Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

An Exploration of Professional Knowledge Needed for Reading and Responding to Student Writing

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

An Exploration of Professional Knowledge Needed for Reading and Responding to Student Writing

Article excerpt

The widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has refocused attention on writing instruction in schools. Previous policies, such as No Child Left Behind, emphasized reading and mathematics achievement and marginalized writing in many classrooms (Harper et al., 2007; McCarthey, 2008). In contrast, the CCSS make writing central to schooling, provide a blueprint for writing instruction across grade levels, and establish ambitious learning goals (Graham & Harris, 2015). The CCSS include Language Standards, which address foundational writing skills, such as spelling, grammar, conventions, and vocabulary. The CCSS also include Writing Standards, which require that children learn to write narrative, informational, and opinion texts for different purposes and audiences; use the writing process--planning, revising, editing--to develop and strengthen a text's content, organization, and style; use digital tools to produce and publish writing; and use writing to analyze texts and build new knowledge.

Although the writing standards appear straightforward at first glance, perhaps because they are well-organized and specify clear developmental progressions (Shanahan, 2015), learning to write is, in fact, a complex process for elementary school children. Whereas adults have developed automaticity in basic aspects of transcription (the act of putting words on paper), children must exert conscious effort to form letters, spell words, and adhere to capitalization and punctuation rules. This can impede writing production (Hayes & Olinghouse, 2015). Children are also still developing conceptual knowledge about discourse, including the characteristics of good writing generally and genre-specific text features (McCutchen, 2011; Olinghouse & Graham, 2009). While the CCSS do not directly state the discourse knowledge children must learn, students cannot produce narrative, informational, and opinion texts without understanding appropriate genre features (Hayes & Olinghouse, 2015).

Another challenge elementary children face as they learn to write is engaging in the writing process itself. Although children can learn to both plan and revise their writing through explicit strategy instruction (Graham, Harris, & Santangelo, 2015), these processes do not come naturally. When prompted to plan, children often simply begin composing (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987), and planning does not necessarily improve the quality of their writing (Olinghouse & Graham, 2009). Children also do not spontaneously revise, and when they do, they tend to make surface-level changes more akin to editing than substantive changes that significantly improve text quality (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). In short, elementary children have a lot to learn to attain the ambitious writing goals established by the CCSS.

Attaining the CCSS's ambitious writing goals will depend upon skillful teaching, yet teachers report minimal preparation for writing instruction during teacher preparation programs (Cutler & Graham, 2008; Gilbert & Graham, 2010). While this is problematic, it is perhaps unsurprising given the small body of research on what writing teachers must know. Disciplines such as mathematics (e.g., Ball, Thames, & Phelps, 2008) and science (Abell, 2008) have ongoing, substantial lines of research into the knowledge needed for teaching. In contrast, teacher knowledge has not been a major area of inquiry among writing researchers (Reutzel et al., 2011). The paucity of empirical findings offers little guidance for teacher education programs with respect to preparing teachers of writing.

A growing number of teacher educators advocate taking a practice-based approach to understanding the knowledge and skills needed for teaching (Ball & Forzani, 2009; Forzani, 2014; Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013). A practice-based approach involves first identifying the work teachers do--the core teaching practices that support student learning--then decomposing those practices to specify the "special knowledge, skills, and orientations" (Ball & Forzani, 2009, p. …

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