Category Archives: research on writing

Six rules for clear thinking and writing by George Orwell

One excellent yet pithy set of rules for writing well comes from 70 years ago by the British writer, George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm as well as numerous essays.  The rules are part of an essay called “Politics and the English Language” in which he argues that poorly written English results from bad habits of thought.  Get rid of the bad habits and clearer thinking emerges in the mind of the writer and on paper.

His six rules are

  • “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • “Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Do typos matter? How about grammar errors?

Suppose you are a young adult looking for someone to rent a bedroom in your house or apartment.  You receive the following email:

Hey! My name is Pat and I’m interested in sharing a house with other students who are serious abuot there schoolwork but who also know how to relax and have fun. I like to play tennis and love old school rap. If your someone who likes that kind of thing too, maybe we would mkae good housemates.

Would you rent to this person?

According to the University of Michigan, which studied how volunteers responded to such inquiries, emails containing typos and grammar errors lowered the chances of a prospective housemate. Typos had a more negative effect than grammar errors.

Moreover, researchers found that extroverts reading the emails were more likely to ignore typos and grammar mistakes when deciding whether to rent, while introverts were more likely to judge the prospective renter negatively.

So what?  How does this research affect you and me?

  • Typos can usually be found with spell-check. A writer who doesn’t bother to change typos might be judged lazy or not careful.
  • Grammar errors can be harder to detect and so might be excused. On the other hand, knowing how to spell “their” and “you’re” correctly is an elementary school skill.  Adults are expected to know these grammar skills.
  • Your response to typos and grammar errors says a lot about you. Does your skin crawl when you receive an email which contains errors from a friend?  Do you judge that person based on such errors?  Should you?

Years ago, before spell-check and even word processors, I had a job requiring me to proofread a weekly newspaper before it was printed.  One day a highly respected man in our community let me know he had found an error in the latest issue, an error I had not detected.  I could see that this man no longer held me in the same esteem as before.

You never know who will be reading your writing or what impact your writing could have on your future.  If your emails are error-free, people are not likely to notice that.  It’s expected.  But if your emails contain errors, that will be noticed.  And even though polite people might never tell you, some could hold those errors against you.

For more information on the U of M study, go to http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.014988.

Which is better for taking notes—a laptop or handwriting?

For ideas which stick in the brain, taking notes by hand is better, according to Princeton and UCLA researchers*.

Their results are summarized in the chart below.

laptop longhand
word-for-word note taking  x
keeping up with lecturer  x
focusing on concepts x
recalling facts x x
remembering information longer x
using notes for review  x

The researchers say that even though taking notes in longhand is slower, this mode forces students to summarize the gist of the ideas presented.  To do that, the note takers must analyze what they are hearing as they are hearing it, evaluate  what is important and relate various ideas to one another.  Often as they take notes, they organize their notes, making them useful for further study.

The computer note takers, on the other hand, type almost every word but spend less time thinking about the lecture.  Their notes are copious but not digested, making them unweildly for study.

*For more information, go to http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html.  There the work of psychologist Dr. Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA can be read in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  Their experiment was reported in 2014 after being conducted on college students.

How can writing improve reading?

When educators combed research on the writing / reading connection in 2010, they found three writing activities which improve reading comprehension.

EPSON MFP image

  • Having students write about the stories and texts they read by writing personal responses, analyses, or interpretations; by writing summaries; by writing notes; and by answering or asking questions in writing about what they have read.
  • Having students learn about the process of writing; about how texts are structured; about how paragraphs and sentences are put together; and about how to spell.
  • Having students write  frequently.

All of these writing activities improve students’ reading. In future blogs, we will look at why these activities improve reading, and how these activities can be incorporated into a student’s schoolwork or work at home. We’ll start in the next blog with the last idea, that students should write more to improve their reading.

Meanwhile, for more information, see Writing to Read.  At this site you can read the full report, Writing to Read; evidence for how writing can improve reading by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert for the Carnegie Corp. of NY, 2010.

You might also enjoy reading Shanahan on Literacy, a blog about reading by an expert in the field. In his current blog, Dr. Shanahan comments on ideas in this report.

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.