A guide to teaching effective writing

There’s much lamenting about how high-quality research tends not to inform classroom practice and how to fix that problem. Enter the What Works Clearinghouse’s (WWC) “Educator’s Practice Guides.” The WWC has produced twenty-two such guides over the last nine years on sundry topics that should interest educators. Their most recent installment is Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively. As someone who once taught secondary students how to write (yes, it was a long time ago!), I was keenly interested in what it had to say. Unfortunately, it misses the mark.

First a bit on how the guides are developed: the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) identifies a topic and recruits a panel chair with national expertise in the topic. That chair, working with IES, selects expert panelists, which always includes two practitioners, to co-author the guide. Relevant studies are identified through panelist recommendations and a systematic literature search, and then reviewed against the WWC study design standards, which prioritize random assignment and rigorous quasi-experimental designs. Panelists write the practice guide that boils down takeaways from the culled research. Their findings are subject to peer review to ensure that the cited evidence supports the recommendations.

The panel for Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively sifted through 3,700 relevant studies from 1995 through 2015. But most were deemed ineligible for various reasons, leaving just fifty-five that used a randomized control trial or quasi-experimental design—and of those, just fifteen met the WWC criteria.

In the end, this evidence scrub resulted in three recommendations for teaching high school kids how to write—one of which has “strong” evidence (eleven supporting studies), another that has “moderate” evidence (eight studies), and the last with “minimal” evidence (four studies). The “strong” recommendation is to teach appropriate writing strategies using a Model-Practice-Reflect instructional cycle. This includes things like teaching students the process of writing—meaning how to plan, draft, evaluate, revise, and edit—and to teach writing strategies such as using a Venn diagram as a tool for a comparison and contrast essay.

The “moderate” recommendation is to integrate writing and reading to emphasize key writing features. That includes teaching students to model their writing after exemplars and to study an author’s craft. For instance, a student might mimic her writing after a passage in a Hemingway or John Steinbeck novel.

The third recommendation, based on “minimal” evidence, is to use assessments of student writing to inform instruction and feedback, including having the teacher assess the student’s writing strengths, perhaps through a writing prompt, before teaching a new strategy or skill.

There’s nothing wrong with these unsurprising (and uninspiring!) recommendations. Yet they rely more on teaching strategies than on content. In fact, there’s just one fleeting mention in the eighty-nine-page guide that students may no longer need to implement strategies if they can write without them. How about acknowledging that obedience to strategies and processes may hinder rather than promote powerful writing for some students? Moreover, some very sensible counsel is missing—specifically, the recommendation that students should read a lot of content-rich texts. Because good readers make good writers.

SOURCE: Steve Graham et al., “Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively,” The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (November 2016).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.