Australia’s national education evidence body

This publication summarises available evidence on writing and writing instruction. While the literature on writing instruction is modest compared with reading, and the quality of the research is variable, there are a number of findings and recommendations that can be drawn.

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Introduction

This literature review aims to provide a high-level overview of what is known about writing and writing instruction. We encourage readers to consider the implications in their own context, be that Initial Teacher Education (ITE), policy development, education management, school leadership or in the classroom. We hope this literature review can serve as a foundational document, from which next steps in writing research and writing instruction in the Australian context can be found and acted on.

It is important to state at the outset that while much is known, there is still so much more to learn about writing development and effective writing instruction. Compared to the literature on reading, the writing literature is modest, and the quality of the research is variable (Slavin et al. 2019). In the writing domain, there is a lack of high-quality and large-scale research in the Australian context. While related domains such as reading have had research attention, rigorous writing research that helps us to understand the relevance and value of existing theories and pedagogies in contemporary Australian classrooms is lacking (Clary and Mueller 2021).

While many of the findings discussed below can be considered the best available evidence, that does not mean these findings represent the highest quality evidence. Often studies (including combined results reported on via meta-analysis) had small sample sizes, and/or groups of students studied were not representative of general classroom instruction. Results should be interpreted cautiously, and without the assumption that approaches are readily transferrable despite positive effects. Given the relatively limited research in the writing domain, we must remain open to and seek out more rigorous findings as they emerge, then adapt curricula and instruction accordingly.

We must carefully consider the applicability of research findings to the Australian context. A significant portion of the writing research is conducted and published in the USA, where process writing is typically the dominant instructional approach and writing research is viewed more through a sociocognitive lens (an integration of social and cognitive elements of writing). This contrasts with the Australian context, where we have had a largely sociolinguistic approach to writing and writing instruction for the past 30-40 years, and genre pedagogy continues to be emphasised, along with elements of process writing. 

What is writing?

Writing has been described as “a goal directed and self-sustained cognitive activity requiring the skilful
management of:

  • the writing environment
  • the constraints imposed by the writing topic
  • the intentions of the writer(s), and
  • the processes, knowledge, and skills involved in composing” (Graham et al. 2013a:4).

It is important to consider the various social purposes, and the forms, structures and linguistic choices that are used by the writer to achieve the outward facing dimensions of writing (Christie and Derewianka 2008; Cope and Kalantzis 1993; Halliday 1994; Hyland 2003), rather than viewing writing predominantly as an individual cognitive activity. While we often refer to writing as a single ability, it is a complex task with many distinguishable elements, processes and stages (Graham et al. 2019). Skilled writing requires proficient handwriting, spelling and typing skills, and the use of traditional and digital writing tools. It also requires complex and varied sentence construction including advanced knowledge of grammar and punctuation. Skilled writers also require deep understanding of audience, purpose and genre, rich content (topic) and vocabulary knowledge, and the ability to plan, draft, evaluate, revise, edit and publish text, from paragraphs to compositions (Graham et al. 2019).

The importance of writing

Writing proficiency is central to student success during the school years, and it influences personal and vocational outcomes post-school (Graham 2006; Graham 2019). Writing allows us to communicate, learn, share, connect, tell stories, create other worlds, express ourselves, explore who we are, document and preserve experiences and histories, inform, influence and persuade. There are 3 other key reasons why writing and writing instruction are important.

Theoretical foundations

There have been two dominant conceptualisations of writing development described in the international literature in recent years. Russell’s (1997) ‘contextual view of writing development’ focuses on the writing context, particularly on the writing activity and its actors (roles of student and teacher, materials used, task at hand, collaboration) and the genre, described as the way in which students purposefully interact with writing. Over time, student cohorts develop set ways in which they engage in writing tasks, with writing being a social act within a writing community, consistent with sociocognitive (Langer 1991) and sociocultural theories (Englert et al. 2006). Graham (2018) further explored this contextual model with his ‘A writer within community model’, which acknowledges the importance of cultural and social considerations in writing.

The second dominant view is Hayes’ (2012) ‘model of skilled writing development’, which in contrast focuses on cognition and motivation. This view is built on the ‘cognitive process theory of writing’ by Flower and Hayes (1981). Hayes focused more on the individual cognitive and affective processes and skills a writer brings to the task, including motivational resources and ‘mental moves’ students make. Hayes (2012) posited that writing is complex, involving the execution and coordination of knowledge, processes and skills, and given the competing actions, should any of these actions require too much attention, cognitive overload occurs, impacting writing. This is supported by earlier work (McCutchen 1988) and is consistent with cognitive theories. 

