Effective Writing Strategies
In case you are out of the loop with edu-speak, the latest trend is that all strategies be “evidence-based.” What does that mean? Quite simply, for any strategy to be evidence-based there must be several studies completed which prove its effectiveness. With the internet and computers, this is getting easier and easier to do. A program is written to scan for all studies completed measuring the effectiveness of strategies then a meta-analysis is completed to rate the effectiveness of each strategy. The great thing about using “evidence-based” strategies for teachers and tutors is through the research they can be sure the strategies they use with students are the best. The only thing to be aware of – every student is a unique learner and what works the best for large groups of students may not be the best approach for your learner.
In 2007, Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York was published which outlined the most effective strategies for teaching writing. You can see the full report here: http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingNext.pdf. Below are the highlights from the report and quick explanations.
Page 3 – writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy.
This point seems self-evident, unless your learner is a math-wonk or science-brain. But even in math and science, and if your learner doesn’t seem university bound, writing is a basic requirement for participation in the work-place (think incident reports and writing cover letters) and civic life (think writing letters to the editor or emails to family).
Being able to write proficiently allows learners to master all concepts, to think about their thinking and to explain their thinking to others.
Page 7 – …although reading and writing are complementary skills whose development runs a roughly parallel course, they do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Conventional wisdom has held that if a person is an avid reader, he will be a good writer. It is true that there are many learners who learn good writing skills through reading; they absorb the rules and talents implicit in the writing of others. For other learners, though, writing skills and strategies must be made explicit. Making writing skills and strategies is much more than learning to place a comma in the right place. It is learning the rhetorical moves writers make to communicate a point to their readers or audience.
Page 8 – While readers form a mental representation of thoughts written by someone else, writers formulate their own thoughts, organize them, and create a written record of them using the conventions of spelling and grammar.
The key here is that written conventions: spelling, punctuation and rules of grammar, help readers understand a writer’s point. Likewise, writers must master these conventions to avoid their readers misinterpreting their message. Sure, you can hire an editor to fix all those things, but only if the editor understands your intent.
… although writing and reading are both vital aspects of literacy, they each require their own dedicated instruction.
This reiterates the idea that being a good reader does not necessarily make a learner a good writer. Dedicated instruction in writing is important to teach the forms of written expression, the rhetorical moves used by writers to enhance their message, and the specific conventions needed to ensure reader understanding of written expression.
Page 9 – Proficient writers can adapt their writing flexibly to the context in which it takes place.
Reading and responding to a writing prompt appropriately is a discreet skill, a skill that can be taught. Good writers have the ability to write a variety of forms for a variety of purposes to fit the context of the writing situation.
For instance, it used to be that college application essays were about “Why should we admit you?” Today, colleges require applicants to write a unique essay for each their application, and to demonstrate creativity. Some writing prompts include: What have you undertaken or done on your own in the last year or two that has nothing to do with academic work? (Northwestern) or Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University). You can find 100 examples here: http://www.hpregional.org/departments/english/mhassenplug/100%20topics.html.
…it [writing] is a skill that draws on the use of strategies (such as planning, evaluating, and revising texts) to accomplish a variety of goals, such as writing a report or expressing an opinion with the support of evidence. Second, writing is a means of extending and deepening students’ knowledge; it acts as a tool for learning the subject matter.
Writing as a tool for learning the subject matter is a time-honored tradition. E.M. Forster famously said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Translation = writing down your thoughts helps to clarify what you think, or what you know. Keeping notes, organizing those notes into a plan, writing an essay or report then revising the text to make sure your ideas are clear is set of complex cognitive skills. This is why writing instruction is so important.
Page 15 – Teaching adolescents strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions has shown a dramatic effect on the quality of students’ writing. Strategy instruction involves explicitly and systematically teaching steps necessary for planning, revising, and/or editing text (Graham, 2006).
Specific strategies for completing specific writing assignments help learners to understand explicitly how to be successful for each writing situation. For example, a basic book report requires simply that the learner summarize the contents of the book, answering the questions of who, where, when, what and why. Whereas, a book review, while containing a summary, also requires that the learner make evaluations and support those evaluations. Finally, a literary analysis of a book requires the reader to summarize, create a thesis about the literary value of the book, and evaluate the success of the book based on the thesis.
This is just one example of how responding to reading a book can require quite different strategies for planning, revising and editing work.
