Any school focusing on improving outcomes in writing would do well as a staff to read the article by Amy Gillespie and Steve Graham http://education.jhu.edu/newhorizons/Better/articles/Winter2011.html In this article Gillespie and Graham discuss the techniques that have proven to work when teaching students to write. While the research refers to adolescent writing, there are many ‘takeaways’ for all ages.
Writing is a complex task not only for the student of writing but also the teacher. On first glance the list of techniques reads a bit like a ‘bet each way’ because it covers a broad range of elements of effective writing teaching. What is interesting on deeper reading is the research-based classroom practices for improve adolescent writing are listed according to the magnitude of their effects. Practices with the strongest effects are listed first but central to many of the practices are explicit teaching and the Gradual Release of Responsibility.Frey & Fisher, 2006
Writing Strategies: Teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their composition.
Summarization: Explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
Collaborative Writing: Using instructional arrangements in which young adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions.
Specific Product Goals: Assigning specific, reachable goals for the writing that students are to complete.
Word Processing: Using computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
Sentence Combining: Teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences.
Prewriting: Engaging students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
Inquiry Activities: Engaging students in analysing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
Process Writing Approach: Interweaving a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
Study of Models: Providing students with opportunities to read, analyse, and emulate models of good writing
Writing for Content Learning: Using writing as a tool for learning content material.
Gillespie and Graham go on to say that the effects of some writing interventions differ minimally from the effects of others therefore all strategies are potentially useful. This research based list is a powerful starting point for staff discussions to identify what professional learning they need, to develop the understandings and skills required, to deliver these strategies in a targeted, balanced approach.
Best practice must keep coming back to the importance of knowing our students, what they need as writers and how to best combine the strategies to meet their needs. I believe it is here that many teachers struggle the most. Writing is being assigned for summative assessment purposes rather than writing samples collected for formative assessment – (the where ‘we are here’ and now the ‘where to next’). As a result teachers grab onto lists of strategies and implement them like a checklist. Having said this, the formulated implementation has been a lifeline for teachers who do not know where to begin to teach writers how to grow their writing and implementing any of these elements is a positive. The question for leadership in schools is what practices are currently used by their teachers and where do they fit with evidenced-based practices discussed by Gillespie and Graham.