Research on Writing Instruction Strategies

Image from Nationaal Archief via Flickr [1937]
A friend and mentor suggested I read “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools.” It’s a 2007 report by Drs. Steve Graham and Dolores Perin and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alliance for Excellent Education. In it, Drs. Graham and Perin identify eleven effective elements found in current writing instruction. I have summarized these elements (in order of decreasing effectiveness), along with my reactions below:

  1. Writing Strategies — Explicitly teaching students specifics for planning, revising, and editing
    • This seems pretty obvious, and it’s not surprising that it’s the most effective. In order for students to write well, they need to go through phases all writers go through, and they need to be shown what each of these phases look like. The authors provided a few example strategies in the report such as Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) and Pay attention to the prompt, List the main idea, Add supporting details, Number your ideas (PLAN). Given that good writing takes time, I continue to wonder why standardized tests require timed essays that are fully formed.
  2. Summarization — Teaching students how to summarize texts
    • Practice makes perfect, or at least proficient. Giving students a specific focus like a summary and practice will enable them to produce an adequate summary. (This ties in nicely with #4.)
  3. Collaborative Writing — Students work together in writing
    • I view this as the benefits of a critique group at all stages during the writing process and fits with Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence as well as Vygotsky’s argument for socialization in learning.
  4. Specific Product Goals — Assign students specific, reachable goals
    • If you’re specific in directions and ask for something students are capable of giving, you’re more likely to get quality work in response. Specific objectives and rubrics can help with this.
  5. Word Processing — Using computers and word processors
    • I was a little surprised that using computers appears to be an effective instructional support. While students can spell check and easily add, delete, and move text, I keep hearing from professional writers how they write their stories by hand. I wonder what students will miss by not putting an actual pen to paper; maybe a powerful surge flowing through them, but maybe nothing.
  6. Sentence Combining — Teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
    • This reminds me of sentence fluency in the 6+1 traits. I wonder why the authors focused just on this trait. While effective, without ideas, organization, voice, word choice, conventions, and presentation, it’s only one element.
  7. Prewriting — Activities designed to help students organize ideas for composition
    • a.k.a. the first step in the writing process. Perhaps the most rushed through step in writing, and one that shouldn’t be! It allows for more fully fleshed out ideas, and students are more invested in their work when they plan ahead of time.
  8. Inquiry Activities — Students analyze data to help them develop ideas and content for a writing task
    • Anytime you can get students to discover knowledge on their own is a good thing. 🙂
  9. Process Writing Approach — A workshop approach that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
    • Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of this depended upon the training teachers received in the process writing approach since there is a lot to it.
  10. Study of Models — Students read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
    • This is equivalent to studying mentor texts for gathering ideas on how to shape one’s own writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning — Using writing as a tool to learn content material
    • Unsurprisingly, writing can be effective for learning about various content in different subjects.

While the most effective element was explicitly teaching students writing strategies, it is important to note that all of these elements proved effective, and can be combined to strengthen adolescent literacy development. It is also important to note that many of the effect sizes differed only minimally, so we need to be cautious in interpreting the differences in effect.

What surprised me most was the rank of the study of models (#10). I keep reading about mentor texts. In fact, I contributed two blog entries about their benefits here and here. And, it’s true that they’re helpful in teaching students to write well. But, mentor texts are only helpful if students have the basic writing skills beforehand in order to learn from masters and extrapolate that information into their own work, and when we use them in conjunction within a larger literacy and writing framework.


The report repeatedly mentioned that these elements do not make up a complete writing curriculum on their own. This made me wonder: what does constitute a solid writing curriculum for fourth grade and up? And, what are some additional practices in writing instruction? I’m familiar with the writing process, Writer’s Workshop, 6 +1 traits, and others. But, what else is there? And how do they all tie together with reading, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing? And, why is reading still receiving more attention than writing? Obviously, I have some more reading and thinking to do!

A good study should shed light on questions while at the same time inciting more. I’ve only summarized a portion of this report–I did not mention the history of writing instruction, the necessity of writing or the consequences of poor writing, additional methodologies to consider, and more. Click here to read the full report.

In the meantime, do you have a reaction to the findings or my questions? If so, please share your thoughts!

If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and reword raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write.”

–the National Commission on Writing, as cited in Writing Next