THIS MONTH’S FOCUS
To be successful in school, at work, and as citizens, students must learn to write. Writing well is complex, and teaching writing is often challenging. In this month’s post, we explore how Wit & Wisdom approaches writing instruction and supports teachers with the tools, tasks, and resources needed to help students harness the power of writing.
Writing plays a fundamental role in our lives. We write in journals or create lists for ourselves; we write for friends and family in notes and texts; at work, we write emails, memos, letters, or manuals; in school, we write to reflect and communicate.
How does this writing serve us?
Often writing helps us learn. When we write, we organize our thoughts and clarify and extend our thinking. Writing to learn in the classroom might include annotating a text, recording notes in a learning journal, completing an Exit Ticket, or completing an organizer before a writing task.
When we write to communicate with others, we often do so to entertain, inform, or persuade. Take a moment to reflect on what makes these communications effective. What elements of successful written communication can you identify?
Your list of skills and understandings required for successful written communication is probably long!
- possess a depth of content knowledge—so that they have something to say;
- have a clear focus, purpose, and audience;
- plan a structure in which to develop their ideas;
- select appropriate and meaningful vocabulary, including literal and figurative words and phrases; and
- demonstrate control over grammar and conventions.
Let’s explore what research and experts have to say about both (1) writing for learning and (2) learning to write using the elements of effective written communication.
FINDINGS FROM RESEARCH AND EXPERTS
Writing supports learning. A wide body of research shows that students’ comprehension across content areas improves when they write about what they read (Graham and Hebert, 2010). Writing can help readers integrate ideas into a broader conceptual understanding, make thinking explicit, and engage personally, transforming what may be vague ideas into structured thoughts. Comparative research (reported by Graham and Hebert, 2010) shows that students who wrote about text outperformed those who read, read and reread, read and studied, or read and discussed without writing. The teachers of the Vermont Writing Collaborative support these findings: “We find, however, that the ‘thoughtful question,’ by itself, is not enough to produce effective writing. Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs not because they don’t have a thoughtful question, but because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place” (Vermont Writing Collaborative, 2016, 35).
Content supports writing. Just as writing has intimate ties to reading comprehension, reading and writing also connect to knowledge acquisition (Hochman and Wexler, 2019). As Hochman and Wexler state, “You cannot write about what you do not know, and the more you know about a topic the better your writing is likely to be” (25). Langer’s research (1984) finds “a strong and consistent relationship between topic-specific background knowledge and the quality of student writing” (41).
Effective writing is focused. When teachers establish clear tasks and purposes, students can identify specific writing goals and demonstrate higher quality writing (Graham and Perin, 2007).
Effective writing has structure. According to the Vermont Writing Collaborative report on the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the National Writing Project (2016), providing students with a framework for organizing and developing ideas is an essential part of effective writing instruction. A focus on structure is not just a technique to be learned; it’s also a technique for learning: “Structures give students (indeed, give all of us) a way to organize experience and make meaning from that experience and to communicate it effectively with others … What having a structure can do is to free the writer to think deeply and clearly … [and] build coherent written chunks of meaning” (Hawkins et al., 2008, 98). By selecting and organizing ideas and following a clear structure for the genre, student writers internalize these basic structures and learn to use them flexibly to support their ideas in new contexts. Graham and Perin’s 2007 meta-analysis found a positive effect for students who studied models, which they could analyze to identify and emulate key elements and structure.
Strong writers make strong word choices. Words are the writer’s essential tool; the writer’s literal and figurative language and syntax determine the impact of their style and rhetorical effectiveness. Research shows a strong link between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, which both affect students’ ability to communicate ideas.
Clear writing follows conventions. While attention to standard English is important in clear and correct communication, “traditional grammar instruction [explicit, systematic instruction on parts of speech and sentence structure] is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing” (Graham and Perin, 2007, 21). Instead, Graham and Perin’s meta-analysis suggests that other approaches—which more closely tie students’ writing with their analysis of language structures—are more effective. One such approach is sentence combining, in which students construct complex sentences from two or more simple sentences.
