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Instructional practices to improve motivation and engagement for writing in grades K–6 — August 2017


Could you provide research-based instructional practices to improve motivation and engagement for writing in grades K–6?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive study articles on instructional practices for improving motivation and engagement for writing in grades K–6. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (for details, see the “Methods” section at the end of this memo).

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your information. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Olson, C. B., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058). What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Writing is a fundamental part of engaging in professional, social, community, and civic activities. Nearly 70 percent of salaried employees have at least some responsibility for writing, and the ability to write ‘well’ is a critical component of being able to communicate effectively to a variety of audiences. Because writing is a valuable tool for communication, learning, and self-expression, people who do not have adequate writing skills may be at a disadvantage and may face restricted opportunities for education and employment. Students should develop an early foundation in writing in order to communicate their ideas effectively and efficiently—yet many American students are not strong writers. In fact, less than one-third of all students performed at or above the ‘proficient’ level in writing on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress Writing Assessment. The authors believe that students who develop strong writing skills at an early age acquire a valuable tool for learning, communication, and self-expression. Such skills can be developed through effective writing instruction practices that provide adequate time for students to write. This guide, developed by a panel of experts, presents four recommendations that educators can use to increase writing achievement for elementary students and help them succeed in school and society. These recommendations are based on the best available research evidence, as well as the combined experience and expertise of the panel members.” REL West note: see pp. 8 & 34 for recommendation 4: “Teachers should create a supportive and motivating environment so that young writers feel safe engaging fully in the writing process.”

 Roth, K., & Dabrowski, J. (2014). Extending interactive writing into grades 2–5. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 33–44. Retrieved from and

From the abstract: “Interactive writing is an instructional practice widely considered effective and most appropriate for emergent writers. This article asserts that it is a valuable method for more fluent writers in grades 2–5. It outlines the basic lesson sequence and proposes four key shifts to adapt interactive writing for older, more fluent writers: (1) The lesson sequence is more fluid and dynamic; (2) Elements of Share the Pen are modified; (3) Lessons decrease in frequency while increasing in length; and (4) Teaching points expand and extend around genre. Four universal principles that hold across all grades are further elaborated: (1) Value each step in the lesson; (2) Balance the planned and unplanned teaching opportunities; (3) Make intentional teaching decisions as students develop; and (4) Make explicit links between a whole class lesson and students’ own writing. Recommendations for implementing interactive writing in upper-elementary grades are suggested.”

Schunk, D. H., & Swartz, C. W. (1993). Goals and progress feedback: Effects on self-efficacy and writing achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 18(3), 337–354. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This experiment investigated how goal setting and progress feedback affect self-efficacy and writing achievement. Children received writing strategy instruction and were given a process goal of learning the strategy, a product goal of writing paragraphs, or a general goal of working productively (control condition). Half of the process-goal children periodically received feedback on their progress in learning to use the strategy to write paragraphs. We also explored transfer (maintenance and generalization) of achievement outcomes. Process goal plus feedback subjects: (a) outperformed general goal students on posttest self-efficacy and skill, self-efficacy for improvement, and perceived progress in strategy learning; (b) scored higher than product goal children on posttest skill and perceived progress; (c) wrote more words per T-unit and judged posttest strategy use and strategy value higher than product and general goal students; and (d) performed better on the maintenance test than general goal children. Students who received the process goal without progress feedback scored higher on writing skill and wrote more words per T-unit than general goal students. The product and general goal conditions did not differ on any measure. Self-efficacy correlated positively with strategy use and skill on the posttest and maintenance test.” REL West note: This article is more than 15 years old, but we include it as a relevant, seminal document.

