Teaching Writing

Why Writing Matters

Why Writing Matters

Concern with the quality of student writing has been a perennial feature of the American educational landscape. What has changed are assumptions about its uses and importance both within and outside the classroom as well as what educators have learned about teaching it. The need for freshman writing courses, one of the most consistently required subjects in the postsecondary curriculum, dates back to 1874, when Harvard University began requiring a written entrance exam. Harvard’s version of the course came in response to the poor writing of its upperclassmen1 and the results of its entrance exam, which more than half the candidates— “products of America’s best preparatory schools” —failed. 2

For most of the nineteenth century, according to Arthur Applebee, director of the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA), “the teaching of writing [in elementary and secondary schools] focused on penmanship and little else. Later, writing instruction was often postponed until the middle and upper grades,” on the notion that students first had to achieve basic literacy in reading.3 Writing was something of a silent R, even among Progressives, whose influence on writing pedagogy was “limited to writing about personal experiences or about experiential connections to literature.”4

A little more than a century after Harvard instituted its written entrance exam, a 1975 Newsweek article (“Why Johnny Can’t Write”)5 proclaimed that America had a writing crisis, only this time the onus was placed on public schools for neglecting “the basics.” Clearly, this was not a new controversy. What was changing was how educators and policymakers were defining our literacy needs, which in turn changed expectations for writing curricula in terms of their scope and context. The controversy fueled a boom in university-level remedial courses and programs to address the deficient literacy skills of entering freshmen. It also led to creation of the National Writing Project (NWP), whose mission and professional development model are committed to bringing exemplary writing instruction to all of America’s schools. Despite repeated “back-to-basics” efforts, the need for improving student writing persists. It raises the question, Why is writing so challenging to teach and learn?

Many young people come to university able to summarize the events in a news story or write a personal response to a play. . . . But they have considerable trouble with what has come to be called critical literacy: framing an argument or taking someone else’s argument apart [and] synthesizing different points of view. . . . The authors of the [writing] crisis reports got tremendously distressed about students’ difficulties with such tasks, but it’s important to remember that, traditionally, such abilities have only been developed in an elite: in priests, scholars, or a leisure class. Ours is the first society in history to expect so many of its people to be able to perform these very sophisticated literacy activities.

Mike Rose,
Lives on the Boundary, p. 188

UCLA’s Mike Rose suggests that the stakes for learning to write have changed. The benchmark for what counts as literate writing, what good writing requires, and how many people need to be literate in our society has moved dramatically since the nineteenth century. It is no longer the concern, as it was at Harvard in 1874, of an exclusively white, male elite; in today’s increasingly diverse society, writing is a gateway for success in academia, the new workplace, and the global economy, as well as for our collective success as a participatory democracy. At the same time, our understanding of how to teach writing has evolved significantly over the last three decades and now includes guidance about how to support students from a variety of language backgrounds and circumstances to reach high levels of literacy. Successful strategies as well as models and resources for building an effective writing program in a school are known and available. So today, the need to improve writing is perhaps better framed as a challenge rather than a crisis.

Because Writing Matters describes the current state of teaching writing in America, highlighting effective classroom practices and successful school programs. The National Writing Project conceived of this book as a resource for school administrators, educators, and policymakers who want to know how to address the challenge of improving student writing at all grade levels. Its purpose is threefold:

  1. To make the case that writing is a complex activity; more than just a skill or talent, it is a means of inquiry and expression for learning in all grades and disciplines
  2. To examine current trends, best practices, research, and issues in the teaching of writing, such as its role in early literacy, how the process of the writer in the real world can be developed in the classroom, how writing can be fairly and authentically assessed, and how writing can be taught across the curriculum
  3. To offer practical solutions and models for school administrators and policymakers involved in planning, implementing, and assessing a writing program as well as those seeking effective staff development for teaching writing.

