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Strategies for Writers Foundational Research

by Rebecca B. Sipe, Ed.D.


Still Neglected? Writing in the 21st Century

In an era of blogs, tweets, and wikis—a flowering of public writing—it may be surprising that writing instruction in the schools is not similarly blooming. But many educators agree that students are not getting the instruction and practice they need to become skilled writers.

In 2003, the National Commission on Writing (NCOW) issued The Neglected “R”: The Need for a Writing Revolution (NCOW, 2003), which called for schools to double the amount of time students spent writing (p. 3) because at that time, most elementary students spent fewer than three hours per week writing (p. 20; also see Cutler & Graham, 2008). But seven years later, a national survey found that elementary students still wrote for only an average of two hours per week (Gilbert & Graham, 2010, p. 503)—about 25 minutes per day—and received just over an hour’s writing instruction. Students wrote paragraphs and short pieces, not longer texts. Despite the data that show writing is a crucial skill for both higher education and career, students do not receive enough instruction and practice in the classroom, and teachers do not get the training they need to teach writing (Cutler & Graham, 2008; Gilbert & Graham, 2010).

Writing scores on national tests have increased slightly over the last two decades, but the most recently reported National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) findings show that among a representative sample of eighth grade students, 31% achieved a “proficient” (29%) or “advanced” (2%) level on the writing assessment (Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008). According to the NAEP, a proficient achievement level “represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter” whereas basic “shows only partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade” (Salahu-Din et al., 2008, p. 6). In short, more than two-thirds of U.S. students do not have grade-level writing skills at grade eight. The numbers at grade 12 are even more troubling: only 24% of students taking the writing assessment scored as proficient or advanced, leaving more than three-quarters of students at or below basic achievement of the writing level we should expect for a student getting ready to graduate from high school (Salahu-Din et al., 2008, p. 37).

Relegating writing practice and instruction to merely a few hours a week for K–8 students has long-term consequences as they move not only through school but also into the world of work. In that situation, they likely encounter writing tasks for which they are under prepared. Two studies by NCOW illustrate that writing skills are key competencies for professionals in a variety of fields. The first survey, completed by business leaders in 120 major corporations, found that half take writing into account when making hiring or promotion decisions (NCOW, 2004).

Businesses also reported two-thirds or more of their salaried workers had writing responsibilities but estimated that only one-third or fewer new and current workers possess the writing skills that companies need in higher wage professional work (NCOW, 2004). Similarly, a second survey targeting state officials found that more than 75% of respondents report taking writing skills into consideration in hires and promotions (NCOW, 2005), even requesting writing samples from prospective employees. As the NCOW concludes, “[W]riting appears to be a ‘marker’ attribute of high-skill, high-wage, professional work,” and in corporate leaders’ minds, clear writing is evidence of clear thinking (NCOW, 2004, p. 19). A more recent study found that most U.S. employers considered written communication a “21st century skill” on par with information technology skills: whereas only 21.5% of employers rated the technology application skills of high school graduates as deficient, 80.9% rated the writing skills of high school graduates as deficient (Conference Board, 2007).

In fact, poor writing skills were called out as the fundamental deficiency for work readiness for graduates of high schools, two-year colleges/technical schools, and four-year colleges.

Graduates who have poor writing skills but want a degree or high-wage work must put in extra effort to gain them—and the cost of remediating writing skills is high. An estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that in 2008, at least 10% of community college students reported enrolling in remedial writing classes (NCES, 2009), which adds to their time toward a degree as well as their cost: total postsecondary remediation costs in the United States are estimated at $2 billion each year (Fulton, 2010). Private expenditures are even higher. NCOW estimates the costs of providing writing training to private sector employees could be as high as $3.1 billion annually (NCOW, 2004); it estimates that providing writing training for state employees costs nearly a quarter of a billion dollars each year (NCOW, 2005).

The quality of writing instruction that K–8 students receive has a great impact on their ability to become proficient, effective writers for the rest of their school years (Moats, Foorman, & Taylor, 2006). Strategies for Writers is designed to help teachers make writing a key focus of the curriculum. During the past several decades, researchers and practitioners discovered some of the most successful ways to increase students’ writing skills. Best practices include a focus on the process of writing, the incorporation of grammar and usage skills, the inclusion of models and self-assessment, and an emphasis on strategies to approach the writing situation. Strategies for Writers combines solid, research-proven instruction with an integrated approach that teaches students to apply the genre-specific characteristics of the six traits of writing to each step of the writing process.

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