Troia, G. A., & Olinghouse, N. G. (2013). The Common Core State Standards and evidence-based educational practices: The case of writing. School Psychology Review, 42(3), 343. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Although writing plays an important role in the academic, psychosocial, and economic success of individuals, typical writing instruction and assessment in the United States generally does not reflect evidence-based practices. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a great deal of emphasis on written expression and may encourage an increased focus on writing in schools and help to positively shape the practices of educators. In this article, we summarize a theoretically grounded content analysis of the writing and language standards of the CCSS to identify apparent strengths and limitations in the standards. We also note the degree to which the CCSS may support the adoption of evidence-based practices for writing instruction and assessment by teachers based on the content. The CCSS for writing and language appear to be succinct and balanced with respect to the content addressed, but some aspects of writing are not covered well (e.g., spelling) or at all (e.g., motivation). Out of 36 evidence-based writing instruction and assessment practices, the CCSS signal less than half of these in any given grade, suggesting that practitioners will need to consult other resources to acquire knowledge about such practices and how to exploit them to facilitate students’ attainment of the standards. Finally, we recommend ways in which school psychologists can function as a valuable resource for teachers and schools in their efforts to deploy evidence-based practices, especially for students who struggle with writing.”

Other Relevant Resources

Baker, S. K., Chard, D. J., Ketterlin-Geller, L. R., Apichatabutra, C., & Doabler, C. (2009). Teaching writing to at-risk students: The quality of evidence for self-regulated strategy development. Exceptional Children, 75(3), 303–318. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study evaluates the quality of the research and evidence base for a writing intervention called Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD; Graham & Harris, 1989; Harris & Graham, 1996) for students with and at risk for learning disabilities, using criteria for group research studies suggested by Gersten et al. (2005) and single-subject research studies suggested by Horner et al. (2005). Five experimental and quasi-experimental studies and 16 single-subject studies investigating SRSD were analyzed on numerous methodological dimensions. Both the group design and single-subject studies also met proposed standards for an evidence-based practice. The potential value of analyzing approaches and interventions using the proposed quality indicators and standards for evidence-based practices is discussed, as are implications for research and practice.”

 Bangert-Drowns, R. L., Hurley, M. M., & Wilkinson, B. (2004). The effects of school-based writing-to-learn interventions on academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 29–58. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Since the early 1970s, many educators have touted writing as a means of enhancing learning. Several reasons have been suggested for this purported enhancement: that writing is a form of learning, that writing approximates human speech, that writing supports learning strategies. Alternatively, some researchers have cautioned that the educative effects of writing may be contingent on the contexts in which it occurs. The research on writing’s effects on learning is ambiguous. This meta-analysis of 48 school-based writing-to-learn programs shows that writing can have a small, positive impact on conventional measures of academic achievement. Two factors predicted enhanced effects: the use of metacognitive prompts and increased treatment length. Two factors predicted reduced effects: implementation in Grades 6-8 and longer writing assignments.” REL West note: See p. 37 on detrimental motivational consequences, p. 38 on motivational feedback, and p. 50 on other motivational consequences: “Students who cognitively or affectively struggle with writing may find longer assignments onerous, and these motivational consequences may weaken the positive learning effects of writing.”

 Fidalgo, R., Torrance, M., & García, J. N. (2008). The long-term effects of strategy-focused writing instruction for grade six students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(4), 672–693. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “We compared 56 eighth-grade students who, 28 months previously, had received instruction in strategies for planning and revising their writing, with 21 students of similar academic ability from the same school who had not experienced the intervention. Both groups wrote an expository essay whilst logging their writing activities and completed writing metaknowledge and self-efficacy questionnaires. Students who had received the intervention showed a greater tendency to pre-plan (but not to revise) their texts, produced better quality and more reader-focused writing, and were more likely to show an awareness of the importance of text structure. These findings suggest persistent benefits for strategy-focused writing instruction.”

 Glaser, C., & Brunstein, J. C. (2007). Improving fourth-grade students’ composition skills: Effects of strategy instruction and self-regulation procedures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 297. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Extending S. Graham and K. R. Harris’s (2003) self-regulated strategy development model, this study examined whether self-regulation procedures would increase the effectiveness of a writing strategies training designed to improve 4th graders’ (N = 113) composition skills. Students who were taught composition strategies in conjunction with self-regulation procedures were compared with (a) students who were taught the same strategies but received no instruction in self-regulation and (b) students who received didactic lessons in composition. Both at posttest and at maintenance (5 weeks after the instruction), strategy plus self-regulation students wrote more complete and qualitatively better stories than students in the 2 comparison conditions. They also displayed superior performance at a transfer task requiring students to recall essential parts of an orally presented story.”

 Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Mason, L. (2005). Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of struggling young writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(2), 207–241. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Since the early 1970s, many educators have touted writing as a means of enhancing learning. Several reasons have been suggested for this purported enhancement: that writing is a form of learning, that writing approximates human speech, that writing supports learning strategies. Alternatively, some researchers have cautioned that the educative effects of writing may be contingent on the contexts in which it occurs. The research on writing’s effects on learning is ambiguous. This meta-analysis of 48 school-based writing-to-learn programs shows that writing can have a small, positive impact on conventional measures of academic achievement. Two factors predicted enhanced effects: the use of metacognitive prompts and increased treatment length. Two factors predicted reduced effects: implementation in Grades 6–8 and longer writing assignments.”

 Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Santangelo, T. (2015). Research-based writing practices and the common core: Meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. The Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 498–522. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “In order to meet writing objectives specified in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), many teachers need to make significant changes in how writing is taught. While CCSS identified what students need to master, it did not provide guidance on how teachers are to meet these writing benchmarks. The current article presents research-supported practices that can be used to meet CCSS writing objectives in kindergarten to grade 8. We identified these practices by conducting a new meta-analysis of writing intervention studies, which included true and quasi-experiments, as well as single-subject design studies. In addition, we conducted a meta-synthesis of qualitative studies examining the practices of exceptional literacy teachers. Studies in 20 previous reviews served as the data source for these analyses. The recommended practices derived from these analyses are presented within a framework that takes into account both the social contextual and cognitive/motivational nature of writing.” REL West note: See p. 507 on how to create pleasant and motivational writing environments commonly used in grades 1–8.

 Graham, S., Hebert, M., & Harris, K. R. (2015). Formative assessment and writing: A meta-analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 523–547. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “To determine whether formative writing assessments that are directly tied to everyday classroom teaching and learning enhance students’ writing performance, we conducted a meta-analysis of true and quasi-experiments conducted with students in grades 1 to 8. We found that feedback to students about writing from adults, peers, self, and computers statistically enhanced writing quality, yielding average weighted effect sizes of 0.87, 0.58, 0.62, and 0.38, respectively. We did not find, however, that teachers’ monitoring of students’ writing progress or implementation of the 6 + 1 Trait Writing model meaningfully enhanced students’ writing. The findings from this meta-analysis provide support for the use of formative writing assessments that provide feedback directly to students as part of everyday teaching and learning. We argue that such assessments should be used more frequently by teachers, and that they should play a stronger role in the Next-Generation Assessment Systems being developed by Smarter Balanced and PARCC.”

 Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–896. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “In an effort to identify effective instructional practices for teaching writing to elementary grade students, we conducted a meta-analysis of the writing intervention literature, focusing our efforts on true and quasi-experiments. We located 115 documents that included the statistics for computing an effect size (ES). We calculated an average weighted ES for 13 writing interventions. To be included in the analysis, a writing intervention had to be tested in 4 studies. Six writing interventions involved explicitly teaching writing processes, skills, or knowledge. All but 1 of these interventions (grammar instruction) produced a statistically significant effect: strategy instruction (ES = 1.02), adding self-regulation to strategy instruction (ES = 0.50), text structure instruction (ES = 0.59), creativity/imagery instruction (ES = 0.70), and teaching transcription skills (ES = 0.55). Four writing interventions involved procedures for scaffolding or supporting students’ writing. Each of these interventions produced statistically significant effects: prewriting activities (ES = 0.54), peer assistance when writing (ES = 0.89), product goals (ES = 0.76), and assessing writing (0.42). We also found that word processing (ES = 0.47), extra writing (ES = 0.30), and comprehensive writing programs (ES = 0.42) resulted in a statistically significant improvement in the quality of students’ writing. Moderator analyses revealed that the self-regulated strategy development model (ES = 1.17) and process approach to writing instruction (ES = 0.40) improved how well students wrote.”

