Instruction Matters: Secondary English Preservice Teachers' Implementation of Cognitively Demanding Writing Tasks

By Benko, Susanna L. | English Education, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Instruction Matters: Secondary English Preservice Teachers' Implementation of Cognitively Demanding Writing Tasks


Benko, Susanna L., English Education


Of writing instruction, the National Council of Teachers of English argues, "instruction matters. Teachers of writing should be well-versed in composition theory and research, and they should know methods for turning that theory into practice" (NCTE, 2004). Longitudinal studies on writing instruction suggest that teachers use process-based approaches (Applebee & Langer, 2009), but these approaches may differ widely in practice (Whitney et al., 2008). In addition to instruction, the types of assignments that students are given are key to students' opportunities for learning. Not all tasks are created equally; some researchers argue that cognitively demanding writing tasks-tasks which require students to evaluate, synthesize, analyze, or otherwise construct knowledge-are the most important kinds of tasks in a secondary writing classroom, even though they are not always present in classrooms (American Institutes for Research, 2005, 2007; Clare & Aschbacher, 2001; Matsumura, Patthey-Chavez, Valdés, & Garnier, 2002; Newmann, Lopez, & Bryk, 1998). In examining the kinds of writing assignments completed by middle school and high school students across English, math, science, and social studies, Applebee and Langer (2011) found that 20.9 percent of middle school and 17.6 percent of high school students were engaging in tasks that required extended writing; the other writing assignments were worksheet-type activities "best described as writing without composing" (p. 15). Given that students are likely not regularly exposed to cognitively demanding writing tasks, and given that much of the teaching of writing in schools is often described as "assigning" writing rather than teaching it, it is critical to understand what tasks, and instruction for tasks, look like when carried out in the classroom. These two things, then-effective teaching and high-quality tasks- are of critical importance to students' learning opportunities in secondary English classrooms. This study investigates how preservice teachers enact writing instruction for tasks that require substantial intellectual work and provides insights to how English educators might prepare preservice teachers to support secondary students' writing.

Tasks, Teaching, and Learning to Teach

In the sections that follow, I discuss research in literacy that focuses on cognitively demanding writing tasks and the importance of such tasks in the classroom. Then, I turn to review what is known about writing instruction broadly, including the small body of literature that focuses on classroom instruction for cognitively demanding writing tasks. Finally, I present relevant literature about learning, specifically the kinds of knowledge necessary for teaching writing and preservice teachers' concept development of how to teach writing.

Cognitively Demanding Writing Tasks

In English language arts (ELA), researchers have investigated the intellectual demand (Newmann, Bryk, & Nagaoka, 2001) or cognitive challenge (Matsumura, Garnier, Pascal, & Valdés, 2002; Matsumura, Slater, Garnier, & Boston, 2008) of writing tasks. While researchers have used different terms for these tasks, they can generally be categorized as tasks that require students to (1) construct knowledge rather than restate or summarize and (2) elaborate on their thinking by making claims and using evidence or reasoning. Research is clear that these tasks are the exception rather than the norm in an ELA classroom: When collecting more than 600 assignments from schools in Chicago over a period of three years, Bryk, Nagaoka, and Newmann (2000) noted that 52 percent of sixth-grade and 45 percent of eighth-grade writing tasks collected showed minimal or no challenge at all. Matsumura et al. (2008) studied 64 assignments provided by 16 ELA teachers and found that only one quarter of writing assignments in sixth grade and seventh grade prompted analysis or interpretation or required students to use evidence in their writing. …

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