What The Research Says: The 13 Most Effective Ways To Improve Children’s Writing.

The Most Effective Practices For Teaching Writing

This article is based on the work of Graham & Perin (2007), The DfE (2012) and other influential research (Beard, 2000, Gadd, 2014, Education Endowment Fund, 2017). There is now a core of consistency to be found across a variety of studies in several different countries on what makes for good writing lessons. We also now know what causes poor writing outcomes – see here. In the case of Graham & Perin (2007), their meta-analysis comes from the largest collection of writing research ever pooled. It analysed all contemporary research into the teaching of writing and looked for significant patterning. You can find a more formal summary of how their and the DfE’s findings marry together to create these 13 strategies at the bottom of this article. This is what research analysis concluded:

1. Provide opportunities for students to experience the complete writing process:

The most important finding was the clear evidence that the explicit teaching of The Writing Process is the best way to improve children’s writing outcomes. Using our Real-World Literacy approach alongside our Genre-Booklets, can allow the children in your class to take part in regular high-quality ‘free-writing’ sessions where they will do some of their most profound and accelerated learning.

2. All students can and should write:

Just like with reading, the more students write the better they get. And by the way, the more they write, the better they read. Therefore we suggest you create a classroom library where the children can donate the books they’ve read – you can supplement this with local or school library books. Make sure to include non-fiction and poetry for the children to read regularly. For more details on how to set up a rich classroom library, visit our blog-post here.

3. Help students find real purposes to write and real audiences to reach:

Through our Real-World Literacy approach, children are taught that all their writing has a purpose and that they are  learning to write just like the authors they read do and how to write like real writers do outside our school walls. Publishing is a vital part of the writing process.

4. Help students exercise choice, take ownership, and assume responsibility:

Through our Real-World Literacy approach, children are taught how authors generate ideas. They no longer have to try and negotiate topics they have limited experience or knowledge of. Instead, they are confident before they begin to write because they have something in mind they are attached to and care about. To learn about teaching children to generate their own ideas, see our post here.

5. Help students get started:

Again, many children struggle with topic selection – show them prewriting techniques that unleash their thinking. This can be done through our Genre-Booklets which provide children with a Boxing-Up plan for each of their favourite Genres. It also provides them with exemplar texts written by us and children. We have also introduced ‘Writing Tricks Books‘ which we will discuss in another blog post soon.

6. Confer with individual students on their writing:

  • Pupil-Conferencing is your golden differentiation opportunity — brief 1:1 moments that are goal-oriented and richly instructional. You can read about how to conduct them in a systematic way here.

7. Guide students as they draft and revise:

Undertaking ‘Writing Study’ & Functional Grammar Lessons through our Real-World Literacy approach allows you to model how to revise things. Teaching a Writing Process which includes ‘Vomit Drafting‘ and then a revision stage helps children write their best work.

8. Model for kids how you write a text:

  • As part of introducing our Genre-Booklets to the children, we will write a couple of examplar texts using the Booklet’s advice and Boxing-Up sheet. This is not only helpful as a teaching resource but also when it comes to giving writing advice through Pupil-Conferencing and teaching Writing-Study.

9. Teach grammar and mechanics in the context of actual writing:

10. Provide a classroom context of shared learning:

  • Peer collaboration, not peer critique! Students need a safe, not critical, place to take risks and try things that drive their growth as writers. That’s why we allow the children to publish their of authentic pieces into the class library. This is also an excellent way to practice their handwriting – again, for a real purpose.

11. Use writing to support learning throughout the curriculum: 

  • Our Genre-Booklets also cover the real writing done by authors in other fields. Teach children how to write like real scientists, historians & geographers do.

12. Use evaluation constructively and efficiently:

13. Lead students to learn the craft of writing:

  • Setting up your classroom so that children have access to all aspects of The Writing Process is at the heart of our Real-World Literacy approach. Children have access to our Genre-Booklets via the classroom library – these include a Boxing-Up suggesting what to include and how to paragraph their piece. We then have our Revision Tips Sheet which shows the children how they can improve their work and finally we have our Proof-Reading Sheets which show children how to make their work ‘reader-ready’ for publication.

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If you have liked what you have read here and would like to read more about our approach to writing which we call ‘Real-World Literacy’, you can follow the link here. If you’d like to view our Genre-Booklets, you can follow this link.

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Summary Findings From Graham & Perin (2007)

Intervention Effect Size

(The numbers below show the significance of each intervention on writing outcomes).

Teaching The Writing Process

This includes meeting with, teaching and encouraging children to plan & revise their own writing. It’s also about sharing how to approach the writing process. This is one of the two most effective ways for improving writing and is embedded in our approach.

.82
Summarization Instruction

Encouraging individual writing in class along-side shared goal-setting for subsequent pieces, self-assessment by the child and face-to-face assessment with the teacher. This constitutes the second most effective intervention in terms of writing progress. Our approach has such an intervention running through it.

.82
Collaborative Writing

This includes teachers developing arrangements where children can meet with a teacher or peers to discuss their writing. Such shared writing instruction is seen in Writing Study, Genre-Booklet lessons and Pupil Conferencing.

.75
Using Genre Features

This includes giving children the features and tools of a specific genre piece that they can work through systematically, as seen in our Genre-Booklets and Functional Grammar Lessons.

.70
Sentence Combining

This is the specific teaching and modelling of the functional use of compound and complex sentences. This as recommended in our Functional Grammar Lessons.

