Effective Writing Instruction: Time for a Revolution

By Hochman, Judith; MacDermott-Duffy, Betsy | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Effective Writing Instruction: Time for a Revolution


Hochman, Judith, MacDermott-Duffy, Betsy, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


American education will never realize its potential as an engine of opportunity and economic growth until a writing revolution puts language and communication in their proper place in the classroom .... Of the three "Rs," writing is clearly the most neglected.

-National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003

The Impetus for Change in Writing Instruction

Why do so many English teachers, college professors, job recruiters, and supervisors in the workplace believe that the writing aptitude of young people across the United States is far below acceptable standards? The most common response is that at every stage of student transition (elementary to middle school, middle to high school, and college into the workplace), the foundational skills required to write well are missing. Many students are unable to write a well-crafted sentence, much less possess the tools to organize and draft a composition about an expository topic (Eberhardt, 2013). According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; U.S. Department of Education, 2011), approximately 75% of students in the United States are not at the "proficient level" in writing. These results indicate that students have only partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills required for competency at a given grade level. This problem is precisely what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010), a set of national benchmarks to ensure college and career readiness, attempted to address with increased rigor in writing.

Road to the Writing Revolution-A New Set of Standards

Though the CCSS are not perfect or all encompassing, they are based on sound research and are internationally benchmarked using standards from top-performing countries for their development. The intent is that CCSS will have a positive effect on student preparation for college and careers. According to the expectations of the anchor and grade-level standards, students should demonstrate increasing levels of complexity each year in all aspects of language use, from vocabulary and sentence structure to the development and organization of compositions. Reading sources used for research, and as a springboard for writing, should also become increasingly more complex and demanding with each grade, according to the CCSS.

The Writing standards of the CCSS outline three major text types for writing: 1) opinion/argumentative, 2) informational/ explanatory, and 3) narrative. Importantly, the narrative text description does not include the creative writing exercises that have dominated elementary school assignments for years. Although the CCSS do not exclude such assignments, they leave the inclusion and assessment of these types of tasks to teacher discretion. However, it is clearly noted in Appendix A of the CCSS that, although all three major text types are important, the CCSS place a strong emphasis on students' ability to critically reason and write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues.

A Bump in the Road

Although much about the standards for writing in the CCSS is positive, many educators have concerns about the reality of meeting the Writing standards in their current form. Unfortunately, the foundational skills required to meet many of the Writing standards are addressed in a fragmented manner. Just as fluent and accurate decoding are required to comprehend text, similarly, there are basic skills in writing required to compose effectively. The Writing standards would greatly benefit from a detailed section on the skills that underpin all good writing. Explicit information about these fundamental skills can be found in CCSS sections other than Writing. For example, a standard under the foundational skills in the Reading standards requires first grade students to demonstrate an understanding of the organization and basic structures of print by recognizing the distinguishing features of a sentence (e. …

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