By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP
Of the three major basic academic subject areas (e.g., reading, math, and writing), writing is often neglected in discussions of core instruction. This is partly due to some overlap between reading and writing instruction when it is included in elementary grade Language Arts instruction. At the middle and high school levels, writing is often an expected skill rather than something that requires additional instruction. For these reasons, writing can be neglected in discussions of essential core teaching content and practices. Despite this neglect, writing is a very important skill. Through effective written expression, students convey what they have learned across all subject areas. In addition, effective writing is reviewed and evaluated as part of both college and employment applications. Some teachers might conclude that the modern digital era of universal internet and video-based information might indicate that writing skills are less important than in prior decades. The sheer volume of written text found on the internet seems to refute this conclusion. This blog will review important features of Tier 1 core writing instruction as well as methods that can be used to evaluate student writing skills.
Core Writing Instruction: Grades K-5
In the elementary grades, writing instruction is most often part of the overall Language Arts (LA) curriculum. LA instruction usually includes reading, spelling, and writing, with an increasing emphasis on writing with each higher grade level. Research suggests that elementary grade teachers should allocate at least 90 minutes per day for reading instruction. Importantly, this block of time does not include instruction in spelling and writing. Instead, elementary teachers need to set aside additional time for such instruction. Although there are less firm guidelines for how much time is needed for spelling and writing in grades K-5, about 30 minutes is a common amount.
The specific instruction included during the elementary writing block will vary across the grades. Students in kindergarten and first grade must first work on learning how to write individual letters and then words. Next (e.g., grades 2-3), instruction will focus on writing sentences. Once students start learning to write words, lessons usually include a heavy focus on correct spelling as well as vocabulary. Finally, in grades 4 and 5 writing lessons start to include learning how to write paragraphs. It is important to note that there is an instructional hierarchy included in this progression. Students will not be able to write paragraphs or essays until they know how to write words and sentences.
Some core LA curricula include writing instruction lessons that complement the reading skills that students are learning. When this is the case, teachers might not need to use any additional instructional materials for writing lessons. When the LA materials do not include adequate writing instruction lessons, teachers might need to augment resources in order to support students’ writing skills. An excellent research-based method for supporting writing instruction is called Student-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD; Johnson, Hancock, Carter, & Pool, 2013). The SRSD method is detailed in many research articles as well as in several books about this method (Gillespie, & Graham, 2014; Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008; Kaldenberg, Ganzeveld, Hosp, & Rodgers, 2016; Kang, McKenna, Arden, & Ciullo, 2016; Koster, Tribushinina, de Jong, & van den Bergh, 2015; Rogers, & Graham, 2008). A nice feature of the SRSD method is that it can be used with any other instructional program or published materials. These materials can be applied to writing lessons for narrative and expository purposes and with increasing complexity across grade levels.
Core Writing Instruction: Grades 6-12
At the secondary level, writing skills take on new meaning because writing becomes the most important method by which students demonstrate their learning. Nonetheless, secondary students usually need ongoing writing instruction in order to improve and refine their skills. In the middle school grades, the focus of instruction is often on grammar. Although students might not uniformly enjoy grammar lessons, they are important because learning the major English grammar rules helps students to write more concisely and meaningfully. Once students master basic English grammar, the next focus might be on learning to write different types of longer compositions. For example, students can learn techniques for writing fictional stories as well as expository essays that serve to inform or persuade.
Essay writing is the most common type required at the high school level. Indeed, advanced high school courses usually expect students to be able to submit major assignments as essay-length papers. It is worth noting that not all students will enter high school with adequate writing skills for effective essay writing. For this reason, high schools need to offer writing instruction that meets a wide array of student skill levels. As with younger grades, an effective method for teaching writing at the secondary grades is SRSD. This method can be customized to meet the needs of all grades as well as students with different writing backgrounds. In addition, SRSD lessons can be used in both basic writing and content area courses where writing is a required skill. For example, there are SRSD lessons that help students learn how to conduct research, organize ideas, and write a research paper.
Measuring Writing Outcomes
Although writing skills are very important for student success, there are few standardized writing assessment measures. This is because the nature of written products is harder to measure than reading or math skills. In order to measure a student’s reading or math performance, an assessment compares each student’s performance to the correct answer. Writing is more difficult to measure because there are always multiple correct answers to most writing tasks. For example, a teacher could assign students to write an essay about Sojourner Truth. In response students might submit essays of varying length and quality. Both short and long essays could be excellent or terrible. There is no single metric that can evaluate student writing skills in the same ways that exist for reading and math. Since no one single assessment of writing skills exists, the best alternative is to collect multiple student writing examples over time. Such examples will show how a student’s writing skills change across the school year. In addition, these examples document the writing qualities and can be compared to course expectations.
Writing instruction remains an important part of daily academic skills instruction. Even in the era of digital literacy and online learning, students must know how to communicate their ideas in writing. Writing instruction will vary by grade level, but it should be part of the core curriculum at all grade levels so that students can become proficient with accurate, spelling, vocabulary, sentences, and longer written work. Since students begin each school year with different learning backgrounds, teachers need to include writing instruction in Tier 1 core lessons as well as offer supplemental writing instruction (e.g., Tiers 2 and 3) for those students who need it.
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