Monday, September 28, 2009

Beyond Writing Next: A Discussion of Writing Research and Instructional Uncertainty

Coker, D., & Lewis, W.E. (2008). Beyond writing next: A discussion of writing research and instructional uncertainty. Harvard Educational Review, 78 (1), 231-251.


This article reviews the current state of research in adolescent writing instruction. The authors emphasize the importance of aligning writing instruction in schools to the types of writing that students will face when they enter the workplace. While workplace writing requires flexibility in learning to write for different purposes and different audiences, most school writing assignments are highly rigid and lack an authentic audience. The most recent comprehensive meta-analysis of writing interventions found that “strategy instruction” is the most effective and “writing for content learning” is the least effective approach. However, this meta-analysis focused primarily on experimental research and did not give enough attention to qualitative studies. The authors exhort future researchers to bridge this divide in writing research between the scientific approaches that identify effective interventions and the more descriptive, qualitative approaches that demonstrate how real teachers use interventions in their classrooms.

Readers may find this article useful as an overview of the “state-of-the-art” in writing research. The research suggests that “explicit instruction in strategies for planning, revising, and editing” may be the most effective approach for teaching writing, and this article offers further resources to explore to investigate this approach. However, the overall message I take away from this article is that writing research still has a long way to go, especially if the goal is to help teachers prepare their students for workplace writing. There are still too few studies being done on adolescent writing, and the studies that do exist still leave too many questions unanswered, most notably, questions about how to support struggling writers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Relevant Quotes/Concepts:

“Because of the varied and complicated tasks associated with workplace writing and the multiple settings in which it must occur, writing well requires employees to ‘research’ the practices, purposes, and values of their particular workplace discourse communities. Learning to clear these multiple hurdles—including the demands of quickly advancing technology, knowledge of multiple written genres, the communal nature of workplace writing, and writing ownership—can be very difficult indeed” (234-235).

“Although flexible writing—writing in different genres and for different purposes and audiences—should be the primary goal of writing instruction in the schools, school writing is often too rigid to accommodate this goal…If effective writing requires mastery of a variety of cognitive processes and must be carried out in multiple contexts for multiple audiences, then educators need substantive directives on how to teach the skills and strategies necessary to make this happen” (235).

“The hallmark of effective writers in the workplace is their ability to adapt to the demands of various writing tasks. This skill is necessary because much of the writing produced in the workplace has a practical communicative function, involves collaborative construction, and addresses a specific audience. Since these conditions are rarely static, writers must adapt their processes and products to the task…The decontextualized type of writing that is too often practiced in schools can leave students unprepared for the actual demands of the workplace” (244).

“The most problematic result of instituting writing assessments that ignore key features of writing, such as content, is its impact on instruction as teachers align their writing expectations to the state tests…Since writing assessment influences instruction and has real consequences for students, researchers need to turn their attention to the design of writing tests or alternate forms of evaluation to align these assessments with the goals of flexible and authentic writing” (247).

“Writing assessments should include various types of writing at varying levels of difficulty in order to approximate more closely the writing demands of the workplace” (248).

Text Sources:
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007a). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high school. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Beaufort, A. (2006). Writing in the professions. In P. Smagorinsky (Ed.), Research on composition: Multiple perspectives on two decades of change (pp. 217-242). New York: Teachers College Press.

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