Rather than being either/or, it has been argued that incorporating these models allows for the development of supportive, motivating writing environments with codified roles and routines, while also developing handwriting, spelling, typing, sentence construction, and compositional skills to the point that they require limited conscious attention (Graham et al. 2019). 

In the Australian context, writing instruction has been positioned quite differently to what is reflected in the North American dominated international literature. For the past 40 years, writing instruction in Australia has been underpinned by systemic functional linguistic (SFL) theories and associated genre theories. Halliday (1985) commenced this shift in Australia with his ‘functional model of language in social contexts’ which has been extended by others (Christie and Martin 2005; Martin 2009). The premise for this model was that the curriculum includes a range of social purposes for using language, and that attention must be given to building students’ abilities in the social practices of recounting, storytelling, explaining, describing, arguing, reviewing, and so on, to achieve their communication and learning goals (Derewianka 2015). 

The chronology of theories and trends in writing instruction in Australia have been variously described as:

  • ‘Nation-building’ (1901) with highly organised instruction and prescribed texts
  • ‘Revolution’ (1960s) with challenges to traditional instruction being popularised leading to a reduction in structured approaches
  • ‘Transformation’ (1970s) with ‘Whole Language’, constructivist learning theories, and authentic literature experiences becoming dominant
  • ‘Experimentation’ (1980s) with process writing (utilising writer’s workshops) led by Graves (Graves and Murray 1980) and/or systemic functional linguistics (genre pedagogy) led by Halliday (1985) becoming the dominant approaches. 

While education systems here and overseas appear to have held primarily to either process or genre pedagogies since, the 1990s brought:

  • ‘Progressivism’ (1990s) which focused on evolving these pedagogies, and ‘Balanced Literacy’ came into favour as the new overarching approach, despite a lack of empirical support (Clary and Mueller 2021). 

The challenge, of course, is that these evolutions were largely ideological or philosophical rather than empirical, but they have nonetheless resulted in lasting recommendations for teaching and learning.

In terms of the developmental components of writing (that is, the skills involved), there are two models with longstanding empirical support, which are ‘The simple view of writing’ (Berninger et al 2002; Berninger and Amtmann 2003) and the expanded ‘Not so simple view of writing’ (Berninger and Winn 2006). There are 4 key component groups in ‘The not simple view of writing’. ‘Transcription’ includes handwriting and spelling. ‘Text generation’ includes words, sentences, and discourse. ‘Executive functions’ include conscious attention, planning, reviewing, revising and strategies for self-regulation. This model is underpinned and constrained by ‘memory’, both long-term memory (relevant knowledge to draw on) and working memory (limited information storage for thinking, retrieval, review and synthesis of ideas). 

Research continues to advance, with the newest model, Direct and Indirect Effects of Writing (DIEW), being studied since 2017 (Kim and Schatschneider 2017; Kim and Park 2019; Kim and Graham 2021). Investigations so far have examined the relationships between transcription, cognition, oral language, higher order cognitive skills (inference, monitoring, perspective taking), reading comprehension, writing quality, writing productivity and correctness in writing. The DIEW model in some studies has explained 67% of variance in writing quality, confirming that many cognitive and linguistic skills make direct and indirect contributions during writing and writing development (Kim and Schatschneider 2017). There is still so much more to understand about the sequence within which skills are acquired and how skills interact, and we are yet to reach consensus on sequences of development and therefore instruction.

Pedagogies

There are 3 key approaches to writing instruction, which continue to be used nationally and internationally with variable emphasis. These are the ‘product’, ‘process’ and ‘genre’ pedagogies. Each pedagogy has its benefits and limitations, although no single pedagogy adequately addresses all aspects of the knowledge, skills and strategies required for skilled writing. The most effective instructional methods incorporate elements of product, genre and process pedagogies (Badger and White 2000), with attention provided to what is the most appropriate method given the ability and experience of the students being taught. Many available writing programs incorporate aspects of each pedagogy. Imsa-ard (2020) suggests that a product approach may be more suitable for novices, while genre and process approaches may be more suitable as knowledge and skills increase.

