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Professors challenge beliefs about learning to write

Pictured are ASU professors Karen Harris and Steve Graham
January 17, 2013

In the mid-20th century, doctors performed about 1.5 million tonsillectomies per year. Today, that number has dropped to about 500,000. That’s because research showed the surgery isn’t always the most appropriate and effective treatment. As medical research increased, doctors could rely more and more on evidence, and less on tradition and past experience.

The field of education has progressed in a similar way. In 2010, Arizona schools adopted the new Common Core Standards. These guidelines focus on evidence-based instruction, or teaching techniques supported by a body of high-quality research, says Arizona State University professor Karen Harris.

Harris has worked in education for more than 35 years and recently joined ASU as a Mary Emily Warner Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Her research focuses on writing instruction. She has worked with special education students, high-achieving students and all skill levels in between, and has developed a method of writing instruction called Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD).

She says a shift toward evidence-based writing instruction in schools is crucial because historically, students all over the country have trouble with writing. In Arizona, only a quarter of students have proficient writing skills, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. These results are worse than those reported in 2007.

“One reason so many states are struggling in writing is simply because it’s been the poor cousin for so long,” Harris says. “Writing has had less funding and less research conducted with children than either reading or math.”

For a long time, many educators believed that if children could read well, they would also be successful writers. But this hasn’t proven true. Harris says the misconception is part of the reason many students graduate high school unprepared for college-level writing requirements. As a result, virtually all universities offer remedial writing programs to bring students up to speed.

Research is helping educators determine the best ways to teach writing in schools. For example, sentence diagramming was once a commonly used technique. This approach focused heavily on the technical aspects of writing, but not on content or effective communication.

“Many American students of all ages through college don’t like to write, because in school it was an exercise where you mostly got negative feedback, often in red ink, and the feedback wasn’t focused very much on what you were trying to learn or what you were trying to say,” Harris says.

Eventually, teachers realized sentence diagramming alone wasn’t going to cut it. In response to the need for a better technique, a movement emerged that took a “whole language” approach to writing, emphasizing content rather than grammar and technicalities. Teachers saw a modest improvement, but students still were not reaching the appropriate level of writing proficiency.

Researchers are beginning to develop an evidence base for writing instruction. Harris says a balanced approach to writing instruction that addresses skills, strategies, motivation, and self-efficacy, which integrates technical grammar instruction and the “whole language” approach, seems to work best for most students. This evidence informed the section on writing in the Arizona Common Core Standards.

The new standards also focus on writing genres critical to success in and after the school years. In the past, writing curriculum for elementary school has emphasized stories.

“We spend so much time on that and it’s not highly productive in the long run, because you don’t need to do a lot of story writing after third grade,” Harris says.

In addition, research shows many children don’t particularly enjoy writing stories. The process of creating original characters, defining a setting and putting together the plot can be overwhelming. The Common Core Standards don’t eliminate story writing completely, but they focus more on persuasive, informative and narrative writing.

Harris is optimistic that the push for evidence-based instruction from the Common Core Standards will make a difference in students’ writing skills. But even the best teaching technique is only as effective as the person implementing it. Teachers report feeling particularly unprepared to teach writing, says Steve Graham, also a Mary Emily Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College.

In 2010, Graham conducted surveys of fourth, fifth and sixth grade classrooms, finding that teachers only spend 15 minutes per day teaching writing, on average.

“They don’t feel confident teaching it, they don’t know how to teach it, so they don’t spend much time doing it,” Graham says. Most teachers graduate from college without having taken any courses focused specifically on teaching writing. They may have had a few course sessions of a reading class dedicated to writing, but it’s rare for teachers to have any significant writing preparation.

“This is part of why we get into blaming schools and blaming teachers for things they weren’t adequately given the tools to deal with,” Harris says.

Graham and Harris believe adding more writing-instruction-specific coursework to teaching curriculums would result in better-prepared teachers.

“The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you are to engage in a particular behavior, the more likely you are to persist and see that as a satisfying thing to do,” Graham says. “I do think if we can increase what teachers know about writing, it will also have a positive effect in terms of their own confidence and give a motivational boost to be more active in this area.”

More confident teachers plus an evidence-based instruction approach should equal more skilled student writers. Graham and Harris say research suggests that a strong foundation in writing can benefit students in other subjects as well. That’s why the Common Core Standards call for more writing across different school subjects. When students write about what they learn, they are more likely to fully understand and remember the material.

“Writing forces you to think more deeply about things,” Graham says. “You have to take that information and handle it in another way, to put it in your own words. As soon as you start to wrestle with how to put an idea in your own words, you start to understand whether you comprehend it or not.”

Graham and Harris are married to each other and came to ASU from Vanderbilt University, where they cultivated a mutual passion for writing instruction. Despite having no intentions to leave Vanderbilt, Harris says she knew after one visit to Teachers College that she wanted to be part of the energy at ASU. After his visit a few days later, Graham agreed.

“There’s really a lot going on here that pushes the boundaries of education,” Graham says. “It’s exciting to be part of a place that’s changing in positive ways.”

Graham is also an investigator at ASU’s Learning Sciences Institute. Harris is an affiliate of the institute.

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development