This book takes a pragmatic approach to the challenge of improving writing and building successful programs in our schools. Through vignettes and case studies, it illustrates how educators have used writing in diverse classroom and school settings to enrich learning and provide meaningful learning experiences for students at all grade levels. It addresses these core questions:

  • Why does writing matter?
  • What does research say about the teaching of writing?
  • What do we mean by “writing processes”?
  • What are some features of an effective writing classroom?
  • How can writing be used to develop critical thinking?
  • How does writing fit into learning across disciplines?
  • What kind of professional development prepares teachers to teach and use writing?
  • What does a schoolwide writing program look like?
  • What are fair ways to assess writing?
Effective writing skills are important in all stages of life from early education to future employment. In the business world, as well as in school, students must convey complex ideas and information in a clear, succinct manner. Inadequate writing skills, therefore, could inhibit achievement across the curriculum and in future careers, while proficient writing skills help students convey ideas, deliver instructions, analyze information, and motivate others.

National Center for Education Statistics,
U.S. Department of Education,
The Condition of Education 1998, p. 70

The book draws from a persuasive body of research over the past three decades that is changing how writing is taught in many classrooms and our understanding of how it can affect learning. The research has brought the practice of writers in the real world into the classroom. It has added new insights about how writing and reading are linked in early literacy. For our increasingly diverse and multilingual classrooms, it has also illuminated many of the social and cultural factors that support literacy development. In addition, this book draws from interviews with teachers, principals, and superintendents who have taken on the challenge of building a successful writing program in their school, classroom, or district—educators working in diverse settings across the country. Some (but not all) of them are associated with the NWP.

For thirty years, the NWP has made improving the quality of writing and learning in our nation’s schools its central mission. What began in the summer of 1974 as a professional development institute for twenty-five teachers on the University of California campus in Berkeley has by 2005 evolved into a network of 189 NWP sites in fifty states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands, involving more than two million teachers at urban, rural, and suburban schools in realizing its core goal. In 2003–04 these sites led thirty-seven hundred in-service workshops for teachers, with more than a third of these programs part of ongoing partnerships with schools. Serving more than one hundred thousand educators a year in all disciplines in grades K–16 (roughly one out of forty teachers in the United States), it is the only national program that focuses on writing as a means to improve learning in America’s schools.

Since its inception, the NWP has fostered university-school collaboration. From that collective effort, much has been learned about exemplary teaching practices in writing and their impact on students’ learning throughout their academic careers. This knowledge has been broadened by three decades of research in the field of composition pedagogy, leading to new understanding about the role of writing in our classrooms that has critical implications for educational reform efforts. Policymakers and school administrators, no less than teachers and parents, can benefit from understanding current trends and issues in the teaching of writing and the vital role it can play in achieving quality and excellence in our classrooms across the disciplines.

Today, more and more educators as well as leaders in all areas of society have come to understand that writing is central to success in and out of school. The Neglected “R”: The Need for a Writing Revolution, a 2003 report prepared by the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges, states “American education will never realize its potential as an engine of opportunity and economic growth until a writing revolution puts the power of language and communication in their proper place in the classroom.”6

Writing is no longer only about putting pen to paper. Author-teacher William Zinsser reminds us that “the new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is finally writing-based. E-mail, the Internet, and the fax are all forms of writing, and writing is, finally, a craft with its own set of tools, which are words. Like all tools, they have to be used right.”7

Fortunately, successful strategies for teaching writing have been identified and innovative programs implemented with a demonstrable impact on student learning. However, their broad dissemination remains a critical challenge for serious school reform. With the exception of college-level teaching geared to the freshman writer, composition pedagogy remains a neglected area of study at most of the nation’s thirteen hundred schools of education, where future public school teachers are trained. Nor is it a specific requirement in most state teacher certification programs. To some extent, the place of writing in educational reform, and debate over its role in developing literacy, has been overshadowed or subsumed by the controversy surrounding the best way to teach reading.

Effective adolescent literacy programs must include an element that helps students improve their writing skills. Students need instruction in the writing process, but they especially need that instruction to be connected to the kinds of writing tasks they will have to perform well in high school and beyond.

Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (report from Carnegie Corporation of New York),
pp. 18–19

Because Writing Matters makes the case that students need to write more across all content areas and that schools need to expand their writing curricula to involve students in a range of writing tasks. The challenge has been echoed at the national level by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the National Academy of Education’s Commission on Reading: “Unfortunately, every recent analysis of writing instruction in American classrooms has reached the same conclusion: Children don’t get many opportunities to write. In one recent study in grades one, three, and five, only 15 percent of the school day was spent in any kind of writing activity. Two-thirds of the writing that did occur was word-for-word copying in workbooks. Compositions of a paragraph or more in length are infrequent even at the high school level.”8

Because Writing Matters examines what school administrators can do to meet the writing challenge in our nation’s schools. It explores the research-based teaching strategies that can improve writing and presents case studies of how effective, schoolwide writing programs have been designed in a variety of school settings.

Chapter One explores why writing is complex and what challenges a school must meet to teach it well. It argues that although everyone can and should learn to write, teaching writing well remains one of the key tasks facing schools today as they work to meet increasingly high standards and expectations for learning.

Chapter Two summarizes relevant research from the past three decades about how writers compose and develop. It explores how social and cognitive perspectives on writing have transformed our understanding of the use of writing in the classroom. It examines the links between writing and reading in early literacy and why many researchers believe that writing instruction must begin in the earliest grades. This chapter also explores how classroom writing can be successfully supported by technology and examines approaches to writing that advance the progress of English language learners.

Chapter Three presents evidence from national assessments about what improves student writing. What are the most promising strategies and classroom practices? Can writing support learning in a content-heavy area such as science or math? It explores how writing across the curriculum can be used to support a high level of learning and the need to incorporate critical thinking and inquiry strategies in writing tasks.

Chapter Four makes the case for professional development in teaching writing and why it is a crucial element of school reform. It also describes the history of and rationale for the NWP model of professional development: teachers teaching teachers. This chapter also focuses on professional development that will improve classroom uses of technology for writing and learning.

In Chapter Five, the thorny challenge posed by state standards and assessments for writing is examined. The chapter suggests some ABCs of writing assessment and how it can best be used to understand student progress and development. It considers writing assessment rubrics and effective assessment models. It also examines what a recent study of mandatory state writing assessments has shown about their impact on teaching.

Finally, Chapter Six explores the role of principals and superintendents in helping to build an effective writing program. It presents case studies of how two schools, urban and suburban, developed successful schoolwide writing programs, what challenges they faced, and the results they have achieved.

Models of effective teaching practice, schoolwide writing programs, and the research supporting them have a new urgency for educators, policymakers, and parents today. Beginning in spring 2005, the College Board added a writing component to the SAT. In addition, the ACT, the other major organization administering college entrance exams, now offers a writing component, also available to the increasing number of institutions of higher learning that are using writing as one tool available to evaluate applicants.

“I think it will lead to real reform,” says William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, referring to the addition of writing components to the SAT and ACT, “particularly in high schools that haven’t been doing a good job in teaching writing.”9

Although questions have been raised as to the quality and fairness of these exams, the recent changes reflect a significant shift in educators’ thinking about writing as a tool for student success in college and beyond. Former University of California President Richard C. Atkinson hails these changes as “a transforming event in the nature of education,” noting that “it sends a message to all students that they need to start writing early in their career.”10

Because Writing Matters presents a vision of how our schools can help students meet that need.


Copyright 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published by Jossey-Bass. All rights reserved. Posted by permission of the publisher. No part of this publication may be reproduced or copied in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

1. Rose, M. Possible Lives. New York: Penguin, 1985.

2. Connors, R. J. Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. (Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture). Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

3. Applebee, A. N. “Alternative Models of Writing Development.” In R. Indrisano and J. R. Squire (eds.), Perspectives on Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2000, p. 90.

4. Strickland, D. S., Bodino, A., Buchan, K., Jones, K. M., Nelson, A., and Rosen, M. “Teaching Writing in a Time of Reform.” Elementary School Journal, 2001, 101(4), 388.

5. Sheils, M. “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” Newsweek, Dec. 8, 1975, pp. 58-63.

6. National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges. The Neglected “R”: The Need for a Writing Revolution. New York: College Board, 2003.

7. Zinsser, W. On Writing Well (25th anniv. ed.). New York: HarperResource, 2001, p.xi.

8. Anderson, R.C. Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education, 1985.

9. Lewin, T. “College Board Announces an Overhaul for the SAT.” New York Times, June 28, 2002.

10. Cavanagh, S. “Overhauled SAT Could Shake Up School Curriculum.” Education Week, July 10, 2002.