The Learning Environmental Processes Underlying Writing Acquisition
The lackluster writing performance of elementary school students in the U.S. has raised concern about classroom writing instruction. The most recent results from the 4th
grade writing subtest of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that 70% of students did not meet the benchmark for proficient writing (Persky, Daane, & Jin, 2003). In response to these and other data, the National Commission on Writing (2003, 2004) released reports arguing that skillful writing is necessary for both academic and professional success. Consequently, the Commission called for a renewed focus on writing instruction.
Although writing research is not nearly as well developed as reading research, considerable progress has been made in the last twenty years (Graham, 2006). While much has been learned about how students learn to write both in and out-of school, the focus of this entry is on how students learn to write in the context of elementary-school classrooms.
Recent Research Results
Question 1: What are the characteristics of school and classroom environments that help students become strong writers?
What are the characteristics of school and classroom environments that help students become strong writers?
What skills are important for young writers to learn and what is known about effective instructional methods to teach those skills?
What instructional practices have demonstrated the most value in raising the quality of students’ writing?
Pressley and colleagues conducted a series of qualitative
studies to explore the characteristics of highly rated schools and classrooms (for summaries see Graham & Perin, 2007b; Pressley, Mohan, Fingeret, Reffitt, & Raphael-Bogaert, 2006). These studies offer insight into the school and classroom characteristics that provide students with experiences and expectations to help them develop into strong writers. Some of the findings, such as engaging students in a process approach to writing, overlap with intervention research reviewed in the next section, so this discussion will focus on unique factors. Many findings point to efforts to make writing an integral part of the classroom, such as allotting ample time for writing, including it across the curriculum, and teaching multiple forms of writing. Other findings describe classroom elements designed to keep students engaged in writing. These include encouraging a positive approach to writing by staying enthusiastic, avoiding simplistic activities such as dry worksheets, providing rich literacy materials for students’ use, and setting high expectations for performance. Teachers were also found to be responsive to students’ needs by including small group and individual sessions with students, adapting writing activities for those who need more support, and providing instructional support for students. Simultaneously, these teachers also encourage students to take control of the composing process. In addition, many of the classrooms where literacy achievement was high were rarely disrupted because discipline problems were uncommon.
Question 2: What skills are important for young writers to learn and what is known about effective instructional methods to teach those skills?
Research in the past twenty years has highlighted the importance of transcription skills for young writers. Transcription involves handwriting (or typing) and spelling, and these skills typically develop before writers employ processes like planning or revising (Berninger & Swanson, 1994). Until transcription becomes fairly automatic, young writers devote substantial cognitive resources to handwriting and spelling, which may come at the expense of composing processes (McCutchen, 2000). The impact of transcription skills on writing quality persists across the elementary grades. For example, Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, and Whitaker (1997) found that transcription skills (handwriting fluency and spelling) explained a considerable amount of variance in both length (41% to 66%) and in quality (25% to 42%) of students’ writing in grades one to six.
Instruction in handwriting has been found to strengthen handwriting fluency and improve other writing outcomes such as sentence construction, written length and quality for both normally developing students (Graham, Harris, & Fink, 2000) and those with writing difficulties in first grade (Berninger et al., 1997; Jones & Christensen, 1999). Despite the efficacy of handwriting instruction, relatively little is known about handwriting instruction in schools. Surveys reveal that a majority of primary grade teachers provide handwriting instruction; however, there is considerable variability around the amount of time devoted to instruction, the methods employed, and the teachers’ knowledge about handwriting development and instruction (Graham et al., 2007).
Research on handwriting has identified a number of practices associated with effective instruction. These include introducing easier letters before more difficult ones, teaching letter formation using models with arrows, engaging in timed copying tasks where students compete with themselves, and including opportunities to write connected text directly after practicing letter formation. Dividing instruction into multiple brief segments rather than fewer long sessions is also included (Berninger et al., 1997; Graham et al., 2007; Graham, Weintraub, & Berninger, 2001).
The second component of transcription, spelling, has also been found to be a crucial component of literacy development. Research with elementary-aged students has shown that spelling ability is predictive of compositional length and quality (Abbott, Berninger, & Fayol, 2010; Graham, Harris, & Chorzempa, 2002; Graham et al., 1997; Wagner et al., 2010). Spelling is also closely related to phonological awareness
and alphabetic knowledge, which are important early reading skills (Ehri, 1997; Richgels, 1995; Vernon & Ferreiro, 1999). Spelling instruction has been shown to benefit both students identified with (O’Connor & Jenkins, 1995; Vandervelden & Siegel, 1997; Wanzek et al., 2006) and those without (Craig, 2006; Ehri & Wilce, 1987; Graham & Hebert, 2010) reading and writing difficulties.
