Teaching writing in the United States

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Teaching writing in the United States has progressed through several approaches during the history of education in the United States.


At its most basic level, writing is how people keep track of the thoughts that are important to them. From the ancient Egyptians, to the monks of the Middle Ages, to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, writing has been used to capture thought, from the mundane to the profound.[1] In schools, writing serves not only to record and convey thoughts, but to refine and synthesize thinking. As school effectiveness researcher Doug Reeves discovered, "The association between writing and performance in other academic disciplines [is] striking, and gets to the heart of the curriculum choices teachers must make."[2]

Early writing instruction[edit]

Early academic instruction in writing centered almost exclusively on mechanics, commonly referred to today as conventions. Emphasis was placed on handwriting, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Papers were more likely to be graded on conformity to these conventions and accuracy of content than on style or creative expression of ideas.[3] Historically, instruction in writing has focused on a narrow pool of concrete, easily definable skills.

Writing process approach[edit]

Research conducted in the late 1970s by Donald Graves, Janet Emig and others led to a focus on the process, rather than solely the product, of writing.[4] The writing process approach rests on the premise that writing is a complex and individualized task which can be described through a series of recursive stages.[5] These stages, commonly including pre-writing, writing, editing and revision, and the concepts of craft within them, can be modeled and taught to students. This allows the teacher to identify the difficulties students are having with writing and to provide appropriate instruction and support.[6] The writing process approach helps students to understand what writers actually do when they write, providing multiple models and individual feedback on writing pieces in progress. Students are encouraged to choose their own topics and purposes for writing, and to write to real audiences. This approach has been widely adopted in schools throughout the United States.[citation needed]

A new way to have students write is to work together – known as collaborative writing. There are many criticisms against collaborative writing and many people are uncomfortable with it. Darolyn Jones, author of Collaborative Writing: Priority, Practice and Process, says that many people work alone for several reasons. The first one is that many people cannot find time to meet with the rest of the group. Another reason is that each writer has their organization and own process of writing. When students are forced to work with others, they must adjust to the style of the group and get rid of their own. Many times there is a misunderstanding of what is expected of the students. The last reason, and the biggest one, is the fear of being criticized. Many writers do not feel comfortable sharing their work because they are afraid it will be torn down and disliked by readers and their audience.

Despite these issues, there are several benefits to collaborative writing. Collaboration results in a stronger finished product.[citation needed] Each member can contribute their own strengths for the assignment. Working together allows students to mentor each other and practice working with one another, which will help them in the real world when they go out for their job. While the project may seem daunting, working together allows the burden to be shared and there are more eyes for editing the final project.

Writing across the curriculum[edit]

During the 1980s and 1990s, new approaches to teaching writing emerged, as teachers realized that in order to be effective, a piece of writing should be tailored to a specific purpose and audience. Prominent among these was the British-based movement which came to be known as Writing Across the Curriculum. This approach rests on the premise that all teachers, not just language arts teachers, must be teachers of writing. Designed to ease the separation between literacy and content knowledge, this approach emphasizes the connection between writing and cognitive development, teaching students to write in a variety of genres, specific to purpose and discipline. Writing Across the Curriculum teachers often emphasize two basic pedagogical strands: Writing to Learn, informal writing done to prompt students to more deeply understand concepts; and Writing in the Disciplines, in which students are taught writing skills and conventions necessary to participate in specific academic discourse.[7]

Writing for understanding[edit]

Writing for understanding, a 21st-century approach, adapts the principles of backward design[8] to teach students to write effectively. Writing for Understanding grew out of a recognition that most students require explicit instruction in both the knowledge and the structures that they need to construct meaning in writing.[9] Oral processing and the extensive use of models and modeling are core teaching methodologies in this approach.[10] The Writing for Understanding Approach rests on three pillars: Backward Design, Understanding and Direct Instruction. Students are given focused, intentional instruction and practice in:

  • developing a knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
  • identifying an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
  • choosing a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
  • establishing control over conventions.[11]

Writing for understanding teachers intentionally design instruction to enable students to appropriately generalize and transfer their skills to multiple contexts. The Vermont Writing Collaborative [3] serves as a clearinghouse for information about Writing for Understanding and provides professional development, instructional materials and support for educators.

