Improving Writing - Research Summary

From OER in Education


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Summary of research

This survey of current research is taken from Improving writing: key messages from research from the English department training (2003) document. The key messages leaflets are all in school in the English department. Some of these would be a useful resource for you, especially those on punctuation and improving boys’ writing.

Choice of teaching strategies can make a difference

In a meta-analysis of research looking at a range of studies on teaching strategies in secondary classrooms, three broad approaches to the teaching of writing were identified (Hillocks 1986)

  • presentational: where the role of the teacher is that of setting tasks and marking outcomes;
  • process: where the pupil controls the writing choice and writing is developed through drafts and peer-conferencing (Graves 1983; Calkins 1988);
  • environmental: a more guided, negotiated approach where active teaching of complex strategies supports pupils towards independent use (Australian genre theorists).

The study suggests that the latter approach is two or three times more effective than the ‘process’ approach and four times more effective than the ‘presentational’ approach because

  • new forms and criteria for writing are modelled;
  • enquiry and problem-solving processes are involved;
  • distinct features are identified and pupils are helped to apply these in their own independent writing.

Effective teaching of writing will depend on the degree to which teachers understand the complexity of the task (Schulman 1987).

Clear, focused writing objectives support pupils

Tightly structured lessons, which establish a clear sense of purpose and direction through clearly defined achievable targets, benefit all pupils but especially boys (Frater 1998).

Writing needs to be purposeful and offer pupils a stake in the negotiation of meaningful opportunities for expressing their interests (Britton et al. 1975). This is crucial for maintaining the interest of boys. Teachers have been slow to use boys’ particular knowledge of media and information technology and to link preferred writing to their preferred reading of factual ‘real world’ texts (Daly 1999). There is clear agreement in research on the need to integrate activities in writing around purposeful, authentic learning tasks.

The use of shared reading as a bridge to writing

Teachers need to provide good examples of texts so that pupils are able jointly to investigate and analyse the features as readers or as writers. Callaghan and Rothery (1998) suggest that there are three stages in this approach

  • teacher shares information about the uses and features of the text type (genre);
  • joint construction: teacher and pupils work together to construct a new text sharing the same generic features;
  • independent construction: pupils construct a new text in the same genre, drafting and editing in consultation with peers and the teacher.

American researchers Nystrand, Gamoran and Carbonaro (1998) found that writing achievement was positively related to the degree of coherence between reading, writing and discussion (peer response) in secondary classrooms. Research with older primary pupils suggests that teaching writing in combination with reading prompts better critical thinking about texts than when the activities are isolated.

Writing at Key Stage 3 involves learning to read from multiple sources and writing critically in response. Writers need to be able to organise more complex information and to orchestrate, control and reflect upon their writing of a wide range of fiction and non-fiction texts (Hillocks 1995).

Explicit teaching and modelling language choices

Anticipating the needs of their audience and understanding the reader/writer relationship require clarity of objectives, purpose and task. Teachers need to be clear with pupils how the audience and purpose for their piece of writing will determine the structural and linguistic choices they make as writers (Cope and Kalantzis 1993).

Australian genre theorists have shown how reading–writing links can be productive, particularly in teaching non-fiction writing. They advocate explicit teaching of how texts work in order that pupil writers can construct texts and organise their own ideas for particular purposes and audiences effectively (Halliday 1985).

Exploration of texts can help writers access a range of ‘discourses of power’, that is ways of writing used by people to organise and influence the world around them (Martin 1989). Many aspects of written information texts can be explored directly with pupils to create awareness of the different language resources that serve different purposes (Christie 1998, Derewianka 1990, Hasan and Martin 1989, Kress 1982).

Evidence shows that teachers can support pupils in managing complexity by modelling the power of sentence-combining activities (Shaughnessy 1979). Modelling is more than ‘demonstrating’ writing because it involves talking pupils through the thinking and decision-making processes used when writers write. The teacher takes the role as ‘expert’ (Vygotsky 1980). The use of metacognition and meta-language are important factors. Pupils need a supportive writing environment but benefit from seeing and experiencing the ‘struggles’ that are part of developing the writing skills (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1982, 1987).

Guided writing

Guided writing offers small-group teaching opportunities to support writers in making valuable connections between the text-, sentence- and word-level decisions required to shape texts with particular criteria in mind. Teachers can clarify the cognitive processes used when pupils are planning and revising, before, during or after writing parts of a text. The aim is to develop better-focused and more fluent writing with the support and feedback of teacher and peers (Scardamalia et al. 1981).


Scaffolding is an effective process by which the teacher organises learning that is challenging to pupils in such a way as to assist them to carry out the new task successfully (Wood et al. 1976). It is a complex process and involves

  • activating and maintaining the learner’s interest;
  • reducing the number of choices available;
  • keeping the pupils on-task;
  • highlighting critical aspects;
  • controlling frustration;
  • demonstrating the process to pupils.

Scaffolding has a role in moving pupils to independent use of new strategies by supporting them as co-constructors of knowledge and co-users of more expert strategies than those they can control independently (Palincsar 1986). Writing frames are just one example of scaffolds, but their misuse has underlined the complexities in the process of pupils becoming sufficiently independent to manage without the ‘expert facilitator’ (Lewis and Wray 2000).

Feedback and revision

Since writing involves the integration of several processes, re-reading to revise is important (Norwood, Hayes and Flower 1980). Chanquoy (2001) shows the positive effect of returning to writing after the event. The time delay seems to help, but the techniques for revising need to be explicitly taught, that is modelled by the teacher. Glynn et al. (1989), behavioural psychologists researching in New Zealand classrooms, found considerable evidence that positive oral feedback has an impact on both motivation and the amount written. This was found to be more significant when errors were selectively targeted and when pupils were involved in error correction and praised for this. The research suggests that teachers’ comments should be organisational, encouraging, constructive, challenging and push pupils’ thinking. The work of Black and Wiliam (1998) and Black et al. (2002) looks at formative assessment and its relationship to raising standards in pupils’ learning. They comment that effective feedback needs to make explicit to pupils what is involved in producing high-quality writing and what steps are needed for improvement. They suggest that pupils should be actively engaged in the thinking and discussion involved.


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Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN: 0805800387.

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