RESEARCH IN ACTION IN WIT & WISDOM
How does Wit & Wisdom bring this research to life? The Wit & Wisdom teacher–writers integrate writing into every lesson’s core work, including daily opportunities for students to write to learn and learn to write.
Writing to Learn—In Wit & Wisdom, students write to learn every day when they
- record text evidence in Evidence Organizers,
- take notes in Response Journals,
- write creatively to imagine a character’s perspective,
- summarize key ideas from reading,
- respond to text-dependent questions, and
- analyze key vocabulary by using graphic organizers.
Learning to Write: The Content-Writing Connection—Wit & Wisdom’s foundational structure is the Content–Craft–Create framework.
The framework begins with content. Knowledge is the foundation of students’ learning and the basis of their success as readers and writers. All craft instruction in Wit & Wisdom is grounded in the content and texts, and students use writing as a tool for learning as they build the skills of effective writers. Wit & Wisdom students use these integrated elements—content and craft—together when they write and speak to communicate their ideas and understandings.
Learning to Write: Focus and Structure—Students learn to write every day through the Wit & Wisdom Craft Stages, which are repeated, transferable stages that scaffold the writing process and students’ skill-building. The Craft Stages are Examine, Experiment, Execute, and Excel.
- In the Examine Stage, students use an exemplar to analyze a specific writing skill.
- In the Experiment Stage, students practice the skill with a discrete, often scaffolded task.
- In the Execute Stage, students use the skill at a higher level.
- In the Excel Stage, students evaluate their effectiveness and determine steps for revision.
The Wit & Wisdom approach to writing instruction includes a focus on reading critically to identify the elements and structures of effective writing in specific genres. The Examine Stage aligns with research on the importance of examining strong writing exemplars, or reading as writers. To align with the research on teaching writing structure, Wit & Wisdom students across all grades learn a basic structure for each of the three main writing types—opinion/argument, informative/explanatory, and narrative—with the support of the Wit & Wisdom writing models, such as the ToSEEC structure for informative writing.
Learning to Write: Vocabulary, Style, and Conventions—Wit & Wisdom integrates language instruction into all lessons. Students learn and explore content-area and academic vocabulary in core lessons and Deep Dives. In Deep Dives, students focus on grammar in the context of module topics and their writing. To learn elements of style and writing conventions, students follow the same Craft Stages—first by examining the skill in an exemplar, then by using the skill in a focused way, then by integrating the skill in their writing, and finally by refining the skill in their revisions. This dedicated focus on integrated language development is particularly supportive for multilingual learners and and students who need support with reading.
The following suggestions can help you most effectively plan and deliver Wit & Wisdom writing instruction:
- Complete the Wit & Wisdom student tasks before planning instruction.
- Create a community of writers.
- Have students write daily.
- Know the teacher role at each Craft Stage.
- Provide feedback.
- Meet student needs.
- Collaborate with colleagues.
- Celebrate writing.
Complete the Wit & Wisdom student tasks before planning instruction. The Wit & Wisdom Preparation Protocols guide teachers to prepare for instruction with a deep analysis of the module that includes completing key writing tasks from the module. By doing so, teachers have a clearer understanding of what students will learn and what skills and knowledge students will need to complete tasks successfully. Teachers can then anticipate what may challenge students and what scaffolds may be needed to support them to succeed.
Create a community of writers. Sharing writing and receiving feedback can be difficult for young writers. Teachers must create positive, supportive learning communities so that students are willing to take risks and collaborate with others to plan, draft, share, and receive feedback to improve their writing. The January 2021 post focused on “Reflecting and Refreshing for Social-Emotional Learning in the Wit & Wisdom Classroom.” Read the full post for additional ideas about creating a classroom community that supports writers.
Have students write daily. Experts concur that making time for daily writing is essential for supporting students in becoming stronger writers. In Wit & Wisdom, students write informally and formally about the module content every day. If pacing lessons is challenging, as it can be particularly for first-year Wit & Wisdom teachers, be sure not to eliminate students’ writing opportunities. Instead, use a variety of approaches to make daily writing more possible, being sure to increase rigor and reduce scaffolds as students gain skill and fluency:
- Group students to complete tasks collaboratively.
- Allow striving writers and multilingual learners to respond orally, and then use available technology to transcribe the writing for review and revision steps.
