Writing can be hard work even for adults with advanced degrees. For children, just putting their thoughts about summer vacation on paper can be an overwhelming task.
Now, research by psychologists is uncovering a variety of approaches that teachers can use to help their students learn to write better, from kindergarten through college.
These techniques include teaching children specific skills, such as prewriting and revising, giving students ample time to practice, allowing them to work in groups and preserving their motivation. The goal, say psychologists, is to avoid writer's block and other forms of frustration to foster good writing.
‘Making' a good writer
Many people believe that being a good writer is simply an inborn talent, says Steve Graham, EdD, a professor of education at Arizona State University. But research he and colleagues have conducted challenges that myth. "There is this kind of view that writers are born and not made, but our viewpoint is that pretty much everyone can learn to become skilled," he says.
In a meta-analysis in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, Graham and colleagues identified effective instructional practices for teaching writing skills to elementary school students. They found medium to large effect sizes for several techniques, including teaching students strategies for planning, drafting or revising text; teaching students the structures of different types of writing, such as stories and persuasive essays; and giving students both peer assistance and adult feedback.
Unfortunately, most teachers don't spend enough time using these techniques, or any others, his research suggests. In a national survey of teachers, Graham found that teachers in first to third grades reported spending an hour a day teaching writing, but by fourth to sixth grade instructional time shrank to only 15 minutes a day.
More instruction time is needed, said Graham, who likened it to his experience playing basketball in high school. His team did drills that, although not much fun, "helped you become much better when you played the game." In the same way, "Kids need to write for real purposes for real audiences. That's the main game, but they also need to develop the strategies, knowledge and skills that help them be successful in that, and that requires instruction."
Graham says that there are a variety of reasons these techniques, some of which were taught in the past, are not used much now. Many teachers may think they are not very good writers themselves or feel inadequately prepared to teach writing.
"Teachers may be reluctant to teach writing, as it is a very demanding subject in terms of giving feedback and teaching a wide array of complex skills, processes and knowledge," says Graham.
Also, writing was not emphasized in No Child Left Behind or the STEM movement. As a result, it was not consistently tested in the elementary grades and "teachers and schools took a holiday from teaching it."
Teamwork and motivation
One exercise that appears to help budding writers is taking a team approach. Although writing is usually experienced as a solo enterprise, it can turn out better when played as a team sport, says Mario Gutierrez, PhD, of the Université Lumi`ere Lyon 2 in Lyon, France. In a study he and colleague Juan Giraldo, of the Universidad de la Sabana in Chía, Colombia, conducted with fifth-grade public school students in Cali, Colombia, they found that students who worked on writing in teams of three performed at higher levels and generated more sophisticated ideas than did children writing alone.
The children wrote texts about what would happen if an object were in free fall. Collaborating allowed the students in groups to increase the structural complexity of their writing, including incorporating more points of view and providing more explanations for the physical phenomenon. Among the children working alone, two-thirds wrote texts that lacked organization, compared with only one-third of the children working in a group. Gutierrez noted that there are "enormous possibilities" in this approach because by working in groups children can improve their writing even without expert adult assistance.
Still, students can become easily discouraged while learning to write, psychologists say. That's why they need to believe they are capable writers in order to persevere, says Sage Rose, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling at Hofstra University.
"Writing in and of itself comes with a lot of anxiety and self-evaluation and sometimes fear of critical feedback," says Rose. "Students try to avoid failure in order to protect their own sense of self."
To better understand that barrier, she and graduate student Nicole Sieben developed a scale to measure the effect that students' beliefs have on their performance on writing achievement tests. The scale, called the Writing Hope Scale, is based on hope theory, developed by psychologist C.R. Snyder, PhD, which quantifies people's level of hope based on their ability to clearly conceptualize goals, develop strategies to reach those goals and sustain their motivation for using the strategies.
"I feel like a lot of those students with a lot of academic failure are those who have lost hope," says Rose.
In their undergraduate sample, Rose and Sieben found that students who scored more highly on the Writing Hope Scale also achieved higher scores on tests of writing skill. "To be a good writer, you need to … be able to determine what you need to do in order to revise your work or to keep going even when it's difficult," Rose says.
Improving organization and motivation
Thirty years ago, a writer who wanted to reorganize an essay might have had to get out scissors and tape and do it by hand. Today, of course, we cut and paste digitally. That technological windfall has been proven to significantly help student writers organize their thoughts, according to a 2012 meta-analysis of 27 studies in the journal Reading and Writing by Graham and student Paul Morphy of Vanderbilt University. When weaker writers in first grade through 12th were given a word processor, it improved the quality, length and organization of their writing.
It also increased their motivation to write because the students preferred using word processors to writing by hand. One reason, Graham says, is that writing usually requires many revisions, and word processors help children generate, organize and revise ideas more easily. Also, some children associate writing by hand with failure, and word processors can provide a different approach, one that they often don't associate with disappointment.
A new breed of more sophisticated word processors — what Graham refers to as a "writing workbench" — provides even more help to students by giving feedback on text quality or prompting planning, prewriting and revising.
"Word processing had a positive effect, and the more sophisticated word processors had double to triple the effect," he says, with an effect size of 1.46 among the subset of studies that used the more sophisticated word processors. Such programs include Robo-writer, R-WISE and Summary Street. Features of these supportive programs may include a graphic organizer that helps to generate and then organize ideas, or a tool that helps young writers think about the vocabulary they will use to describe their ideas. Graham said that some of these more sophisticated word processors are widely available, but they are not yet used broadly in schools.
"These tools give some assistance, making writing a little bit easier, and it makes kids more likely to persist."
Julie Cohen, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and writer in Boston.
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