What are Effective Approaches for Teaching Writing?

‘The Handbook of Writing Research’ is a good overview of some of the current areas of research:

So what approaches to teaching writing are effective? I have written previously about the importance of restrictive practice activities for teaching components, using model answers, helping students see the deep structure of writing tasks and strategies for ensuring that students write enough.

This post will explore a chapter from ‘The Handbook of Writing Research’. Entitled ‘A Review of Reviews’, the chapter synthesizes evidence from 19 previous evidence reviews covering pupils from KS1-KS4, many of which were meta-analyses, and includes both quantitative and qualitative studies. While there are undoubtedly limitations and potential issues with such large scale reviews (see this article for a brief overview as to the use of meta-analyses in education), this chapter gives a good overview of potentially effective approaches to the teaching of writing. What follows is a summary of the chapter’s recommendations.

Recommendations:

  1. Increase the amount of time that students spend writing

Effective teachers ask students to write often for a variety of useful purposes. Although this may seem a little reductive, much of GCSE English writing, spanning both literature and language, can be grouped into three main genres: rhetoric, descriptive/creative and responding to texts. These are broad categories, each containing a range of typical tasks that require slightly different approaches, but there are more similarities than differences within each one. Teachers should ensure that students are given enough opportunities to practice each type. Perhaps unsurprisingly, increasing the amount of time students spend practicing writing will likely increase the quality of their writing. To be maximally effective, practice needs to be deliberate and appropriate to the level of expertise of the students: asking pupils to write essays in year 7 may not be the best approach, their lack of fluency in the various components that make up an essay may mean that they will struggle with such an extended task.  

2. Create a Supportive Writing Environment

Students benefit from spending time gathering information and building their knowledge base so that they can then apply this in their writing. Knowing more about a topic or genre of writing is likely to result in better final pieces. This is an ideal opportunity to combine reading and writing within lessons. Asking pupils to read texts on relevant topics or read texts that can pupils can emulate will be good preparation for their writing.

Students should also be given time to plan and organize their ideas. A lot of writing research splits the writing process into three stages: planning, writing and reviewing, and teachers should be teaching students how to approach each of these stages, demonstrating how to approach each stage as well as providing them with models and specific strategies for each one.

Teachers who are enthusiastic and emphasize the importance of effort about writing are more likely to be effective; they should set specific goals (how much? what style? which components? what content?) and have relentlessly high expectations of all students. Support should be given to those who need it: after setting a writing task, I often go and give individual help to specific students, providing further prompts, giving sentence frames or asking them questions about process or approach.

3. Teach Writing Skills, Strategies, Knowledge and Motivation

In the US, there is a substantial body of writing research centred around ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Development’, known as SRSD. Strategy Instruction is often focused upon the three main stages of the writing process and teaches students how to plan, write and review their work. This approach is particularly effective when students are taught self-regulation procedures. A subsequent blog post will explore SRSD in more detail but this paper provides a good overview.

SRSD tends to focus on the wider process of writing, but effective teachers also focus on foundational skills and the components that make up the wider performance. Student who struggle with transcription (handwriting and spelling) will need instruction in these if they are to succeed in developing their writing fluency. If handwriting or spelling is laborious and slow, this will preclude students from being able to concentrate on the wider processes of writing like generating ideas, composing sentences or planning as their attention will be unduly focused on this area of dysfluency.

Seen through the lens of limited working memory, we can only concentrate on so many things at once. Skilled, fluent writers are able to write at a rapid pace whilst directing attention to planning, the needs of the audience and subtle ideas like tone or voice because their transcription has reached a state of automaticity, most likely through extensive reading and writing practice. For a useful overview of the importance of fluent handwriting, this post by Alex Quigley is worth reading.

As well as focusing on foundational skills, effective writing instruction will also involve sentence based work. This could be through sentence combining or through modelling and practicing specific constructions. The aim of this teaching should be fluency and optimal instruction and practice will be distributed and sufficiently varied, support being gradually faded as pupils gain in expertise.

Cognitive Load Theory would suggest that novices learn best from worked examples and this research view corroborates that finding. An effective approach is to ask pupils to emulate model texts. If you are teaching creative writing, a well-chosen short story can provide a transferable narrative structure for pupils to hang their ideas upon.

Enhancing student motivation can also be effective and one of the most powerful ways of doing so is engineering regular opportunities for pupils to succeed. If pupils are not succeeding, then this should make you stop and think. Perhaps you are aiming instruction at a composite skill when you should be focusing on the dysfluent components that are preventing pupils from succeeding. Perhaps you have removed support too quickly and you have not spent enough time on a specific instructional stage within the I-We-You continuum.

4. Provide Feedback

Students make better progress if they receive useful feedback about their writing. This does not mean extensive written marking, an approach that is incredibly time consuming and doesn’t seem to result in the gains that it promises. Self-assessment can be effective, although it is perhaps most useful when it involves pupils checking for whether they have included specific things or followed a specific process. Similarly, peer assessment can be really useful, particularly when pupils are given guidance as to how to approach it. 

5. Use 21st Century Writing Tools

The chapter points to how typing can help pupils become better writers. As adults, I’m sure that most of the writing that we do is on a computer but most examinations are still handwritten. Even in KS4, lots of pupils still need to build their writing stamina, their English examinations being amongst the longest that they will sit at GCSE, and this is why regular writing using a pen is still really important.

6.Use Writing as a tool to Support Student Learning.

Reading and writing are inextricably linked, both drawing upon the same body of knowledge and skills. Timothy Shannahan summarises the relationship between the two modalities here. Asking pupils to write about what they have read can be seen as a generative activity. Students need to select relevant material, organize it within their working memory and connect it to prior knowledge within their long term memories. If pupils successfully engage in these three stages, this is more likely to result in understanding. For example, asking pupils to write summaries of what they have read can be really effective.

Caveats and Limitations

The writers acknowledge that this review cannot tell us exactly what combination of approaches is needed for effective writing instruction. While all of these strategies are deemed to be effective, the writers are careful to point out that teachers should make decisions as to the selection and application of the recommendations based upon their knowledge of their students. One way of making effective instructional choices is by focusing on pupils levels of accuracy and fluency. The writers also point out that these recommendations tell us nothing about how to develop a writer’s voice, the awareness of audience or how to teach EAL students.

Next post: The Development of Expertise in Writing: From Telling to Crafting

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