A recent survey indicates that nearly all primary-grade teachers in the U.S. engage in spelling instruction and that they use a range of techniques (Graham et al., 2008). Given that spelling research has a fairly long history (Schlagal, 2002), there are a number of instructional recommendations that have demonstrated efficacy. These include the use of a pretest-study-posttest structure, self-correction activities for students, word-sorting activities, and spelling games (Gentry, 2004; Graham, 1983; Graham et al., 2002). Since spelling growth is often characterized as a phase- or stage-based developmental process (Ehri, 1997; Henderson, & Templeton, 1986), the selection of spelling words that are developmentally appropriate for children is recommended. Students with spelling difficulties have also been shown to respond well to explicit instruction, many opportunities to practise spelling, feedback from teachers or peers, and the use of computer assisted approaches (Wanzek et al., 2006).
Question 3: What instructional practices have demonstrated the most value in raising the quality of students’ writing?
Despite renewed attention to students’ writing achievement and more recent research, there are substantial gaps in what is known about writing instruction in schools. One of the most surprising omissions is that there is relatively little information about how writing instruction is actually conducted in schools (Cutler & Graham, 2008). Some of the most current data on writing instruction have been gathered through teacher surveys (Cutler & Graham, 2008; Gilbert & Graham, 2010). These studies suggest that in the primary grades writing happens for only a small part of the day (20 to 30 minutes) and that there is wide variation in teachers’ instructional approaches (Cutler & Graham, 2008). In the upper elementary grades, teachers report even less time devoted to writing instruction (15 minutes); furthermore, students are engaged in writing extended text for only about 30 minutes a day (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Teachers at all levels indicated that they feel underprepared to teach writing. Teacher surveys provide insight into what is occurring in the classroom; however, one of the limitations of survey research is that surveys cannot estimate the effectiveness of instructional approaches.
research have been conducted to identify the instructional approaches with the strongest empirical
support. Since Hillock’s (1986) seminal study, some recent meta-analyses have included instructional studies in the elementary grades (Graham, Kiuhara, McKeown, & Harris, under review; Graham & Perin, 2007b). In addition, more targeted meta-analyses have investigated the impact of strategy instruction (Graham, 2006) and the use of word processors (Bangert-Drowns, 1993). Although these studies varied in their foci and methods, taken together, they provide a set of robust indicators of effective writing interventions.
Common across the meta-analyses are a set of instructional methods that have demonstrated efficacy with students in elementary school. The first, process writing, is seen as a holistic instructional approach. Process writing is characterized by a number of features including time for extended writing, the planning, drafting, revising, and editing cycle, authentic writing purposes, personalized teacher feedback, a supportive classroom atmosphere, and an emphasis on self-evaluation (Graham, Kiuhara, McKeown, & Harris, under review).
Other instructional methods are designed to be incorporated into a full writing curriculum. Of these, strategy instruction has perhaps the biggest and most robust research base. This approach involves direct student instruction in cognitive strategies used for planning, revising and editing. Of the various approaches to writing strategy instruction, Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) has received the most research attention and empirical support (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008). SRSD combines instruction in cognitive strategies with self-regulatory strategies designed to help students manage the composing process.
Another recommended approach is teaching students pre-writing activities that support planning and idea generation. Having students work together while writing has also been demonstrated to be effective. In addition, setting specific product goals for a writing task is associated with higher quality writing. The use of word processors has also demonstrated that it can help students write better. Finally, teaching students to write summaries of text they have read was shown to strengthen the writing (Graham & Perin, 2007b) and the reading outcomes (Graham & Hebert, 2010) of adolescent students.
A number of the meta-analyses also investigated the impact of traditional grammar instruction on writing quality (Hillocks, 1986; Graham & Perin, 2007b; Graham et al., under review). Although there was some variation in how grammar instruction was evaluated, it was not found to strengthen writing quality. However, there is some evidence from single-subject design studies that grammar instruction can improve the grammar (rather than writing quality) of students with learning disabilities (Graham & Perin, 2007). An alternative to grammar instruction, sentence-combining, has been able to improve the quality of students’ writing. In this approach, students are taught to elaborate (or combine) simple sentences to make them more complex.
Despite its considerable importance to academic and professional success, writing has not received the amount of research attention that it merits. The authors of recent meta-analyses note that the empirical evidence for some instructional approaches is relatively sparse (Graham et al., under review; Graham & Perin, 2007b). Investigators need to expand their work to explore the strengths and limitations of existing and new instructional approaches. This will involve investigating the efficacy of many approaches with a wider age range of students. In addition, researchers and policymakers will also have to address the challenges involved in implementing new instructional approaches in schools. Additionally, more research on the most effective practices for students with varying levels of skill and experience is needed. Recent research in early reading has revealed that students with varying skill profiles respond differentially to instruction (e.g. Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004). More of this type of work needs to be done so that instructors can differentiate between writing instruction methods more effectively. Finally, to help teachers differentiate successfully, more sensitive assessment measures are needed to identify struggling writers, to inform instruction, and to monitor student progress (McMaster, Ritchey, & Lembke, in press).
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