Along with reading comprehension, writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and the global economy. However, every year in the United States, large numbers of students graduate from high school unable to write well enough to meet the needs of employers or colleges. So says Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education that focuses on the importance of good writing skills to a student’s future success and offers new insights about techniques that will improve writing instruction for secondary students.
“Reading proficiency is just half of the literacy picture,” said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “We have to widen the literacy spotlight to include writing as well as reading. Increasing students’ writing abilities increases their literacy abilities, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that they will stay in school and graduate. And that means they have a much better chance for future success.”
Although reading and writing are both vital aspects of literacy, they each require their own dedicated instruction. What improves reading does not always improve writing. In addition, many adolescents are able to handle average reading demands but have severe difficulties with writing. Writing Next is meant to respond to the strong need for information about how to improve classroom writing instruction to address the serious problem of adolescent writing difficulty. In this way, Writing Next is a companion piece to another Alliance report, Reading Next, which helped to jumpstart discussion around improving reading instruction for adolescents.
“My hope, indeed my expectation, is that this new report, Writing Next, will help give rise to precisely the same kind of groundswell of attention and energy as Reading Next gave to adolescent reading, focused this time on the writing skills of America’s adolescents,” Wise said at a release event for Writing Next on October 19.
However, unlike Reading Next, which presents general methods and interventions that are useful for improving reading instruction, Writing Next highlights specific teaching techniques that work in the classroom. During the release event, the report’s authors, Dr. Steve Graham, professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Dolores Perin, associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, explained how they were able to use a powerful statistical method, known as meta-analysis, to summarize existing research on writing instruction and to highlight the practices that hold the most promise. In addition, they were also able to identify eleven classroom practices that, as research suggests, will help improve the writing abilities of fourth- to twelfth-grade students. (A table of these practices is available below).
Writing Skills Are More Important Now Than Ever Before
The 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in writing shows that very large numbers of adolescents need interventions to help them become better writers. In fact, 72 percent of fourth graders, 69 percent of eighth graders, and 77 percent of twelfth graders failed to score at the “proficient” level on the NAEP.
Having large percentages of high school students with low writing scores seems to imply that too many college students will lack the writing skills they need to succeed. Dr. Ron Williams, president of Prince George’s County Community College in Maryland, confirmed this belief during the panel discussion at the Writing Next release. First, he acknowledged that the best-prepared students and the worst-prepared students did not attend community colleges and said that most of the students he sees fit somewhere in the middle of those two categories. Among those students, however, he said that approximately 70 percent need remediation, with about one-third in need of additional help in writing. He added that the global nature of today’s society means that an individual’s introduction to someone else will most likely occur through the written word (emails, research papers, etc.) rather than face-to-face.
Indeed, the explosion of electronic and wireless communication into everyday life has brought writing skills into play “as never before,” according to the report. It finds that not only have good writing skills become critical in the workplace, but also they often play a large part in hiring and promotion decisions. As Dr. Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, explained at the release event, human interaction in the 21st century is increasingly through computers, rather than face-to-face. “It’s relatively clear that the modern economy and the competencies required in the 21st century lean more and more towards basic reading and writing kinds of functions,” he said.
Ed Hardin, a senior content specialist for the College Board who oversees the new writing portion of the SAT, spoke about the level of writing that he currently sees from high school students. “We see kids who come in with that five-paragraph structure; they fit everything into this little shoebox and can do a decent job, but on our six-point scale, those kids typically do no better than a 4,” he said. “The kids who get those 5s and 6s are kids …[whose] teachers go beyond the specific approaches that work for all kids and focus on things than can [help the individuals] develop a little bit further.”
As Dr. James McPartland, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, explained at the release, teaching students how to write can be difficult for many teachers. “Humans learn by seeing an expert demonstrate [something] before them and then practice it,” he said. However, he explained that it is difficult for a teacher to impart the complexities of writing and to reveal what goes on in his or her mind during the process. To assist teachers, McPartland would provide them with more time to work and plan together, as well as access to “writing coaches,” experts who can work with teachers and instruct them on how to teach writing.
In his remarks, Paul LeMahieu, director of research and evaluation at the National Writing Project, addressed what it would take to improve students’ writing skills. “We need individual leadership and championship that can secure the collective will that it’s going to take to put [improving writing] on the agenda,” he said. He added that more teachers at the secondary level need to be involved in the teaching of reading and writing. “This is both a challenge and a necessity during the adolescent years, as the curriculum becomes more topically focused and more content oriented and with it the tendency for some to exclude themselves from the responsibility for teaching reading and writing,” he said. “We need to make literacy acquisition and writing in particular a responsibility of all of our teachers.”
During the question and answer portion of the event, panel moderator Sandy Kress, a partner at the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP and former senior advisor to President Bush on education with respect to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, addressed which policy levers could drive a more systemic focus on writing. “It seems to me that the decision of the SAT [to have] a prominent writing aspect of that test—that itself is going to drive policy,” he said. “As for how you drive it more systemically, it would take an emphasis through, in my own judgment, assessment and accountability.”
The complete report is available here.
Audio and video from the release event are available here.
|Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing InstructionThe “Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction” identified in Writing Next appear below. The report is careful to note that, although all of the elements are supported by rigorous research and have shown clear results for improving students’ writing, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum—even when used together. They can, however, be combined in flexible ways to strengthen adolescents’ literacy development.