"From poetry to letters to stories to laws, we must learn to write in order to participate in the range of experiences available to us as human beings. Our spiritual lives, our economic success, and our social networks are all directly affected by our willingness to do the work necessary to acquire the skill of writing. In a very real way neither our democracy nor our personal freedoms will survive unless we as citizens take the time and make the effort needed to learn how to write."
Bob Kerry, Former Senator
National Commission on Writing
As educators you may philosophically agree with Senator Kerry about the importance of learning to write. Yet, the reality of all that needs to be taught and the pressures of numerous reform initiatives to which you must pay attention may make you question how much time really can be devoted to writing in your classroom or school.
We believe, and research supports the notion that time spent instituting a good writing program is time well spent. The benefits are many.
- Learning to write well helps students to be better readers.
- Effective writing skills support performance in other subject matter areas.
- Students’ written products provide important assessment information for teachers across subjects.
- Learning to write develops students’ organizational and problem-solving skills which support them throughout their school career and beyond.
A good writing program supports students in learning how to read and use language.
Reading and writing draw upon related cognitive processes. Australian researchers Butler and Turbill write, “ . . .both [are] acts of composing. Readers using their background of knowledge and experience compose meaning from text; writers using their background knowledge and experience, compose meaning into text.”
Writers in the primary grades practice the sound-letter correspondences they are learning in reading as they form words to write their stories. As they do this they reinforce what they have learned in reading. When students write they are motivated to read what they have written, leading them to practice reading what they have written over and over again. Much of the time that primary students spend writing is actually spent on reading. (Calkins, 2001).
It is not only primary students whose reading is supported by learning to write. Older students learn to use patterns to organize their ideas as they write. They learn to use “signposts” (Langer, 1986). Headings in informational writing, and transitions such as “then” and “next” in procedural writing, cue the reader as to what to expect from the particular text. Writers who understand these signposts or structures are better able to recognize what an author is doing as they read complex material (Langer, 1986).
Learning to write supports students in learning the rules of usage; they learn to spell (Ehri, 1992), and to use appropriate grammar and conventions.. They choose the language and conventions that will best convey their ideas. In doing so, they learn more about how language and conventions work and the effect they have on the reader.
Learning to write well also supports growth in other subject areas.
Writing in various content areas helps students to learn that content. In order to write about a particular content area, students need to know related vocabulary and the specific structures that relate to that discipline so they can communicate what they understand (Arkle, 1985; Forsman, 1985). Writing helps students to process information and to clarify their thoughts (Bruer, 1999, Lindemann, 1995 ).
A study by the Center for Performance Assessment in Colorado identifies what it calls 90-90-90 schools. These schools have more than 90% of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, more than 90% of their students from ethnic minorities and 90% of their students meeting or achieving high academic standards according to independently conducted achievement tests (Reeves, 2000). One of the five characteristics common to these schools is a strong emphasis on writing.
Like other schools around the country these schools have faced the dilemma of how to teach the extensive curriculum identified by state and local content standards. Many of the most successful 90-90-90 schools have chosen to devote the great majority of their time to reading, writing and math. Even though less time was spent on science at these schools, more than 80% of the schools showed improvement in science scores. At these schools there was a high correlation between improvement in writing and improvement in science even though there were no changes in the science curriculum. It seems that the emphasis on writing has a significant impact on test scores in other disciplines (Reeves,2000).
Written work also provides teachers with an important opportunity to assess what students understand in other subjects. For example, a student’s written work can provide a means to diagnose whether a student is having difficulty because he misunderstood the assignment, is having problems with vocabulary or is having difficulty organizing the information (Arkle, 1985).
Learning to write supports the development of thinking skills.
Putting words to paper involves decision-making and problem-solving. Writers are called upon to decide what facts and information are important for the reader to know. They must sift through information, then prioritize and synthesize that information in order to construct meaningful text. Writing gives students the opportunity to practice these important higher order thinking skills (Bruer, 1999).
Writing helps students to represent what they know and it helps them to understand what they know. Students who can express themselves in writing are more confident learners (National Commission on Writing, 2003).
Time spent learning to write pays off. Good writers are better readers and better thinkers. Isn’t that what we want from our students?
Arkle, S. 1985. Better Writers, Better Thinkers. In Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Bruer, J. 1999. Schools for Thought. Boston: MIT Press.
Butler, A. and Turbill, J. 1984. Towards a reading-writing classroom. Rozelle, NSW, Australia: Primary English Teaching Association.
Calkins, L. 2001. The Art of Teaching Reading. New York: Longman.
Ehri, L.C. 1992. Reconceptualizing the development of sight word reading and its relationship to decoding. In P.B. Gough, L.C. Ehri, and R. Treiman (eds.) Reading Acquisition. Mahway, NJ: Ehrlbaum.
Forsman, S. 1985. Better Writers, Better Thinkers. In Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Langer, J. 1986. A Sociocognitive Perspective on Literacy. Urbana, IL: Language and Reasoning: ERIC Clearinghouse.
Lindemann, E. 1995. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. 2003. The Neglected R. The College Board.
Reeves, D. 2000. Accountability in Action. Denver: Advanced Learning Press.