The reading and apprenticeship connections[edit]

According to some writing theorists, reading for pleasure provides a more effective way of mastering the art of writing than does a formal study of writing, language, grammar, and vocabulary.[12][13][14][15]

"Studies that sought to improve writing by providing reading experiences in place of grammar study or additional writing practice found that these experiences were as beneficial as, or more beneficial than, grammar study or extra writing practice."[16]

The apprenticeship approach provides one variant of the reading connection, arguing that the composition classroom should resemble pottery or piano workshops—minimizing dependence on excessive self-reflection, preoccupation with audience, and explicit rules. By watching the master, according to Michael Polanyi,[17] an “apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself.” Writing instructors, according to this approach, serve as models and coaches, providing explicit feedback in response to the learner's compositions. Students focus their attention on the task at hand, and not on "an inaccessible and confusing multitude of explicit rules and strategies." [18]


In 2009, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) assumed the coordination of a state led effort called The Common Core State Standards Initiative. In this initiative, "Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia committed to developing a common core of state standards in English-language arts."[19] The Common Core State Standards Initiative's focus, with regard to writing, is to prepare America's students for college and career writing. These standards indicate key points in English Language Arts Writing through outlining the following main categories: Text Types and Purposes; Production and Distribution of Writing; Research to Build and Present Knowledge; and Range of Writing. These main categories are divided into 10 concepts and skills which are introduced to students in Kindergarten and then built upon in every subsequent grade level. Complexity and rigor increase each year so students develop and master each concept and skill. This effort is ongoing and is certain to have a profound effect nationwide on writing curriculum and pedagogical practice over the next decade. The National Commission on Writing has challenged American public educators "to teach all students to write effectively, clearly and thoughtfully."[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Vermont Writing Collaborative: Writing for Understanding, pp 4–5. Authentic Education, 2008.
  2. ^ Reeves, Douglas: Accountability in Action—A Blueprint for Learning, pp. 189–90. Advanced Learning Press, 2000.
  3. ^ "Literacy: Writing and Composition." Encyclopedia of Education. The Gale Group, Inc, 2002. Answers.com 30 Jan. 2010. [1]
  4. ^ National Writing Project and Carl Nagin: Because Writing Matters, p. 22, Jossey-Bass,2006.
  5. ^ Murray, D: Write to Learn, pp. 5–6, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1990.
  6. ^ "Institute for Writing and Rhetoric". www.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  7. ^ Charles Bazerman, Joseph Little, Lisa Bethel, Teri Chavkin, Danielle Fouquette, and Janet Garufis: Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse,2005.
  8. ^ Wiggins, Grant & McTighe, Jay: The Understanding by Design Handbook, ASCD, 1999.
  9. ^ Hawkins, Joanna (October 2006). "Think Before You Write". Educational Leadership. 64 (2): 64.
  10. ^ Fountain, Kristen (2008-11-25). "Fresh Approach Vermont Educators Use New Methods to Teach Writing". Valley News. Valley News. pp. C2–C3.
  11. ^ The Vermont Writing Collaborative: Writing for Understanding, p.xiii. Authentic Education, 2008.
  12. ^ Smith, F. (1988). Understanding reading (4th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. p. 177.
  13. ^ Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited. p. 23.
  14. ^ Hays, J. N. Hays et al. (eds.) (see chapter by Perl, S. Understanding composing) (1983). The writer's mind. Urbana (IL): National Council of Teachers of English. p. 50.
  15. ^ Tate, G. (1993). "A place for literature in freshman composition". College English. 55: 321.
  16. ^ Stotsky, S. (1983). "Research on reading/writing relationships: a synthesis and suggested directions". Language Arts. 60: 637.
  17. ^ Personal knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1962.
  18. ^ Nissany, M (1996). "The Apprenticeship Approach to Writing Instruction" (PDF). Visible Language. 30 (3): 284–313.
  19. ^ Common Core State Standards Initiative: [2], Retrieved 30 Jan 2010.
  20. ^ National Commission on Writing: The Neglected 'R': the Need for a Writing Revolution. College Entrance Examination Board, 2003

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