Experts agree that writing is a necessary skill, whether a child needs to compose an essay in school or a report at work. In addition, the standards ask for more writing and analysis in all content areas. Yet, every day, teachers face the challenge of getting children who don’t like to write to write.
Do students learn writing simply by writing, or through explicit instruction? There is no single “correct” teaching method that the experts agree on. What does work? That’s where the debate comes in. We’ll explore that question in this article.
Lessons from research
Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University, monitors research studies on teaching writing to students from kindergarten through 12th grade to determine what methods work. Through his research, he has confirmed there are effective practices emerging from today’s classrooms: strategies we know work, even though they are not widely being applied.
Just do it.
One such method is to simply get kids writing… a lot. Practice makes perfect in virtually every field. Writing is no exception. Studies show that extra time spent writing almost always improves the quality of a student’s writing. The problem is, in many classrooms writing takes the back seat to phonics, comprehension, and other instruction. Teachers may feel they don’t have time to read what their children write and give them frequent feedback. Plus, quantitatively measuring the quality of a child’s writing is difficult and requires the subjective judgment of the teacher, piece by piece.
How much time should a child spend writing? The answer is unclear. But the What Works Clearinghouse unit of the Department of Education recommends one hour a day. How to fill that hour? Start a family newsletter, write thank you notes, keep journals, send letters to politicians and authors. The options are endless.
Technology to the rescue
In studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote on computers instead of by hand. The difference was most evident with middle-school students, but younger students also benefited.
The thinking is that computers enable students to freely edit their sentences and paragraphs. The more writing is edited, the better it becomes. Another benefit of computerized text is that it can easily be shared with other students for feedback. Still, and for many reasons, the pencil remains the most common writing tool found in schools today.
Skip the grammar
Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. schools over the last 40 years. But that may be a good thing, at least when it comes to writing instruction. Research shows writing quality declines when children are taught grammar. Kids have a hard time relating to diagrammed sentences and grammar rules that don’t seem to have a place in the real world. Perhaps teachers should model correct grammar usage by showing students how it applies when writing sentences.
One thing about writing instruction we do know for sure. If a teacher recognizes the importance of writing, the students will, too. By doing so and by giving simple encouragement along the way, students will be motivated to write, to write frequently, and to love it.
For more practical tips and ways to encourage students to write, check out SDE’s webinar Let’s Get Them Writing (Gr. K–2) presented by author and classroom innovator Pat Pavelka.