Research: Little Writing Instruction Even in Best-Regarded Schools

The years between 1979 and 2009 were a time of great changes in education. They saw the development of new technologies for writing, research, and instruction; a growing demand for evidence-based practice; and imposition of high stakes testing.

To see how the teaching of writing in America’s middle schools and high schools changed in those 30-years, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer of the State University of New York at Albany studied 20 schools chosen because of their reputations for excellence in the teaching of writing. The researchers looked not only at the English classes in those schools, but also math, science, and social studies.

The researchers found that in schools with excellent reputations for teaching writing:

  • English teachers are doing a better job of teaching the writing process today than 30 years ago.
  • Students write more for their English classes than for any other subject.
  • Students write more for their other subjects combined than they do for English.
  • Only 19% of writing assignments were a paragraph or more; the remainder were “writing without composing” activities such as fill-in-the blanks.
  • Writing counts less than multiple choice or short answer questions in assessing performance in English even on locally-created tests.
  • Other than math classes, less than a third of classrooms studied use any technology.
  • When technology was used, it was usually used by the teacher.
  • Roughly 6 in 10 students hand-write their first drafts; only 23% at middle school and 42% at high school composed first drafts on computer.
  • Outside of science classes, embedding media into writing is rare.
  • Collaboration on writing projects is rare outside English classes where fewer than ¼ of students collaborate with peers for editing or responses.
  • Contemporary teachers’ notions of good instructional practice for teaching writing are research-based.
  • Contemporary teachers’ instructional practices mimic those of 1979, focusing on short-answers and copying from the board.

To find out what the authors think is responsible for these conditions in schools with reputations for excellence in teaching writing and how the conditions are likely to influence implementation of the Common Core State Standards, see the full article:

Applebee, Arthur N. and Judith A. Langer. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal 100.6 (2011): 14–27. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1006-jul2011/EJ1006Extra.pdf

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