Effective methods for teaching writing

Using the methods of meta-analysis, Steve Graham and Dolores Perin examined research about alternative means for teaching written expression to students from fourth through twelfth grades. They limited their review to studies that assessed outcomes on measures of the quality of students’ writing. Unsuprisingly, they found that some of the methods used in teaching writing are more effective than others.

There is considerable concern that the majority of adolescents do not develop the competence in writing they need to be successful in school, the workplace, or their personal lives. A common explanation for why youngsters do not write well is that schools do not do a good job of teaching this complex skill. In an effort to identify effective instructional practices for teaching writing to adolescents, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of the writing intervention literature (Grades 4 –12), focusing their efforts on experimental and quasi-experimental studies. They located 123 documents that yielded 154 effect sizes for quality of writing. The authors calculated an average weighted effect size (presented in parentheses) for the following 11 interventions: strategy instruction (0.82), summarization (0.82), peer assistance (0.75), setting product goals (0.70), word processing (0.55), sentence combining (0.50), inquiry (0.32), prewriting activities (0.32), process writing approach (0.32), study of models (0.25), grammar instruction (– 0.32).

The basic, take-home message: Systematic and explicit instruction helps students write higher quality products than the pop-ed alternative that stress thinking, reflection, and such.

I appended to the end of this post a table showing how Graham and Perin defined the different teaching methods. I also created a small chart to show these data in bar-graph form. It simply shows the effect sizes from the previous paragraph in a relative context.

The authors created categories of interventions they found in the studies, classifying each instruction method as one of the types shown in the graph and in the table at the end of this post. Although some authorities might quibble with the selection of categories, Graham and Perin showed that people could make these classifications reliably. Although people might suggest alternative classification schemes, we can at least say that it appears the authors applied the scheme consistently. I doubt that one can create a better scheme, but others may differ with me about that matter; for those who differ, the solution is to develop an alternative scheme, make sure it can be applied reliably, and then test how the outcomes are changed when the alternative scheme is employed.

One of the take-home messages from this review is that what I suspect is the most popular approach to writing instruction, “writers’ workshop,” is not the most effective method of promoting high-quality writing by students. Writers’ workshop, which probably draws its name in part from the justifiably famous writing program for authors of poems and fiction at the University of Iowa, emphasizes communication in a supportive, collaborative community; students create products and then share them with other members of the community, and those members of the community are to provide constructive criticism. Writers’ workshop works better than grammar instruction (the most common control condition for it, according to Graham and Perin). However, as the results show, the effect sizes for writers’ workshop are not as strong as those for at least four other methods examined in the review.

Educators with a strong allegience to writers’ workshop will likely argue that the method can incorporate any of the other methods examined in the review by Professors Graham and Perin. I suppose this is true, and I suspect that the assertion is testable in a couple of ways: (a) Would an observational study of, say, 200 different teachers’ implementations of writers’ workshop reveal that, in practice those teachers are incorporating sentence combining, strategy instruction, and etc.? (b) Would an eclectic approach built on a base of writers’ workshop produce more substantial benefits (i.e., higher outcomes) than an alternative method (e.g., an integrated strategy training method), other things being equal?

In fact, there are virtually no densely packed studies in which comprehensive methods (e.g., writers’ workshop versus an explicit and systematic combination of strategy instruction with summarization and project goals) have been expressly compared. We need such studies.

It bears noting that Professor Graham, in collaboration with Karen Harris and many of their students, has conducted extensive work on writing instruction over the past 30-or-so years. During that time they have refined and extended their instructional methods to conform to the research they and their colleagues have conducted. Their recommended methods—”Self-regulated Strategy Development” is the catchphrase—incorporate the most effective of the methods reported in this review.

Of course, that’s a self-amplifying process: One develops reasoned methods based on a literature, contributes studies to that given literature that document the effects of a specifc procedure or a set of procedures and, when one reviews the literature, one finds that those contributions have support, so one uses those procedures in additional studies. Although some might argue that this is a incestuous process, because researchers circle back and continue to test the fundamental propositions of their topic we are able to solidify the basis for understanding topics. Imagine if scientists didn’t continue to look for ways to assess the veracity of, say, evolution.

Graham and Perin list nine limitations to their review. Most of these are academically important (e.g., only studies using certain research methods were included) and merit consideration for future research, but they do not change the fundamental conclusions. For people concerned with teaching writing effectively, these results offer clear direction.


Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 445-476.

Appendix: The following table provides the definitions that the researchers used in determining into which category the instructional methods used in a given study fit. The contents of the table come from page 449 of the study.

Definitions for Instructional Treatments That Contained Four or More Effect Sizes
Treatment Definition
Process writing approach This approach to teaching writing involves extended opportunities for writing; writing for real audiences; engaging in cycles of planning, translating, and reviewing; personal responsibility and ownership of writing projects; high levels of student interactions and creation of a supportive writing environment; self-reflection and evaluation; personalized individual assistance and instruction; and in some instances more systematic instruction.
Explicit teaching of skills, processes, or knowledge
Grammar This instruction involves the explicit and systematic teaching of grammar (e.g., the study of parts of speech and sentences).
Sentence combining This instruction involves teaching students to construct more complex and sophisticated sentences through exercises in which two or more basic sentences are combined into a single sentence.
Strategy instruction This instruction involves explicitly and systematically teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and/or editing text (Graham, 2006a). Instruction is designed to teach students to use these strategies independently. Writing strategies range from processes, such as brainstorming (which can be applied across genres), to strategies designed for specific types of writing, such as stories or persuasive essays.
Summarization This instruction involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts. This can include teaching strategies for summarizing text or instructional activities designed to improve students’ text summarization skills.
Text structure This instruction involves explicitly and systematically teaching students knowledge about the structure of specific types of text, such as stories or persuasive essays.
Scaffolding students’ writing
Prewriting This involves students engaging in activities (such as using a semantic web or brainstorming ideas) designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition.
Inquiry This involves engaging students in activities that help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task by analyzing immediate and concrete data (e.g., comparing and contrasting cases or collecting and evaluating evidence).
Procedural facilitation This involves providing external supports (such as prompts, guides, hints, or heuristics) designed to facilitate one or more writing processes, such as planning or revising.
Peer assistance when writing This involves students working together to plan, draft, and/or revise their compositions.
Study of models This involves students examining examples of one or more specific types of text and attempting to emulate the patterns or forms in these examples in their own writing.
Product goals These involve assigning students specific goals for the written product they are to complete.
Feedback This involves students receiving input from others about the adequacy of their written product.
Alternative modes of composing
Alternative modes of composing: Word processing This involves students using word processing computer programs to compose their composition.

Extra writing This involves students spending extra time writing or doing a particular kind of writing.

Update: I live-blogged a bit of Steve’s presentation today (24 Apr) about some of this same material. Here’s a link to that post (but, beware: It also circles back here–teehee).

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