Research Corner

Research Corner

WRITING: The Neglected R Returns Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority

Writing has received less attention lately than the other two Rs, reading and 'rithmetic, but rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Beginning in 2005, the SAT college entrance exam will require students to write an essay, and the ACT will include an optional essay component. Writing--sometimes called the neglected R--seems poised for a comeback.

Renewed attention to writing instruction will likely be met with applause from college professors and employers. Among both groups, roughly three out of four rate high school graduates' ability to write clearly as "fair" or "poor," according to research from Public Agenda. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly a quarter of incoming freshmen at two-year public colleges need remedial writing courses. And students' average scores on the 1998 and 2002 NAEP writing assessment revealed no significant change for 12th graders, although there was a slight improvement among fourth and eighth graders.

Research and findings from national assessments offer guidance on improving writing instruction and using writing as a learning tool. Yet "surprisingly little" of this informs current debate about education reform, says Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project. Further, writes Carl Nagan, composition pedagogy remains a largely "neglected area of study at most of the nation's 1,300 schools of education. Nor is it a specific requirement in most state teacher certification programs."

As districts seek to bolster teachers' knowledge about effective instructional practices in writing, several key research findings can help pick professional development approaches or school-wide writing programs:

Process Professional writers know writing is a complex process that involves planning, composing and revising. Student achievement is higher when teachers acknowledge this process and guide students through the steps. Eighth- and 12th-grade students who outperformed peers on the 1998 NAEP writing assessment report that teachers asked them to plan their writing "at least once a week or once or twice a month" and to write more than one draft. The NAEP report also suggests teachers support higher scores in writing when they talk with students about what they are writing and keep student work in portfolios.

Mechanics Grammar, punctuation and spelling are best taught in the context of writing rather than in isolated drills. "Perhaps the most widely ignored research finding," according to T. R. Smith, "is that the teaching of formal grammar, if divorced from the process of writing, has little or no effect on the writing ability of students." Grammar instruction should not be ignored, but integrated.

Practice Learning to write requires frequent practice. Simply assigning more writing, however, is not enough. Teachers must teach students how to organize thoughts, develop ideas and revise for clarity.

Motivation Effective writing assignments foster higher-order thinking about what students have read or experienced. These tasks engage students in writing for authentic purposes for real audiences.

Home language/culture Research into writing and language use shows teachers can boost literacy among English-language learners and minority students by helping them master "multiple social discourses." Lisa Delpit suggests teachers can best accomplish this by using students' cultures, dialects or home languages as a springboard to wider knowledge, helping them understand stylistic differences between home languages and standard written English.

Breadth Research shows that "writing to learn" can improve higher-order reasoning skills, yet writing is underused as a tool for thinking and learning across the curriculum. Effective writing-across-the curriculum programs involve teachers from all subject areas, address specific content-area concerns and provide opportunities for dialogue.

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