Writing: The Neglected R Returns

Article excerpt

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. …