and revising. The problem, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, is that some students resist planning, preferring to just plunge in and write.

Do those students benefit from writing instruction that emphasizes advance planning? No, say the researchers of this study. Students with a natural bent toward planning benefit most from instruction that emphasizes planning, while others who had undeveloped strategies, or who had a tendency not to plan before writing, benefitted more from instruction that emphasized revision.

“Students with low scores on planning writing strategy, who do not impose goals on planning and text production, do not appear to benefit when they are taught a pre-planning strategy as in our planning condition,” the study concludes. “Intuitively, a teacher might believe this group needs encouragement to learn to plan their writing. However, our results suggest that this would be a mistake. Instead, such writers should be allowed to produce text freely, as in the revision condition, and receive instruction on how to adapt what they have produced to the goals of the genre they are learning thereafter.”

In this study, 113 Dutch high school students (10th graders) were randomly assigned to one of two versions of the same writing courses– one that emphasized planning before writing and the other revising after writing. The authors developed two versions of a course on learning to write argumentative texts about literature for this study. Students completed questionnaires about their drafting strategies so that researchers could identify their orientations.

To measure writing skill, the researchers administered a pre-test and post-test assessment of students’ argumentative writing. The researchers found that the higher students scored on revising and planning, the more their writing showed improvement if they were in the planning course. If they rated low on both revising and planning, they showed more improvement in the revising course, implying that the revision course was especially helpful to those students with undeveloped writing strategies.

Two strategies: Planning or revising

The two most well-defined strategies that have been found in writing research are a planning strategy, in which writers work out what they want to say before writing and a revising strategy in which writers work out what they want to say in the course of writing, the researchers say. Neither strategy has been found to be superior to the other in terms of the quality of writing produced. A third group of students uses mixed strategies.

The researchers say their study is intended to question whether the traditional planning strategy taught in schools is the best way to teach writing. Their results indicate that the effectiveness of this approach depends on the students’ own writing strategies.

Future research should study interactions between student characteristics and interventions. This could contribute to a more nuanced writing instruction theory, they conclude. Future research should also re-examine the notion of the stability of this characteristic by surveying students about their writing strategies not only before but after writing instruction, the researchers say.

“The effects of adapting a writing course to students’ writing strategies,” by Marleen Kieft et al. British Journal of Educational Psychology, September 2007, Volume 77, pp. 565-578.

Published in ERN November 2007, Volume 20, Number 8

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