Writing is often labeled as the “forgotten ‘R,’” because the other R’s—reading and ‘rithmetic—seem to garner so much attention from educators, policymakers, and researchers. Yet, we know writing is a critical skill for communication and for success in school and in career. Writing in middle and high school can be especially important, because secondary grades are where students are expected to have mastered foundational skills like handwriting and move on to the application of these skills to more complex compositions.
IES has been funding research on writing since its inception in 2002, but compared to research on reading, not much work has been done in this critical area, especially writing in middle and high schools. In an effort to learn more about the state of the field of writing in secondary schools and the areas of needed research, IES brought together 13 experts on secondary writing for a Technical Working Group (TWG) meeting in September. During the full-day meeting, TWG participants shared their thoughts and expertise on a variety of topics including: argumentative writing, methods of engaging adolescents in writing, how best to help struggling writers including English learners and students with or at risk for disabilities, and assessment and feedback on writing.
Argumentative writing requires students to explore a topic, collect and evaluate evidence, establish a position on a topic, and consider alternative positions. In middle and high schools, argumentative writing often occurs in content area classrooms like science and history. TWG participants discussed the importance of research to understand how argumentative writing develops over time and how teachers contribute to this development.
Teaching writing to students with or at risk for disabilities and English learners can be challenging when the focus of secondary schools is often on content acquisition and not on improving writing skills. English learners are typically grouped together and receive the same instruction, but little is known about how writing instruction may need to be differentiated for students from different language backgrounds. Additionally, the TWG participants discussed the need to investigate the potential for technology to help with instruction of students who struggle with writing, and the importance to addressing the negative experiences these students have with writing that may discourage them from writing in the future.
It is also important to make sure all students are engaged and motivated to write. Some middle and high school students may not want to participate in writing or may have internalized beliefs that they are not good at it. TWG participants discussed the need to consider teaching students that writing abilities can be changed, and that introducing new audiences or purposes for writing may motivate students to write. Finally, the group talked about the importance of allowing middle and high school students to write about topics of their own choosing.
Assessing the writing quality of middle and high school students is difficult, because what counts as good writing is often subjective. Technology may offer some solutions, but TWG participants emphasized that it is unlikely that computers will be able to do this task well entirely on their own. Regardless, the TWG participants were in agreement that there is a need for the development of quality writing measures for use both by teachers and by researchers. Teachers may feel pressure to provide detailed feedback on students’ writing, which can be time-consuming. TWG participants argued that self-assessment and peer feedback could relieve some of the pressure on teachers, but research is needed to understand what kind of feedback is best for improving writing and how to teach students to provide useful feedback.
A full summary of the TWG can be found on the IES website. It’s our hope this conversation provides a strong framework for more research on ‘the forgotten R.’
POSTSCRIPT: Our colleagues at the What Works Clearinghouse recently published an Educator’s Practice Guide, “Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively.” It includes three research-based recommendations for improving writing for middle and high school students.
Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, National Center for Education Research, and Sarah Brasiel, National Center for Special Education Research