Preferred Writing Topics of Urban and Rural Middle School Students

By Shippen, Margaret E.; Houchins, David E. et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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Preferred Writing Topics of Urban and Rural Middle School Students


Shippen, Margaret E., Houchins, David E., Puckett, DaShaunda, Ramsey, Michelle, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This study compared the preferred writing topics of urban and rural middle school students. Eighth graders (n = 205) responded to a brief survey of preferred writing topics in the descriptive writing genres of real or imagined stories, reports, and opinions. While some preferred writing topics were divergent such as society, crime, and violence, more topics were noted as overlapping. Findings indicate that the major overlapping topics for both rural and urban participants included current events, teen issues, politics, school, and celebrities. Interestingly, the commonality of adolescence seems to be more salient in preference of writing topic than does location in which one receives an education. Implications for classroom writing topic preferences are discussed.

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Literacy is the ability to read, write, spell, listen, and speak in ways that enable communication, promote understanding of ideas, and enrich lives (Moats, 2000; Glaeser, Lenz, Gildroy, & McKnight, 2000). Literacy may be the most important educational goal for which teachers are responsible (Moats). In fact, the National Institute of Student Health and Human Development views literacy and reading failure in the United States as a national health crisis (Lyon, 1999). Academic success, employment, and personal health depend upon an individual's ability to understand their culture's language system and use it effectively.

Using any language system effectively clearly includes the ability to express thoughts and ideas in written form. Written expression is a complex metacognitive process that draws on multiple skills such as use of correct syntax, semantics, the writing process, and content knowledge (Walker, Shippen, Alberto, Houchins, & Cihak, 2005). Each of these broader skills is based on multiple sub-skills. For example, the writing process has multiple steps (e.g., prewriting, writing, revising, editing, and publishing) and requires explicit instruction. For the purposes of this study we focused on content knowledge as it emanates from preference or interest in the writing topic as a sub skill of written expression.

Writing Topic Preference and Interest

Few studies have investigated the writing topic preferences or interest of students (McCutchen, 1986; Voss & Schauble, 1992). However, research on writing topic preference has indicated that allowing student choice or preference is critical to student engagement and writing production (Flowerday, Schraw, & Stevens, 2004; Langer, 1984). Further, researchers have indicated that interest combined with topic knowledge can enhance lower performing students' written expression (Recht & Leslie, 1988).

These studies suggest that knowledge of topic may even be more salient than previous writing performance or aptitude. Kellog (1987) further suggested that the more an individual knows about the topic, the more automatic s/he can be in written expression. Conversely, Hidi and McLaren (1991) concluded that the motivational power of interesting topics is confounded with the role of previous knowledge.

After an extensive review of the literature, studies investigating the impact of student interest, topic knowledge, and writing performance related to student choice were noted (McCutchen, 1986; Voss & Schauble, 1992; Recht & Leslie, 1988), however no studies surveying middle school students about their topic preferences were located. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to compare the preferred writing topics identified by urban and rural middle school students and to analyze whether these topics were convergent or divergent. The analysis of actual participant writing samples was beyond the scope of this study.

Method

Participants

Participants were eighth grade students in urban (n = 109) and rural (n = 96) settings. All participants in the urban school were African American. Participants from the rural school were 67% European American, 13% African American, 7% Hispanic, 7% multiracial, and 6% Asian.

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