Writing can be hard work even for adults with advanced degrees. For children, just putting their thoughts about summer vacation on paper can be
an overwhelming task.
Now, research by psychologists is uncovering a variety of
approaches that teachers can use to help their students learn to
write better, from kindergarten through college.
These techniques include teaching children specific skills,
such as prewriting and revising, giving students ample time
to practice, allowing them to work in groups and preserving
their motivation. The goal, say psychologists, is to avoid writer’s
block and other forms of frustration to foster good writing.
‘Making’ a good writer
Many people believe that being a good writer is simply an
inborn talent, says Steve Graham, EdD, a professor of education
at Arizona State University. But research he and colleagues have
conducted challenges that myth. “There is this kind of view that
writers are born and not made, but our viewpoint is that pretty
much everyone can learn to become skilled,” he says.
In a meta-analysis in a 2012 issue of the Journal of
Educational Psychology, Graham and colleagues identified
effective instructional practices for teaching writing skills to
elementary school students. They found medium to large
effect sizes for several techniques, including teaching students
strategies for planning, drafting or revising text; teaching
students the structures of different types of writing, such as
stories and persuasive essays; and giving students both peer
assistance and adult feedback.
Unfortunately, most teachers don’t spend enough time
using these techniques, or any others, his research suggests. In
a national survey of teachers, Graham found that teachers in
first to third grades reported spending an hour a day teaching
writing, but by fourth to sixth grade instructional time shrank
to only 15 minutes a day.
More instruction time is needed, said Graham, who likened
it to his experience playing basketball in high school. His team
did drills that, although not much fun, “helped you become
much better when you played the game.” In the same way,
“Kids need to write for real purposes for real audiences. That’s
Research by psychologists is pinpointing
ways to improve student writing.
BY JULIE COHEN