- Provide sentence and paragraph frames as scaffolds.
- Shorten the length of expected products (a paragraph instead of a full essay, a sentence in place of a paragraph).
Know the teacher role at each Craft Stage. Being clear on your role at each Craft Stage will maximize students’ learning.
- At the Examine Stage, be sure you understand the exemplar and know how and why it serves as an exemplar. Plan questions to draw students’ attention to key aspects of the exemplar text as they read like writers.
- At the Experiment Stage, ensure that you understand each aspect of the task and the expectations for student performance, and then clearly explain them to students. Review the students’ written products to assess their grasp of the focus skill and identify any additional support needed.
- At the Execute Stage, clearly explain the task and your expectations. Based on students’ work at earlier stages, determine any scaffolds they need to succeed.
- At the Excel Stage, use any checklists or guidelines provided in the lesson for self- and peer-assessment. Offer specific suggestions to students who struggle with revisions.
Provide feedback. Feedback is an essential part of learning and helps students develop as writers. These tips can ensure that your feedback is most effective.
First, be selective in feedback. A paper returned with all errors highlighted can be disheartening for students. When providing feedback, focus comments in a targeted way that aligns with instruction. Did you focus instruction on topic sentences and introductions? Focus comments there as well.
Explain the why behind feedback so that students see the value of their revisions. Help students see how their revisions make the writing more effective in communicating their ideas to an audience.
Be forgiving. Writing requires students to access their content knowledge, determine and maintain an organizational structure, choose appropriate and effective words, and more. This can overload their working memories so that they may make basic errors, such as misspelling a commonly confused word, omitting a word, or including a sentence fragment. Honor the hard work of writing when giving feedback.
Use Wit & Wisdom resources for additional support. The Implementation Guide includes writing models (pages 114–119) and writing rubrics (pages 120–146). Remember, too, that not all student writing must be graded. Daily writing-to-learn activities, such as Exit Tickets or Quick Writes, can be skimmed to ensure understanding but do not need to be graded for quality or annotated to provide feedback on writing organization, style and conventions, or word choice.
Meet student needs. Multilingual learners and students who need additional support with writing both benefit from the built-in scaffolds, such as the Craft Stages, in Wit & Wisdom’s design. In addition, the following may be particularly supportive.
Help students better plan. Use Wit & Wisdom Evidence Organizers and other planning tools and provide time for students to plan writing independently and collaboratively. Research suggests that students who need additional support with writing may struggle particularly with the planning phase (Gersten and Baker, 2001; Troia, 2007). These writers may brainstorm ideas without focusing in a structured way on rhetorical goals, purpose, and audience. Or they may jump into their draft without sufficient planning. Providing focused instruction during planning helps students focus on the idea of writing as a process for communicating meaning rather than as an activity to produce a product.
As these students draft written responses, slow down their transition to fully independent writing. Provide sentence or paragraph frames. Limit tasks so that students focus on refining skills with specific elements, such as introductions, body paragraphs, or conclusions. If 1:1 computer access is available, offer sentence, paragraph, and essay frames digitally.
Focus on revising. Students who face challenges with writing may focus revisions too heavily on issues of mechanics rather than issues of substance. Encourage students to focus on content, meaning, and organization in their revisions. Use rubrics, writing checklists, and suggestions for peer editing and self-assessment to support students’ revisions. Provide targeted, focused feedback that gives students a framework for achieving success with specific writing goals.
Collaborate with colleagues. Norming is the process in which a group of colleagues comes together to ensure consistency in how they assess student writing. Grade-level teachers can norm by applying the Wit & Wisdom rubrics to multiple examples of students’ work and then discussing and developing consensus on scoring. Wit & Wisdom rubrics are in the Implementation Guide and in Appendix C of each module. Appendix C also includes sample responses and scoring guidelines for each major assessment. Engaging in norming deepens teachers’ understanding of the Wit & Wisdom tools for assessment and ensures shared expectations for excellent performance. Norming can be particularly helpful in Wit & Wisdom because the sample responses are exemplars for language and content, not examples of Grades K–8 student work. As a result, when norming, teachers can annotate the sample responses to highlight key elements and then collaborate to select actual student responses to ensure a shared understanding of grade-level expectations.
