With so much content to teach, how can I fit in writing?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

While most teachers understand the potential benefits of informal, everyday writing, many don’t ask students to write very often in their classrooms. The single biggest obstacle to more writing across the curriculum is time. Teachers cite other factors, too, but the time required to fit a writing task into instruction and then grade it is the reason most often mentioned for not including more writing as part of routine instruction.

In my workshops and in discussions with teachers, I address this concern by reinforcing the power of brief, informal writing experiences (like Type One and Type Two Writing), citing the mounting research on the benefits of informal writing, and recommending informal assessment.

Writing: A Proven Strategy

Writing has long been identified as a best-practice teaching strategy. Unfortunately, many teachers interpret “writing” to mean reports, research papers, and formal writing about topics being studied—all time-consuming activities for both students and teachers. Such formal writing assignments can be effective learning experiences. But there is mounting evidence that frequent, low-stakes writing experiences—like Type Two writing—significantly enhance student learning.

Dozens of times each day, teachers routinely check for understanding by asking questions and posing problems for their students to answer orally. These same questions can be used as Type Two writing prompts with an added advantage: Every student responds, not just those called upon. Even though Type Two writing is typically brief, it actually promotes learning and long-term retention of new information. So these writing experiences aren’t really taking time away from learning. They are proven strategies for learning new material. My mantra to teachers is simple: Frequent Type Two quizzes promote learning.

The Research Base

There is a sizable body of research supporting the benefits of a “regimen of regular low- or no- stakes quizzing,” as Henry Roediger described it in The New York Times. He was describing the efficacy of regularly quizzing students on newly taught content. “The fact of improved retention after a quiz—called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect—makes learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.”1

Steve Graham and colleagues, whose meta-analyses on writing have been widely referenced, write convincingly about the importance of this kind of everyday writing:

“Writing about material read or presented in class is advantageous for multiple reasons. Writing about such material requires that students decide what ideas are most important and how they are related to one another. The permanence of writing allows students to review, reexamine, critique, and even construct new understandings . . . putting ideas into their own written language can make students think more carefully about what the ideas mean.”2

In another review of effective practice, Graham and Karen Harris point out that for elementary students even “a relatively modest increase in how much students write—about 45 minutes a week—enhances both their reading and writing performance.”3

In a review of decades of research about strategies that help students learn, Kent State University psychology professor John Dunlosky identified taking “practice tests” on material being learned as the most effective strategy for students regardless of age or content area. In his American Educator article, “Strengthening the Student Toolbox,” he emphasizes that active retrieval of answers from memory is much more effective than passive review of material (such as re-reading it or listening to the teacher review it). Even brief multiple choice reviews are helpful, but Dunlosky says the research suggests that “students will benefit most from tests that require recall from memory, and not from tests that merely ask them to recognize the correct answer.”4

Informal Writing: Informal Assessment

But what about grading all these Type Two writings? Remember that Type Two is informal writing, and its assessment can be informal, as well. Alternative approaches to grading, such as over-the-shoulder sampling, self-assessment, and random collection, can be very effective ways of giving students feedback. It is not necessary to collect every student’s writing to review and mark precisely. In a perfect world that might be possible, but most teachers are working with a daunting number of students each day. Cognitive psychologists stress that the act of retrieving the information in these low-stakes quizzes is the most important aspect of the activity—more important even than getting precise feedback. So don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.

When we see these brief but meaningful writing experiences as the valuable learning opportunity they are, we no longer feel we have to “fit in” writing. Instead, we see Type Two writing as an effective teaching and learning tool.

 

References

  1. Roediger, H. (2014, July 20). How tests make us smarter. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/opinion/sunday/how-tests-make-us-smarter.html.
  2. Graham, S., Harris, K., & Santangelo, T. (2015, June). Research-based writing practices and the common core: Meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 115 (4), 498-522.
  3. Graham, S., Harris, K. (2016, January/February). A path to better writing: Evidence-based practices in the classroom.The Reading Teacher, Vol. 69 (4), 359-365.
  4. Dunlosky, J. (2013, Fall). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator, Vol. 37 (3), 12-21. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf.