Three lessons from the science of how to teach writing

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What’s the best way to teach writing? The experts have many answers — and they often contradict each other.

In contrast to the thousands of studies on effective methods for teaching reading and mathematics, there are relatively few rigorous studies on writing instruction. That’s partly because it’s time-consuming and expensive to assess writing quality in a way that can be quantitatively measured. Commonly, researchers come up with an eight-point scale. They write descriptions and sample essays to show what each score involves. Then they train teams of graders to score properly and consistently. But writing quality is ultimately a subjective judgment. What you consider to be well-written, I might not.

Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University, has made a career out of monitoring research studies on teaching writing, to figure out which methods actually work.  For a forthcoming article*, Graham and two colleagues, Karen Harris  of ASU and Tanya Santangelo of Arcadia University, looked at approximately 250 of the most prominent studies on how to teach writing to students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

This article also appeared here.

This article also appeared here.

Graham’s review of the research doesn’t resolve the age-old debate of whether students learn writing best naturally —  just by doing it — or through explicit writing instruction.

But there are effective practices where the research is unequivocal. Distressingly, many teachers aren’t using them. “We have confirmation of things we know that work, but are not applied in the classroom,” said Graham.

Here are three:

1. Spend more time writing

To teach kids to write well, you need to ask them to write a lot. You’re not going to become a great basketball player unless you play a lot of basketball. The evidence is strong that this is true for writing too. Five studies of exceptional literacy teachers found that great teachers ask their students to write frequently. In nine separate experiments with students, 15 additional minutes of writing time a day in grades two through eight produced better writing. Seventy-eight percent of studies testing the impact of extra writing found that student’s writing quality improved.

Several studies found unexpected bonuses from extra writing time. Not only did writing quality improve, so did reading comprehension. Another cluster of studies proved that writing improves a students’ mastery of the subject; the act of writing helps you learn. (Another reason for teachers to refrain from spoon-feeding printed notes to students.)

However, surveys of U.S. teachers reveal that after third grade, very little time is spent writing in classrooms. In fourth through sixth grade, on average, 20-25 minutes a day is spent on writing, according to Graham. Writing assignments rarely extend beyond a page; sometimes they’re not more than a paragraph. This is what teachers self-report, and if anything they’re probably overstating how much writing they’re asking of students.

In a 2011 survey of classroom writing instruction, “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools,” published in English Journal, Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer at SUNY Albany found that U.S. students were expected to write only a total of 1.6 pages of extended prose for English a week, and another 2.1 pages for all their other subjects combined. Applebee and Langer also observed classrooms across the four core subjects (English, science, math and social science/history) and found that, on average, only 7.7 percent of classroom time was devoted to writing a paragraph or more. Applebee and Langer called that “distressingly low.”

Why so little writing? Graham hypothesizes that many English language arts teachers are more passionate about literature than teaching writing. But in surveys teachers often say they don’t assign more writing because they don’t have the time to read and provide feedback on frequent long assignments. I can sympathize with a high school English teacher who has 37 kids in her class.

One could argue that fewer high quality writing assignments might be better than a bunch of low quality ones. But again, the teacher surveys and classroom observations reveal that students are more commonly asked to write summaries. “We don’t see a high level of writing activities that involve analysis and interpretation,” said Graham. “We’re not seeing development of skills you need for college and the workplace.”

Common Core may change things, as the standards ask for more writing and analysis, not just in English class but also in the social sciences, hard sciences and math.

It’s unclear what the ideal amount of time for writing is. Graham, who wrote a teachers’ guide of evidence-based techniques for teaching writing for the What Works Clearinghouse unit of the Department of Education, recommends one hour a day. He admits he doesn’t have research to substantiate that number. But he may be onto something: When Poland increased its language arts classes to more than four hours a week for each student, its scores on international tests began to soar.   

2. Write on a computer

In 83 percent of 30 studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote their papers on a computer instead of writing by hand. The impact was largest for middle school students, but younger students benefited, too. The theory is that students feel more free to edit their sentences because it’s so easy to delete, add and move text on a computer. The more editing, the better the final essay.

I was concerned about how these experiments were constructed. Could graders have been more biased toward these word-processor essays because typed fonts are more legible than hand-written ones? In most cases, the hand-written essays were retyped first before the graders scored them. So graders had no idea which essays had been drafted by computer and which by hand, and still the word-processor essays were rated higher.

It’s also possible that the spell checkers and grammar checkers that are sometimes bundled with word processing software enable students to submit cleaner drafts, which are perceived to be of higher quality.

Some educators feel passionately about the importance of writing by hand, convinced that the act of writing neurologically imprints stronger memories. And there’s some early evidence that note taking might be more effective by hand. But if your goal is writing quality and not memorization, it seems the evidence points to word processing, especially  beginning in middle school.

Another benefit for educators who believe that students should write not just for teachers: computerized text files are easier to share with classmates, providing more opportunity for a real audience and feedback.

Despite this evidence,teacher observations and surveys reveal that teachers have been slow to adopt this basic technology.  In Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer’s observations, students used word processing software in only 5.1 percent of the classes. Separate 2008 and 2010 surveys by Graham show that “too many schools still use pencil and paper as the primary or only writing medium,” he wrote.

3. Grammar instruction doesn’t work

This article also appeared here.

This article also appeared here.

Traditional grammar instruction isn’t effective. Period. Six studies with children in grades three to seven showed that writing quality actually deteriorated when kids were taught grammar. That is, graders scored the essays of students who’d been taught traditional grammar lower than those of students who had not received the lessons.

Three studies did show that teaching kids how to combine two simple sentences into a single complex sentence was beneficial. (As a writer, I find that baffling as I am always trying to shorten my sentences! That makes me question the judgment of the essay graders.)

But traditional grammar — diagramming sentences or teaching grammar rules — didn’t help. Graham suspects that’s because grammar lessons often feel disconnected from actual writing. Graham found one study that showed great improvement in student writing quality when teachers modeled correct usage, showing how to use grammar rules in sentences that students were drafting. But not many experimental studies are looking at effective procedures for teaching grammar.

In this case, classroom practice isn’t totally at odds with the research. Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years. But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.

* “Research-Based Practices and the Common Core: Meta-Analysis and Meta Synthesis,” (in press for The Elementary School Journal)

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POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON October 27, 2014

Comments & Trackbacks (13) | Post a Comment

Natalie Wexler

Many of the points here are well taken, but here are a few additional thoughts or clarifications that might be worth considering.

On Lesson #1: It’s important that kids learn to write, but as the author recognizes, the importance of teaching writing goes beyond that. Writing about what you’re learning helps you understand it, and it also teaches you to think analytically. That’s why writing shouldn’t be confined to English class — it really needs to be used as a teaching method across the curriculum. And there’s one program that helps schools implement that method and has been getting terrific results, The Writing Revolution ( (I’m on the board.)

Lesson #2: It may be better to compose essays on a computer, but the reason taking notes by hand seems to work better than taking notes on a computer or tablet is this: people who take notes on a computer are basically just transcribing, while people taking notes by hand — who can’t write as fast — need to actually figure out what’s important and write that down. So it’s partly that process of sifting through a mass of information to find the gold nuggets that helps you understand and remember them.

Lesson #3: Accomplished writers may need to shorten their sentences, but struggling writers rarely use complex sentences — that’s why combining sentences can be a powerful exercise for them. It requires them to link two ideas, sometimes two contrasting ideas, which requires them to think analytically. One of the basic exercises in The Writing Revolution approach is to give students a stem (related to the content they’re learning) and ask them to finish the sentence using “but,” “because,” or “so.” It works wonders.

Jill Barshay

@Natalie Wexler. Thank you for your well-written comments. And for explaining to me why explicit instruction on combining sentences makes for better writing. My editor will chuckle, but you’ve inspired me to write longer :)

Dianna K

As an instructional coach, I was on board with everything you were saying until that last line, which was like a knife in the heart. Not sure why another jab at educators was necessary there.


::SNIP:: Three studies did show that teaching kids how to combine two simple sentences into a single complex sentence was beneficial. (As a writer, I find that baffling as I am always trying to shorten my sentences! That makes me question the judgment of the essay graders.)

As a public school English teacher, I might be able to shed some light on this. The author of this article is a journalist. This is quite obvious. This article appeared in a journal, after all. Journalistic writing is VERY different from most other forms of writing. Short, declarative sentences are key!

On the other hand, the type of writing that I am tasked with teaching primarily is the expository essay, which is the single most useful style in the academic setting. As every student is expected to go to college — this being the standard mindset nationwide — expository writing will be the expectation, which style is typified with longer, more complex sentence constructions, a larger, more precise (some might even suggest florid) vocabulary, and paragraphs of considerably greater length, allowing the writer greater freedom and room to explore their topic in depth.

For illustration, go back and look at my previous two paragraphs. Each is written in the style it discusses.

This, it is not the judgement of the essay grader in question, but the ultimate educational goal of the teacher. Journalistic writing is typically written at an 8th grade level. Expository essays are written at the grade level of the student (or higher, if possible!). At the University level, an essay written for a 400 level class will require CONSIDERABLY more effort to read than ANY mainstream journalistic piece.

A Master’s or Doctoral thesis exponentially more so.


While that may have been meant as a jab at educators, it really wasn’t. Educators don’t decide what we teach in this country; legislators do.

Kristin Weller

I’d like to address rule #3, grammar instruction doesn’t work. I’ve been a secondary level English teacher for 15 years. When I trained to become an English teacher, I had only one linguistics-based class with a focus on grammar systems. It was extremely beneficial, very challenging, and eye-opening, but it did not offer suggestions on how to TEACH grammar.

