What’s the best way to teach writing?

iStock_000020536048XSmallWhat works in teaching adolescents to write? ask two researchers in a recent issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Schools have been widely criticized for failing at the job of teaching students how to write well. Instead of focusing on how the system is failing, two researchers searched for evidence of successful techniques for teaching adolescent students how to write.

Based on a meta-analysis of 123 studies on writing interventions for grades 4-12,the researchers developed a list of 10 recommendations for teaching approaches that demonstrated effectiveness.

According to Steve Graham of Vanderbilt University and Dolores Perin of Teachers College, Columbia University, this type of meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of writing interventions has not been done for more than 20 years.

“There is considerable concern that the majority of adolescents do not develop the competence in writing they need to be successful in school, the workplace, or their personal lives,” they observe.

“A common explanation for why youngsters do not write well is that schools do not do a good job of teaching this complex skill.” The 123 studies selected by the researchers all took into account writing quality, and they also addressed the issue of scoring reliability.

Meta-analysis is well-suited to the task of identifying promising interventions, the researchers say, because it provides an estimate of the magnitude of a treatment’s effect under conditions that typify studies in the literature.

The researchers rejected studies that were not experimental or quasi-experimental (i.e. that did not have a control group for comparing results from an intervention. Their next most common reason for excluding a study was that it did not include a measure of writing quality. Their findings show “that it is advantageous to explicitly and systematically teach adolescents the processes and strategies involved in writing (including planning, sentence construction, summarizing and revising),” the researchers write.

“It is also advantageous for teachers to structure writing by having students work together in an organized fashion, establishing clear and reachable goals for writing assignments, provid- ing models of what the end product should look like, and engaging students in activities that help them acquire, evaluate, and organize ideas for their writing.”

The list of 10 recommendations is arranged in descending order from the interventions that showed the greatest treatment effects to those where treatment effect must be interpreted more cautiously because of variation in the type of interventions, etc.

Here are their recommendations:

1. Teach adolescents strategies for planning, revising, and editing their work. This is the most potent intervention, based on this metaanalysis. Especially effective is the use of a self-regulated strategy development model, although other models are effective too.

2. Teach strategies and procedures for summarizing reading material.

3. Provide opportunities for adolescents to work with their peers to plan, draft, revise and edit their work.

4. Set clear and specific goals for what adolescents should accomplish with their writing. Identify the purpose of the assignment and characteristics of the writing product (e.g. addressing both sides of the issue).

5. Allow use of word processing because it has a positive impact on the quality of their writing.

6. Teach adolescents how to write increasingly complex sentences by combining simpler sentences into more sophisticated sentences and through other approaches.

7. Provide teachers with professional development on use of the process writing approach. While professional development may not be as important for grades 4-6, it is important when teaching process writing to students in grades 7-12.

8. Involve adolescents in writing activities that sharpen their skills of inquiry. An effective inquiry activity has a clearly specified goal, the use of a specific strategy and the application of what was learned.

9. Give adolescents the opportunity to gather and organize their ideas before they write a first draft by, for example, working on a visual representation.

10. Provide adolescents with good models for each type of writing and encourage them to imitate the models after analyzing them.

Strategy instruction has a strong impact on improving the writing of students who find writing especially challenging. One question not answered in this study, the researchers note, is whether there is value in increasing the amount of writing done by adolescents.

Five types of interventions

The 123 studies for this meta-analysis were coded for type of intervention as well as for grade, type of student, number of participants, writing genre (journal, report, etc) and publication type. Studies were also coded on nine quality indicators for experimental and quasi-experimental design such as instructor training, teacher effects, etc.

The interventions fell into five major groups:

  • process writing approach.
  • explicit teaching of skills, processes or knowledge (i.e, grammar, summarization, sentence combining, etc.);
  • scaffolding students’ writing (prewriting, i inquiry, study of models, etc.);
  • extra time writing; and
  • alternative modes of composing such as word processing, writing out by hand.

“A Meta-Analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students,” by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2007, Volume 99, Number 3, pp. 445-476.

Published in ERN October 2007 Volume 20 Number 7

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