.50
Process Writing

Extended opportunities for free-writing, writing for real audiences, children choosing their own writing-topics, high levels of pupil and teacher interaction and a supportive learning environment.

.46
Pre-Writing Planning

Setting aside time and space for children to generate ideas and come up with potential writing topics.

.32
Providing Exemplars

Providing children with example texts in a genre. Real-World Literacy includes using genre-booklets and shared writing.

.32
Formal Grammar Teaching

This intervention, the study of traditional school grammar, yielded a negative result. This approach involves the explicit and systematic teaching of grammar without application to real writing or looking into the functional aspects of the use of grammar.

-.32

Summary Findings From The DfE (2012)

The following table lists approaches that have been found to be effective in the teaching of writing by research and reviews of international evidence (What Works Clearinghouse, 2012; Gillespie and Graham, 2010; Andrews et al, 2009; Santangelo and Olinghouse, 2009). (DfE, 2012, p.12)

Teach pupils the writing process

  • Teach pupils strategies/tools for the various components of the writing process such as : generating ideas, planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising and editing; summarising; sentence combining.
  • Gradually shift responsibility from the teacher to the pupil so that they become independent writers.
  • Guide pupils to choose and use suitable writing strategies.
  • Encourage pupils to be flexible when using the different writing components.
  • Engage them in pre-writing activities where they can access what they already know.
This supports our recommendation for daily process writing sessions.
Teach pupils to write for a variety of purposes

  • Help pupils understand they can write in different genres.
  • Develop pupils’ concept of what is ‘audience’
  • Teach pupils explicitly how to use the features of good writing and provide them with models of good writing.
  • Teach pupils techniques for writing effectively for different purposes.
This supports our advocacy of genre-study lessons and Genre-Booklets.
Teach pupils to become fluent with sentence construction

  • When teaching spelling, connect it with writing construction.
  • Teach pupils to construct sentences for fluency, meaning and style.
This supports our recommendation for Functional Grammar Sessions.
Set specific goals to pupils and foster inquiry skills

  • Goals should be created by the teacher and the pupils themselves together (and reviewed by the teacher). These goals can include adding more ideas to a paper or including specific features of a writing genre.
  • Encourage self-motivation e.g. by personal target-setting.
  • Give pupils a writing task which involves the use of inquiry skills e.g. exploring their own ideas and interests.
This supports our advocacy for student choice in terms of writing subjects as well as Pupil Conferencing, editing, target setting and publishing.
Provide daily time to write

  • Pupils should be given at least 30 minutes per day to write in their first year in primary school.
  • Teachers can make links with other subjects.
This supports our recommendation for process writing, where children write, for a sustained period, everyday. It also supports our suggestion that foundation subjects can influence children’s writing choices during literacy times. Finally, it supports our ideas around subject-specific Genre-Booklets.
Create an engaged community of writers

  • Teachers could model their writing in front of pupils, and share real examples with them.
  • Give pupils opportunities to choose the topics they write about.
  • Encourage collaborative writing.
  • Use verbal feedback to inform writing work.
  • Ensure that pupils give and receive constructive feedback throughout the writing process.
  • Publish pupils’ writing and reach for external audiences
This fully endorses our whole approach including; Genre-Booklets, genre study and Functional Grammar Lessons, process writing and the regular publishing of children’s pieces.

In particular, we believe this fully supports writing conferencing as a legitimate means of informing children about their work, giving constructive feedback and the setting of targets without necessarily having to rely on written-feedback.

Functional Grammar Lessons

By [functional] grammar teaching the researchers referred to:

  • Introducing grammatical constructions and terminology at a point which is relevant to the focus of learning.
  • The emphasis is on effects and constructing meanings, not on the feature or terminology itself.
  • The learning objective is to open up a ‘repertoire of possibilities’, not to teach about correct ways of writing.
Most of the research to date has focused on the explicit teaching of grammatical features. A randomised controlled study was conducted in UK and aimed to explore the effect of [functional] grammar teaching on pupils’ writing development.

Findings from the study were promising, showing a significant positive effect for pupils in the intervention group, taught in lessons using the said principles. They scored higher in the writing tests compared with pupils in the comparison group.

DfE (2012) What is the research evidence on writing? Education Standards Research Team, Department for Education: London

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

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Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing.

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia

As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.

Research (Fisher, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?

Time To Consider Pupil Conference?

There appears to be effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.

Unfortunately, most children or adults have never actually seen a professional writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):

‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’

Through pupil-conferencing you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding  in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.

The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than feeling a slavish kind of need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require.

You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.

It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.

Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support such an approach. The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, this is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

How To Conduct Conferences

Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.

Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.

A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.

All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.  

Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.

Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards

You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.

Revision Conferences

The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).

Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.

How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences

After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.

These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:

  • What is the subject?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
  • Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
  • Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
  • Is it it too long or too short?
  • Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?

After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s  revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments. 

Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by research and may not represent our employer.**

Pupil Conferencing: The Research

Research References

  • Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
  • Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
  • Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
  • Nguyen, H. (2007) Rapport building in language instruction: A microanalysis of the multiple resources in teacher talk In Language and Education 21: 284-303
  • Norton, B. (2000) ‘Claiming the right to speak in classrooms and communities’ in Identity And Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity And Educational Change, London, Pearson Education.
  • Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
  • Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208