Colleagues can also work together to deepen their understanding of and skill with writing instruction. Organize a book club where teachers read and discuss Writing for Understanding or other books and research about writing instruction, such as those listed in this post’s Works Cited list.
In addition, teachers across the content areas can provide opportunities for students to practice writing and build skills. Teachers and leaders can consider ways to make writing instruction a focus schoolwide, across content areas.
Celebrate writing. Evaluate the message you communicate about writing. How do your questions, body language, and feedback convey the importance of writing? Be sure that you exemplify the importance of writing through your words and actions. Make time to celebrate writing. Plan for end-of-module opportunities for students to share their writing with classmates and others.
ENGAGING FAMILIES IN BUILDING STUDENTS’ WRITING SKILLS
Involving parents and families in students’ learning can improve students’ skills and performance.
- Assign collaborative homework tasks as appropriate. For example, as students plan writing, have them share their topics, purpose, and audience for writing with their parents.
- Encourage families to build writing into daily life and to model how and when they write. Ideas include keeping a family journal, posting a kitchen message board, and writing letters to family and friends.
- Encourage families to read together and provide suggestions for discussing the texts, such as those included in the Volume of Reading Reflection Questions with each module. Help parents see the connection between reading and writing to help children think about the texts they read in terms of the author’s craft.
- If parents and caregivers want to provide feedback on students’ written products, encourage them to focus primarily on how clearly and logically the writing communicates and supports ideas or details and describes events. The Tips for Families in English and Spanish provide a helpful overview of module topics. Remind families of the essential purpose of writing as communication, and encourage them to review for spelling and conventions only as a final check of a final draft.
Effective writing is an essential skill for college and career success and effective engagement in civic life. All students need and deserve practice and instruction in writing. We are glad to be a partner in ensuring that all students can harness the power of writing.
Cutler, Laura, and Steve Graham. “Primary Grade Writing Instruction: A National Survey.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2008, vol. 100, no. 4, pp. 907–19.
Gersten, Russell, and Scott Baker. “Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis.” The Elementary School Journal, 2001, vol. 101, no. 3, pp. 251–72.
Graham, Steve, and Dolores Perin. Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Alliance for Excellent Education, 2007, http://witeng.link/0801.
Graham, Steve, and Michael Hebert. Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010.
Hawkins, Joey, et al. Vermont Writing Collaborative. Writing for Understanding: Using Backward Design to Help All Students Write Effectively. Authentic Education, 2008.
Hochman, Judith C., and Natalie Wexler. “One Sentence at a Time: The Need for Explicit Instruction in Teaching Students to Write Well.” American Educator, Summer 2017.
Hochman, Judith C., and Natalie Wexler. “The Connections Between Writing, Knowledge Acquisition, and Reading Comprehension.” Perspectives on Language and Literacy: The Importance of Knowledge, Fall 2019, pp. 25–29, http://witeng.link/0935.
Langer, Judith. “The Effects of Available Information on Responses to School Writing Tasks.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 18, no. 1, 1984, pp. 27–44, http://witeng.link/0909.
The National Commission on Writing. The Neglected “R”: The Need for a Writing Revolution. College Entrance Examination Board, 2003, https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/download/nwp_file/21478/the-neglected-r-college-board-nwp-report.pdf?x-r=pcfile_d.
Troia, Gary. “Research in Writing Instruction: What We Know and What We Need to Know.” Shaping Literacy Achievement: Research We Have, Research We Need, edited by Pressley, Michael et al., Guilford Publications, 2007, pp. 129–156.
Vermont Writing Collaborative. “A Powerful Tool: Writing Based on Knowledge and Understanding.” American Educator, Summer 2016, http://witeng.link/0928.
Sarah Woodard is the Regional Director–West for the Humanities Implementation Success team at Great Minds. She has been a contributor to multiple Humanities resources and now supports partners with their implementations. Prior to joining Great Minds, she taught first, third, and fourth grades. For Sarah, helping educators realize their vision and goals for their students to reach higher levels of academic achievement is the most important and rewarding part of the job.