…specific types of writing tasks, such as writing a story, or a persuasive essay… explicitly teaching adolescents strategies for planning, revising and/or editing has a strong impact on the quality of their writing.
Again, the research shows that the most effective strategies for teaching planning and revising of a writing project must be specific to the writing task. Writing a story requires much different planning and revisions to be successful than the planning and revisions for writing a successful persuasive essay.
Page 16 – [Effective writing instruction is]…characterized by explicit instruction of writing strategies and self-regulation procedures (e.g., self-assessment, and goal- setting), as well as individualized instruction and criterion-based learning.
Teaching writing is not only about the teaching of evidence-based writing strategies, but also include teaching learners to assess their own writing (self-assessment) and goal-setting. Helping learners recognize their strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement engages learners in metacognition (thinking about their thinking). Having students set and reach writing goals creates habits for writing that will carry them throughout their writing life. Finally, individualized instruction that is “criterion-based” or based on specific expectations, with a skilled teacher or tutor, is best.
Page 17 – Setting product goals involves assigning students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete. It includes identifying the purpose of the assignment (e.g., to persuade) as well as characteristics of the final product.
These goals include a clear writing prompt which declares the writing situation, the needed written response and the intended audience for the assignment, as well as clear expectations for the final product. A great way to be sure your learner has access to both the purpose of the assignment and the characteristics of the final product is to use the “test-released” writing prompts and accompanying grading rubrics from state tests.
In the state of California, sample writing prompts and sample student responses are available for learners to use as guides for their own writing. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/hs/documents/studyela08sec6.pdf . Using these writing prompts and rubrics helps teachers and tutors to define the writing situation and the expectations.
The use of word-processing equipment can be particularly helpful for low-achieving writers. …may be especially effective in enhancing the quality of text produced by low-achieving writers.
The use of technology not only motivates advanced learners, but also aids learners who struggle with writing. In my experience, showing learners the tools to help them with spelling and watching them use the program to free themselves to worry more about creating an engaging story or persuasive argument is, well, priceless!
Page 18 – …Pre-writing engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition. Engaging adolescents in such activities before they write a first draft improves the quality of their writing. Pre-writing activities include gathering possible information for a paper through reading or developing a visual representation of their ideas before sitting down to write.
Offering learners a variety of methods for pre-writing allows them to find the strategy that works best for their writing style or for the writing assignment. Teaching how to outline, how to free-write, how to use graphic organizers or thinking maps, or how to write from the end gives learners a assortment of tools to help them prepare to write.
Page 19 – encouraging cycles of planning, translating, and reviewing: stressing personal responsibility and ownership of writing projects; …encouraging self-reflection and evaluation; and offering personalized individual assistance, brief instructional lessons to meet students’ individual needs, and, in some instances, more extended and systematic instruction.
Though there will be times when learners must write a composition on demand, teaching writing is more about teaching the process of writing, of creating a finished product which has gone through several cycles of writing and rewriting and ending with editing. Teachers and tutors must focus on the needs of the individual learner in the process of writing a specific, unique product to help that learner reach her full potential.
Page 20 – The study of models provides adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction.
This seems to contradict the idea that good readers are automatically good writers. Actually, if teachers or tutors can explicitly use models of good writing to teach explicitly the rhetorical moves made by proficient writers, this allows learners to model these specific rhetorical moves within their own writing.
Page 21 – …traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers…yielded negative results.
Do not make the mistake here that learners don’t need grammar instruction. The key here is “traditional grammar instruction” which includes “drill and kill” worksheets. What has been proven to work are mini-lessons focused on the needs of the learner and the specific writing assignment. So…
…teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing.
Of course, this requires having a proficient instructor who is able to identify the needs of a learner in the context of the writing assignment.
Page 23 – Writing proficiency develops over time. … As they become more proficient writers, students gradually move from “knowledge-telling” to “knowledge-transformation” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987, p. 5 – 6 ).
This is the movement of learners writing to show us what they know to writing to express what they are learning to writing to express what we should know. This is a magical transformation that is possible for all writers with the application of these “evidence-based” practices.
In conclusion, this is an important meta-analysis of what works for writing instruction. If you want to examine the “Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction” in order of effectiveness, it is found on page 4 of the report. Learners who have instructors who are versed in these evidence-based strategies or who have writing curriculum which makes these strategies explicit will find success on their writing journeys.
Graham, S., & Perin, D.(2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington,DC:Alliance for Excellent Education.