NCER student volunteer, Rachael Higham, has long been interested in writing instruction. She currently works as a remedial language tutor for high school students with disabilities, and she began her graduate studies with a focus on postsecondary writing instruction. To learn more about the current science and research on writing, Rachael interviewed Dr. Charles MacArthur about his research-based postsecondary writing curriculum, Supporting Strategic Writers (SSW), which he and his team developed and evaluated through IES grants. The goal of SSW is to foster metacognitive self-evaluation through the use of strategic learning and genre-based pedagogy to help improve writing skills and self-confidence.
Take a minute to answer this question: Do you remember how you were taught to write a paper in high school or in college?
Maybe you remember the five-paragraph essay, MLA formatting, or the RACE strategy, but were you ever taught specific strategies for planning and evaluating your papers?
While I was interviewing Dr. MacArthur about his recently completed IES project, he posed a similar question to me. He asked me how I navigated writing in college and if a teacher had ever explicitly taught me how to write. I realized that while I had some explicit teaching in text structure in high school, by the time I reached college, I relied heavily on feedback to inform my future writing. The idea that students learn from revising is a common view in writing education. However, this view does not always consider students who struggle with writing and who may need more explicit instruction, even in college.
As a teacher of high school students with learning disabilities, I often find that by the time many of my students reach my classroom, they feel defeated by the writing process. Writing is something that has become a source of fear and dread for them. My goal with each student is to find and develop strategies that bolster their writing skills and change writing from something that seems unattainable to something that they can do independently. I was excited to talk to Dr. MacArthur and learn more about the research that he and his have been doing. Below are his responses to the questions I posed.
What are the key components of the SSW curriculum?
The emphasis of SSW is to enable students to take control of their own learning through rhetorical analysis of genre. To do that, students are taught explicit strategies and cognitive procedures based on what good writers do. This is reinforced with metacognitive strategies that help students become aware of why they are using specific writing strategies and procedures and recognize how and when to transfer them to other classes. SSW places emphasis on genre-based strategies not only in the text but also in the planning and evaluation phases.
The heart of strategy instruction in SSW is the “think-aloud,” which is when instructors share, in real time, the thoughts that they are experiencing as they’re writing or editing a text to show how they are figuring things out. Instructors need to show—not just explain—how to write. What we writing instructors are teaching is invisible, so the think aloud makes the process visible to students. It also lets students see that writing is hard even for their teacher. Teachers can get stuck and need to work through it based on the strategies that are being taught.
What is the number one thing that you would tell a developmental or first-year writing teacher?
Teaching strategies to students on planning and evaluating their work helps improve writing. There have been hundreds of studies from K-12 (see these meta-analyses as examples 1, 2, 3) that show how strategy instruction works to improve writing. This experimental study of SSW adds to that literature and shows that strategic instruction with genre pedagogy can work in the postsecondary developmental writing environment.
What type of future research would you like to see done with the SSW curriculum?
There is a wealth of valuable research that could be done in the future. Future research could delve into how to build on the developmental course’s gain in subsequent courses. For example, it would be interesting to look at the transition between developmental writing courses and first-year composition in terms of pedagogical integration.
Another area of transfer is between compositions courses and disciplinary writing in postsecondary settings. For example, how could postsecondary institutions improve writing across the curriculum? How could strategy instruction similar to SSW work in this setting?
Additionally, strategy instruction started in special education, but it was found to be useful throughout the entire K-12 population. Similarly, SSW was found to be successful in developmental writing classrooms. It would be great to see the effects of SSW in first year composition classes.
You can find publications from this project and the earlier SSW project in ERIC here and here respectively. The What Works Clearinghouse also reviewed an earlier evaluation of the SSW here.
This blog was written by Rachael Higham, a graduate intern through the Virtual Student Federal Service Internships program, and facilitated by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a research analyst and program officer at NCER.