Current challenges and opportunities in writing instruction

Writing is complex and it does not develop naturally, so significant amounts of instruction and practice are essential. Unfortunately, many students in Australia do not develop adequate writing abilities during their primary and secondary education. There has been no improvement in the writing abilities of students in Years 3 and 5, and a moderate decline in the writing abilities of students in Years 7 and 9 over the last 10 years (McGaw et al. 2020). Approximately 30% of Year 7 students and 40% of Year 9 students, score at or below the national minimum benchmark on the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Students who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, have a language background other than English, live in regional, rural, or remote areas, and/or experience socioeconomic disadvantage tend to perform worse, with some groups having approximately 60% of students scoring at or below the minimum benchmark (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA] 2019). There is also a concerning gap between the outcomes of boys and girls, with one study reporting what is equivalent to a two-year gap between the performance of boys and girls based on Year 9 NAPLAN data (Thomas 2020).

A lot of what we know about common writing instruction practices comes from interview or survey studies conducted with teachers, observational studies that describe the practices, routines and techniques of teachers, and mixed-methods studies that do both. This body of literature includes many studies that document the practices of hundreds and thousands of teachers around the world, including in the Australian context. In addition to this we have hundreds, if not thousands, of instruction and intervention studies. There are two principal findings from the writing research, which seem to be consistent across grades and locations. The first finding is that in some classrooms, some teachers provide outstanding writing instruction. The second finding is that this is uncommon. Unfortunately, writing instruction in most classrooms is inadequate (Graham, 2019), and there are several reasons why this is the case. Fortunately, there are some consistent research findings that detail what can be done better and differently, including in the Australian context (NSW Education Standards Authority [NESA] 2018a; NESA 2018b; Wyatt-Smith et al. 2018). 

Summary of findings and recommendations

While much is known, there is still so much more to learn about writing development and effective writing instruction, particularly in the Australian context. Compared to the reading literature, the writing literature is modest, and the quality of the research varies from study to study (Slavin et al. 2019). 

There are 3 central issues in writing instruction affecting student abilities and outcomes. Insufficient time is dedicated to writing instruction, students do not write frequently enough, and the absence of a shared, coherent body of linguistic and pedagogical knowledge among teachers means that effective teaching techniques are applied inconsistently and infrequently. A balance needs to be struck between time spent teaching writing skills, learning writing strategies, building metalinguistic understanding and composing (Cutler and Graham 2008). Evidence-based instructional practices should be used consistently and frequently. Writing should be used to facilitate reading and learning as much as possible, and frequent formative assessment and targeted feedback to move students forward should be a daily occurrence. Approaches are likely to be most effective when there is alignment between writing goals, curriculum, instructional methods and assessment practices (Graham 2019).

Overall findings and recommendations

  • Improve Initial Teacher Education in the writing domain by specifying the content and pedagogical knowledge to be taught, ensuring adequate time is dedicated to delivering units on writing and writing instruction, and building time and quality metrics into accreditation policy and processes to ensure consistency across providers 
  • Improve access to high quality and systematic professional learning options for school leaders and teachers in the writing domain 
  • Increase the amount of time students spend writing (composing) and receiving writing instruction (at least one hour per day) 
  • Ensure writing instruction is a priority across all years of primary and secondary schooling 
  • Review the instructional quality and opportunities for boys and girls, and seek to close the writing achievement gap 
  • Use effective instructional techniques consistently and frequently 
  • Ensure adequate foundational instruction in handwriting and spelling 
  • Ensure adequate sentence-level writing instruction across the primary and secondary years 
  • Embed grammar and punctuation instruction in meaningful writing tasks 
  • Ensure adequate strategy instruction in planning, drafting, evaluating and revising 
  • Explicitly teach genre macrostructure and microstructure through modelling, guided practice and exemplars, providing subject specific instruction as required 
  • Ensure adequate attention to informational and persuasive writing, alongside narrative writing 
  • Ensure students write frequently for a range of meaningful audiences and purposes 
  • Build knowledge for writing such as rich content knowledge, knowledge of linguistic and rhetorical features, and vocabulary 
  • Integrate instruction across the curriculum by using writing to support reading and learning 
  • Consider using validated writing programs, noting that one approach or program alone does not cover all aspects of writing instruction or constitute a curriculum 
  • Embed frequent formative assessment and provide explicit feedback to move students forward 
  • Align writing goals, curriculum, instructional methods and assessment practices 
  • Teach students self- and peer-evaluation techniques 
  • Teach typing skills and provide students with opportunities to compose using digital writing tools 
  • Create motivating and supporting writing environments where writing is valued, routine and collaborative 
  • Provide additional scaffolding and instruction for students with learning difficulties and disabilities 

References

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