girl writing in notebookThe statistics are staggering.  Approximately 70 percent of students in grades four, eight and twelve did not meet even basic proficiency goals in writing as set forth by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2002 (Persky, Daane, & Jin, 2003). In 2005, American College Testing reported that almost a third of high school students intending to attend college needed to enroll in a remedial English composition class before being judged competent to take a college-level course. American businesses also spent almost $31 billion dollars in 2005 on basic, on-the-job writing remediation for its workforce (National Commission on Writing, 2004). These figures are even worse for certain ethnic groups.

The task of improving writing skills is daunting, but not impossible. We CAN teach all students how to write, and to write well. There are specific evidence- based strategies teachers can use today in their classrooms that will improve the level of writing done by their students, including those who struggle.

One of the studies I found particularly informative as a teacher, and now as a trainer of teachers, is the meta-analysis on the topic of adolescent writing completed by Dr. Steven Graham of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Dr. Dolores Perin of Teachers College Columbia University. Their report, entitled Writing Next:  Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in

Middle and High Schools, identified elements of writing instruction for students in grades four through eight that consistently resulted in positive, statistically significant improvements in student writing. These 11 key elements are:

  • Directly teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  • Explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  • Using instructional arrangements to allow adolescents to work collaboratively to plan, draft, revise and edit their compositions
  • Assigning students specific, attainable goals for the writing they are to complete
  • Utilizing word processing and computers as instructional supports for writing assignments
  • Teaching students to combine sentences in order to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  • Engaging students in prewriting activities designed to help them generate or organize their ideas for their composition
  • Designing inquiry activities which engage students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing assignment
  • Organizing writing instruction in a workshop environment that emphasizes the process of writing including extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  • Providing students with the opportunity to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  • Using writing as a tool for learning content material

Many of these strategies are interlinked and the largest effect on student writing will be realized if all strategies are implemented strategically and programmatically in a classroom.  However, Graham and Perin found that if even only one or two are introduced to students, improvements in student writing take place. Let’s look at two specific strategies that have been proven to be particularly effective with struggling students.

Writing Strategies: Explicitly and directly teaching specific strategies for writing is a powerful tool for educators.  Sometimes these strategies are as simple as teaching students how to brainstorm and compose either a list or bubble map of their ideas. Other times, students can be taught a specific strategy for composing an effective introductory paragraph of an expository essay (i.e. general sentence, specific sentence, thesis sentence).  Providing these explicit strategies to students has the greatest impact on low performing students and are an important component of effective writing instruction for students with disabilities.

Summarization: Teaching students how to summarize a text is a skill that will serve them well throughout their academic lives. Students can successfully learn to summarize independently when they are explicitly taught a process for determining the main idea and details of a text, and then provided with multiple opportunities to practice with feedback. For instance, providing a sheet with the words: Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How?, and modeling for the learners exactly how to complete the sheet using the identified text will give the students a framework for summarizing texts across a broad range of subjects. Bear in mind that students need to see the skill modeled multiple times while being given opportunities to practice the skill with others and on their own. As students receive constructive feedback over time, they internalize these skills so they can use them independently.

The time is now for educators to address the needs of students in the area of writing. As stated in a recent report by the National Commission on Writing, “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write.”


ACT. (2005) Crisis at the core: Preparing all students for college and work.  Retrieved July 31, 2006, from

Graham, S. & Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve the Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. NY: Carnegie Corporation.

National Commission on Writing. (2004, September). Writing: A ticket to work … or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders. Retrieved July 31, 2006, from

Persky, H.R., Daane, M.C., & Jin, Y. (2003). The nation’s report card: Writing 2002 (NCES 2003-529). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences. National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.