Response to “Writing Next” Report

Monday, we will be discussing the Writing Next Report, issued by the Alliance for Excellent Education. Here are my thoughts on the prompt, “How has reading the Writing Next Report encouraged you to rethink aspects of your teaching practice?”

Writing NextThe Writing Next Report, written by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin, issued earlier this year by the Alliance for Excellent Education as a report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, outlines 11 teaching strategies that improve student achievement in writing. The report is a meta-analysis of dozens of quantitative studies that allow for the calculation of an “effect size,” or “the average difference between a type of instruction and a comparison condition” (p. 13). More on the measurement process and research method in a moment, but first a look at the results of the study.The authors of the report suggest eleven writing strategies that “are supported by rigorous research, but that even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum” (p.4). This point merits particular attention as one reads the list of strategies and thinks about what good writing teachers do as well as how and why they implement those strategies. That said, the list of strategies reads like a “greatest hits” of instructional techniques that a teacher can implement in his or her classroom (hence the warning not to call this list a curriculum). Here is the list, taken verbatim from the report, pages 4 and 5 (and I have listed the effect sizes at the end, the larger the better):

  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions (.82)
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts (.82)
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions (.75)
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete (.70)
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments (.55)
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences (.50)
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition (.32)
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task (.32)
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities,writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing (.32)
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing (.25)
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material (.23)

These strategies, as a whole, represent most (if not all) of what I have come to understand comprises good writing instruction. To that end, I am pleased to know that my theoretical orientation towards the field aligns with the experimental evidence about “what works” in good writing instruction. In particular, I am glad to see that writing strategies and collaborative writing rank so high, although it makes me wonder why the process approach ended up toward the bottom of the list. This makes me wonder if they, unlike Katie Wood Ray, are making a distinction between the writing process and writing workshop, and I am guessing that they are not.

Even though Graham and Perin reiterate that this is not a curriculum, I have to wonder if some teachers, schools, districts, and states, could see it as such and “require” teachers to use each of the strategies in a writing program. Like the writing process/workshop distinction above, there are other parts of the report that do not represent the richness of discussions in our field (such as moving beyond word processing into other forms of digital writing or thinking broadly about writing to learn strategies), and I feel that the over reliance on only quantitative data may be limiting some of the implications and, in turn, potentially lead to implementation plans that are not complete.

All that said, the report is useful to me in my teaching in many ways. As a teacher educator, I think that this report can certainly offer evidence of the many practices that I use that stand up, for better or for worse, in a “scientifically-based” study. Thus, when I use these approaches in my teacher education courses and professional development workshops, I can point to the effect size data and suggest that these strategies have been integrated in a variety of contexts, yielding strong results. In other words, it can bring empirical merit to many of my theoretical practices, and the practices I share with other teachers.

As a writing teacher, this report encourages me to reconsider some ideas that I have neglected for some time. I do appreciate that Graham and Perin discussed the negative influence of explicit grammar instruction (p. 21) as it affirms my beliefs and synthesizes a number of good studies that have happened over the years, thus bringing (what we hope might be) a final curtain on the “should we teach grammar in isolation” argument. Also, the processes of summarization and sentence combining remind me — as someone who will be teaching a college writing class this fall — that not all students know how to do these tasks, or do them well. Modeling summary writing and sentence combining could offer some variety to my lessons as well as teach useful writing skills.

In sum, the Writing Next Report was useful to read as it confirmed many of my beliefs about teaching writing with statistical evidence while reminding me of the other aspects that I need to reintroduce into my practice. It also is encouraging to see these practices as the ones held up as “good” for writing instruction because, perhaps, those who works with assessment of writing might be able to think about how to measure these aspects of writing, not just the final product, which is so valued right now.