Teaching Writing in the United States

At its most basic level, writing is how we keep track of the thoughts that are important to us. From the ancient Egyptians, to the monks of the Middle Ages, to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, writing has been used to capture thought, from the mundane to the profound. In schools, writing serves not only to record, but to refine and synthesize thinking . As school effectiveness researcher Doug Reeves discovered, "The association between writing and performance in other academic disciplines is striking, and gets to the heart of the curriculum choices teachers must make."

Early writing instruction
Early academic instruction in writing centered almost exclusively on mechanics, commonly referred to today as conventions. Emphasis was placed on handwriting, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Papers were more likely to be graded on the precision of these conventions and accuracy of content than on style or creative expression of ideas. Historically, instruction in writing has focused on a narrow pool of concrete, easily definable skills.

Writing process approach
Research conducted in the late 1970s by Donald Graves, Janet Emig and others led to a focus on the process, rather than solely the product, of writing. The writing process approach rests on the premise that writing is a complex and individualized task which can be described through a series of recursive stages. These stages, commonly including pre-writing, writing, editing and revision, and the concepts of craft within them, can be modeled and taught to students. This allows the teacher to identify the difficulties students are having with writing and to provide appropriate instruction and support. The writing process approach helps students to understand what writers actually do when they write, providing multiple models and individual feedback on writing pieces in progress.Students are encouraged to choose their own topics and purposes for writing, and to write to real audiences. This approach has been widely adopted in schools throughout the United States.

Writing across the curriculum
During the 1980s and 1990s, new approaches to teaching writing emerged, as teachers realized that in order to be effective, a piece of writing should be tailored to a specific purpose and audience. Prominent among these was the British-based movement which came to be known as Writing Across the Curriculum. This approach rests on the premise that all teachers, not just language arts teachers, must be teachers of writing. Designed to ease the separation between literacy and content knowledge, this approach emphasizes the connection between writing and cognitive development, and students are taught to write in a variety of genres, specific to purpose and discipline. Writing Across the Curriculum teachers often emphasize two basic pedagogical strands: Writing to Learn, informal writing done to prompt students to more deeply understand concepts; and Writing in the Disciplines, in which students are taught writing skills and conventions necessary to participate in specific academic discourse.

Writing for understanding
Writing for understanding, a 21st century approach, adapts the principles of backward design to teach students to write effectively. Writing for Understanding grew out of a recognition that most students require explicit instruction in both the knowledge and the structures that they need to construct meaning in writing. Oral processing and the extensive use of models and modeling are core teaching methodologies in this approach. The Writing for Understanding Approach rests on three pillars: Backward Design, Understanding and Direct Instruction. Students are given focused, intentional instruction and practice in:

    developing a knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    identifying an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    choosing a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    establishing control over conventions.

Writing for understanding teachers intentionally design instruction to enable students to appropriately generalize and transfer their skills to multiple contexts. The Vermont Writing Collaborative serves as a clearinghouse for information about Writing for Understanding and provides professional development, instructional materials and other supports for educators.

In 2009, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) assumed the coordination of a state led effort called The Common Core State Standards Initiative in which "Governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia committed to developing a common core of state standards in English-language arts .." This effort is ongoing and is certain to have a profound effect nationwide on writing curriculum and pedagogical practice over the next decade. It is clearly time for American public education to take up the challenge issued by the National Commission on Writing "to teach all students to write effectively, clearly and thoughtfully."