According to the National Commission on Writing in America’s School and Colleges and Gary A. Troia of Michigan State University, instructional research in writing does not enjoy the same level of distinction or rally as much concern as the other two “R”s.  It comes as no surprise then, that only 28% of 4th graders and 31% of 8th graders across the United States achieved "at or above" a proficient level of writing performance in 2002.  Getting a little closer to home, only 26% of 4th graders and 30% of 8th graders in Indiana achieved the same proficiency according to published NAEP data.  This troubling data is compounded by the fact that many students routinely overestimate their writing ability.  Essentially, students are unable to write well and are unaware of their shortcomings.

It’s tough to fix what you don’t know is broken  

Motivational factors such as perceived competence play an important role in the writing outcomes of students with and without writing problems, but there are common threads throughout the actual texts of struggling writers.  They are generally shorter, more poorly organized, and weaker in overall quality due to the inclusion of more irrelevant information and more grammatical and mechanical errors.  Poor writers tend to dive right in to a writing task, and even when they do plan, potential content is listed in first draft format.  Students need solidly organized topic and genre knowledge to use in planning activities. 

Poor writers rarely build a clear vision of their final outcome and often possess a limited ability to assume the reader’s perspective.  As a result, it is difficult for them to detect inaccuracies and mismatches between what they intended and the actual text.  Studies have shown that elementary students are better able to detect problems and revise when reading a paper written by someone else than when reading their own work.  Young writers, and those less competent in writing, presuppose too much shared understanding between themselves and their readers. 

Effective writing instruction for students of all ages and abilities

The following five components of writing interventions have been associated with strong positive outcomes for poor writers:

∞   Explicit teacher modeling of the writing process and composing strategies

∞   Peer collaboration and teacher conferencing to gain informative feedback

∞   Use of procedural prompts (e.g., graphic organizers, mnemonics, outlines, checklists, rubrics) to facilitate planning and revising

∞   Limiting barriers produced by poor text transcription (e.g., dictating)

∞   Self-regulation (e.g., self-statements and questions)

Explicit modeling is a core element because simply being exposed to the writing process is insufficient for most students.  Demonstration using overt mental dialogue is effective because it permits novice writers to observe the tactics and motives of more experienced authors and to appropriate more sophisticated thinking and language to their independent writing endeavors. 

Sustained writing nearly every day embedded within a predictable routine should be a staple of classroom writing instruction if students are expected to demonstrate mastery over writing content, style, organization, and conventions.

Tracie Mansfield
Indianapolis, IN

Troia, G. A. (2007). Research in writing instruction: What we know and what we need to know. In M. Pressley, A. K. Billman, K. H. Perry, K. E. Refitt, & J. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Shaping literacy achievement: Research we have, research we need (pp. 129-156). New York: Guilford Press.

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