Study: Writing processes differ between proficient, lower-performing middle-schoolers

Dive Brief:

  • Middle school writers who earn higher essay scores spend a smaller amount of time waiting before starting to write, type more rapidly, use more time for total composition and start more words (which researchers say is indicative as a measure of effort, in part), according to a study by the Educational Testing Service.
  • The study compared four process measures of highly proficient middle school students and their less-proficient peers: fluency, local editing, macro-editing and interstitial pausing. 
  • The two groups varied in total time writing, number of words started and fluency. The more proficient students generated text more fluently and paused longer at planning junctures while composing. 

Dive Insight:

The findings of the study could be used for education policy and changes in instruction.

English language arts (ELA) instruction has recently come under scrutiny, with new research suggesting not enough students are writing. A recent study shows only about 25% of middle-schoolers and 31% of high school students practice their writing skills 30 minutes a day, which curriculum experts say is the minimum amount necessary. By comparison, 33% of middle school students and 34% of high school students only spend 15 minutes a day writing.

The lack of writing instruction may equate to subpar college entrance exam scores. For example, 40% of students who took the ACT writing exam in 2016 did not demonstrate the skills needed to successfully take a college-level English composition class.

How English is taught could be contributing to the problem. A study released in August showed Black and Hispanic students are more likely to say grammar instruction is a larger portion of the writing curriculum, even though research shows grammar instruction in isolation does not improve writing. Overall, one in four 8th-graders said their English instruction centers on grammar.

One solution is to expand writing practice across multiple disciplines. Leaders at the Title I Chemawa Middle School in Riverside, California, created a plan that emphasized writing skills across multiple subjects. It focused on reading, writing, speaking and listening. The school established a close-reading protocol and developed specific ways for writing to be taught in ELA, history and science. At the school, 68% of students are Hispanic and 12% of that population is English language learners. 

David Cutler, a teacher in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, wrote in Edutopia he strives to teach students the “value of criticism,” during their writing exercises. He also says the best writing teachers are writers themselves and should demonstrate how to write and receive criticism, encouraging teachers to hold writing workshops with stations focusing on various aspects of writing, such as a “transitions booth.”

Teachers can also emphasize writing is critical for success in the workplace, regardless of one’s profession. The science, math, engineering, law and history fields all require the ability to clearly communicate in writing.

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