New guide offers elementary school advice on developing effective writers

Steve Graham

A national panel of experts, chaired by an ASU professor, has issued a new guide providing practical advice for elementary school teachers wishing to instill effective writing skills in their students.

Steve Graham from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and six colleagues with expertise in writing, language arts, and education research collaborated to produce “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers,” a new What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide. The guide details four recommendations that teachers and other educators can use to improve students’ writing.

“The WWC document provides teachers with useful and proven suggestions on how to best teach writing to children,” said Graham, who is the Mary Emily Warner Professor in Teachers College.

“This is especially important now, as the Common Core Standards make writing and writing instruction a central part of educational reform in the United States,” Graham said. “Establishing effective practices for teaching writing and increasing the emphasis on writing in school is beneficial for students and schools, as we know that writing about material presented in class or text books enhances the learning of such material, and teaching students how to write also enhances their reading skills.”

The Arizona 2010 English Language Arts Standards were developed through a national effort, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, to help all students reach post-secondary success. All districts in the state must fully implement the standards by 2013 to be ready for new assessments based on these standards, which will be administered for the first time in the 2014-2015 school year.

“We are fortunate to have attracted to the faculty someone with Steve’s expertise in the teaching of writing,” said Mari Koerner, dean of Teachers College. “His contributions will be invaluable as we work to fully integrate the Common Core Standards into our teacher preparation coursework.”

Graham recently joined ASU from Vanderbilt University. He is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Graham’s research interests focus on identifying the factors that contribute to writing development and writing difficulties, developing and validating effective instructional procedures for teaching writing, and the use of technology to enhance writing performance. Graham has authored numerous books and journal articles and has served as editor of multiple journals.

“Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers” highlights the following recommendations.

  • Provide daily time for students to write. Students need dedicated instructional time – a minimum of one hour a day – to learn and practice the skills and strategies necessary to become effective writers. During that hour, teachers can observe the way students write, identify difficulties, and assist them with learning and applying the writing process.
  • Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes. Writing well requires that the writer think carefully about the purpose for writing, plan what to say, plan how to say it, and understand what the reader needs to know. Students should be introduced to a variety of strategies for carrying out the writing process and learn how to write for different purposes.  
  • Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing, and word processing. When these basic writing skills become relatively effortless for students, they can focus less on the mechanics of writing and more on developing and communicating their ideas.
  • Create an engaged community of writers. Teachers should create a supportive environment in their classroom so that students are motivated to write well. Teachers should participate in the writing community and provide opportunities for students to collaborate with others, make decisions about what to write and how to write about it, and receive constructive feedback.

Each recommendation includes implementation steps and solutions for common roadblocks. The guide also uses a set of ratings – strong, moderate, or minimal – to indicate the strength of research evidence supporting each recommendation. Evidence ratings reflect the degree to which each recommendation is supported by high-quality experimental and quasi-experimental design studies that meet WWC standards.

Information about these standards and other practice guides are available at A pdf of “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers” may be downloaded from

In addition to Graham, the experts who collaborated to develop the study guide are Alisha A. Bollinger, a teacher of fourth grade at Norris Elementary School in Firth, Nebraska; Carol Booth Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and director of the UCI site of the National Writing Project; Catherine D’Aoust, the coordinator of English language arts, K-12, in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in Mission Viejo, Calif., and co-director of the UCI site of the National Writing Project; Charles MacArthur, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware; Deborah McCutchen, a professor of education at the University of Washington; and Natalie Olinghouse, an assistant professor of educational psychology and a research scientist in the Center for Behavioral Education and Research at the University of Connecticut.

A project of the U.S. Department of Education, the What Works Clearinghouse is a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education. The WWC develops and implements standards for reviewing education research, assesses the rigor of research evidence on the effectiveness of interventions (programs, products, practices, and policies), and produces user-friendly practice guides for educators. The WWC is administered by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences through a contract with Mathematica Policy Research.