Transformational Grammar (the course I referred to), reveals that traditional grammar, the kind public school systems have taught since the 1940’s, is a false system when compared to the reality of how our brains process written and spoken language. Naom Chomsky pioneered modern English grammar using brain research as his starting point. Researchers familiar with his transformaitonal grammar system agree that traditional grammar, based on the systems adapted from the Greek and Germanic languages, is a false system and therefore more difficult to master because the rules that govern most of it (and its seemingly endless list of exceptions) must be memorized rather than absorbed.

It’s taken me many years of trial and error to synthesize the valuable portions of traditional grammar and the more accurate transformation grammar systems in such a way that I can teach a version of it to middle school students in a meaningful way. In my experience, focus should fall on the clause-phrase relationship. Students need a better understanding of how written sentences work. Once they begin to see it clearly, the teacher must link this concept to paragraph writing quality. I do this by writing three versions of a summary paragraph. All three versions contain the same content information in the same order. The first paragraph example contains only simple sentences; the second one contains simple and compound sentences, and the third is a blending of all four sentence structures. The students immediately see that the blended version “reads” as advanced writing, whereas the simple sentece paragraph reads as repetitive, choppy, and very basic.

Unless you link targeted grammar instruction with applicable writing, grammar instruction is just like throwing raw eggs at a blackboard – sure, the board is changed and something stuck to it, but only temporarily, and then it just runs off.


I don’t argue the grammar point, except to say it is essential for ESL, particularly with Asian students, and should be taught in such a way as to be directly applicable to writing. My school’s curriculum is very writing intensive, and the kids write mostly for fun, with edits and rewrites more for competition submissions. But I have found that focused lessons that strengthen editing techniques are helpful.

Paul Moses

When I first began teaching journalism on the college level, I was taken aback that many students knew little about grammar. I also found that they were eager to learn it–no one had taught them. These were students whose writing was above average (which is why the elected to take journalism). As in any craft, writers need to know the names of the tools they use. The students understand that.

George T. Karnezis

Dear Ms. Barshay,
I looked forward to reading your piece on the teaching of writing. I have taught writing for over 30 years at various levels, including long stints in college classrooms teaching a variety of writing courses. During my career, I lamented, and continue to lament the low status of writing teachers, especially at the college level. I continue to be astonished at the appalling working conditions such teachers face, particularly at the high school level where all too often class sizes and total number of students generally undermine the need for personal attention that apprentice writers need.
So, as I read your piece, I came to understand that all the excellent studies I’ve read about the teaching of writing, many of them evidence based (see the work of George Hillocks and Stephen North), amount to nothing more than a fruitless Babel of contending voices that take contradictory stances. Also, the fact that there aren’t as “many” such studies as there are in , say, mathematics, is, for you, proof enough of how inferior the study of teaching writing is, as compared with the professionalism of those in teaching in STEM areas like math.)

Your piece also helped me understand that, despite my own ongoing study and continuing experience as a writing teacher and tutor, and despite my own and my colleagues’ efforts to invoke and apply legitimate criteria for judging writing, as well as our ongoing efforts to help students internalize these criteria, in the end, judging a piece of writing is, you know, just subjective and one person’s evaluation is just as good as another’s. This extreme relativism and subjectivization of judgment will be welcomed by students who will be happy to learn that their teachers’ comments and judgments are totally arbitrary and lack authority typical of other disciplines .

Olivia Smith

To teach effective writing, you yourself must be an effective writer. We can’t teach what we don’t know, and when it comes to writing, it’s important to continue honing your craft. No matter what you teach, try starting a blog, writing articles, or developing short stories — all terrific ways to engage the mind and keep your skills sharp. Reading is important, but reading alone isn’t enough to strengthen your writing skills, or to make you a credible authority on the subject.

Thomas Mokua

I love the suggestions on how teach writing kids. How do you teach writing to high school special needs students? writing goes together reading and listening.All must be taught almost at the same pace. You can not write if you can not spell right. Writing/reading requires decoding the words spoken to you and the student being able to transcribe the words. High school writing and reading must be taught in context so that interest may be sustained. Like all instruction proving scaffolds is essential so that learners may continually make progress in their writing skills.

Thomas Mokua

I love the suggestions on how to teach writing kids. How do you teach writing to high school special needs students? Writing goes together with reading and listening.All must be taught almost at the same pace. You can not write if you can not spell right. Writing/reading requires decoding the words spoken to you and the student being able to transcribe the words. High school writing and reading must be taught in context so that interest may be sustained. Like all instruction providing scaffolds is essential so that learners may continually make progress in their writing skills.

Olivia Smith

To be a writer you must do two things, read a lot and write a lot by Stephen King. To teach young kids is a good idea to practice not just their writing skills but also their reading comprehension because of course they will read a lot in order for them to get ideas and understand what should they write. And I agree that if they write, they will learn.

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