How to teach writing—what the research says

After analyzing 250 important research studies on how to teach writing, researchers found three constants:

  • The more time students write, the better writers they will be.
  • Writing on a computer, rather than by hand, leads to better writing.
  • Teaching grammar doesn’t help.

student thinking about what to write

Let’s look at each of these correlations with good writing.

Spending more time writing improves student writing. It’s common sense that the more time you spend honing a skill, the better you become at it. Yet research shows that after third grade, students spend little time in class writing. Why?

The more students write, the more teachers need to read, to respond to and possibly to grade. The paperwork becomes overwhelming. Teachers are unwilling to spend hours every night reading student writing.

Also, many English teachers love literature and want to teach it. But they are not writers. They had little instruction in how to write when they were in school, and their teacher training didn’t focus on it. They can’t teach what they don’t know.

Composing on a computer leads to better student writing. Once a student becomes familiar with the keyboard and functions, writing on a computer goes much faster than writing by hand. You can move phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs around by swiping, cutting and pasting. Spell check indicates spelling errors, and software alerts you to grammar errors as well. A dictionary is a click away. Want to check on idioms or figures of speech? Another click away.

All this work is called revising, and as every professional writer knows, it is the key to good writing. When it becomes easy for students, they are willing to do it.

Yet most schools still ask students to write using pencil and paper. Why?

Maybe teachers believe students “cheat” when they let software provide correct spelling and grammar. How can teachers check for plagiarism if students can download someone’s writing? Or maybe teachers think that because computer technology is not available to all students, to level the playing field they should ask students to use a technology that is available, pencils and paper.

Learning grammar by diagramming sentences or by listening to distinct lessons on how to use apostrophes does not improve writing, according to the research. But teaching certain kinds of grammar, such as usage, does help. The old-fashioned kinds of grammar lessons most children have in school do not improve students’ writing.

Why? Perhaps children do not see the connection between grammar activities and writing. Correcting worksheets by adding commas or coordinating conjunctions is not the same as writing. Maybe if the students’ own writing were used to demonstrate grammar errors and solutions, the students would recognize the connection between grammar and their own writing. But that is not the way grammar is taught.

Researchers at Arizona State University and Arcadia University led by Steve Graham, who conducted this research, found few rigorous studies on the teaching of writing compared to thousands of studies on the teaching of reading. However, with the greater emphasis on writing brought on by the Common Core Standards, more research on student writing is sure to come.

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