 Harris, K. R., Graham, S., & Mason, L. H. (2006). Improving the writing, knowledge, and motivation of struggling young writers: Effects of self-regulated strategy development with and without peer support. American Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 295–340. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Writing development involves changes that occur in children’s strategic behavior, knowledge, and motivation. The authors examined the effectiveness of self-regulated strategy development (SRSD), a strategy instructional model designed to promote development in each of these areas. Instruction focused on planning and writing stories and persuasive essays. The addition of a peer support component to SRSD instruction aimed at facilitating maintenance and generalization effects was also examined. SRSD had a positive impact on the writing performance and knowledge of struggling second-grade writers attending urban schools serving a high percentage of low-income families. In comparison with children in the Writers’ Workshop condition, SRSD instructed students were more knowledgeable about writing and evidenced stronger performance in the two instructed genres (story and persuasive writing) as well as two uninstructed genres (personal narrative and informative writing). Moreover, the peer support component augmented SRSD instruction by enhancing specific aspects of students’ performance in both the instructed and uninstructed genres.”

 Pajares, F. (2003). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing: A review of the literature. Reading &Writing Quarterly, 19(2), 139–158. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Examines the contribution made by the self-efficacy component of A. Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory to the study of writing in academic settings. Demonstrates that students’ confidence in their writing capabilities influence their writing motivation as well as various writing outcomes in school. Offers academic implications and strategies that may help guide future research.”

 Pajares, F., Johnson, M. J., & Usher, E. L. (2007). Sources of writing self-efficacy beliefs of elementary, middle, and high school students. Research in the Teaching of English, 104–120. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of Albert Bandura’s four hypothesized sources of self-efficacy on students’ writing self-efficacy beliefs (N = 1,256) and to explore how these sources differ as a function of gender and academic level (elementary, middle, high). Consistent with the tenets of self-efficacy theory, each of the sources significantly correlated with writing self-efficacy and with each other. As hypothesized, students’ perceived mastery experience accounted for the greatest proportion of the variance in writing self-efficacy. This was the case for girls and for boys, as well as for students in elementary school, middle school, and high school. Social persuasions and anxiety also predicted self-efficacy, albeit modestly. Vicarious experience did not predict writing self-efficacy. Girls reported greater mastery experience, vicarious experience, and social persuasions, as well as lower writing anxiety. Girls also reported stronger writing self-efficacy and were rated better writers by their teachers. Elementary school students reported stronger mastery experience, vicarious experience, and social persuasions than did either middle school or high school students. Elementary school students also reported stronger self-efficacy. Findings support and refine the theoretical tenets of Bandura’s social cognitive theory. (Contains 3 tables.)”

Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2015). How writing instruction, interventions, and assessment can improve student outcomes. Dallas, TX: George W. Bush Institute, Education Reform Initiative. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The ability to write effectively and use writing as a tool for learning is essential for students’ success in the middle grades—and beyond. This practice guide highlights several research-based practices that can be used school-wide to help middle grades students become better writers. This paper presents four questions middle grades educators might ask about effective writing instruction and assessment, followed by the authors’ responses, based on their knowledge of research in this area. The question-and-answer segment summarizes key information from the available literature, including several recent meta-analyses. Educators can use this information to compare and contrast the practices currently implemented at their school with those that have been validated as effective, and then identify ways to improve student success. A list of resources is provided in order to learn more about the recommendations described in this paper.”

 Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2007). Influencing children’s self-efficacy and self-regulation of reading and writing through modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23(1), 7–25. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, self-efficacy and self-regulation are key processes that affect students’ learning and achievement. This article discusses students’ reading and writing performances using Zimmerman’s four-phase social cognitive model of the development of self-regulatory competence. Modeling is an effective means of building self-regulatory and academic skills and of raising self-efficacy. Reading and writing research is discussed in which modeling was employed to enhance self-efficacy, skills, and self-regulation across multiple phases of Zimmerman’s model. The article concludes by suggesting instructional applications based on social cognitive theory and research findings.”

 Torrance, M., Fidalgo, R., & García, J. N. (2007). The teachability and effectiveness of cognitive self-regulation in sixth-grade writers. Learning and Instruction, 17(3), 265–285. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Seventy-one normally functioning Spanish sixth-grade students participated in classroom-based training in cognitive strategies for preplanning and substantive revision of expository text. Short essays completed by these students pre-intervention, post-intervention, and after a 12-week delay were compared with those of an ordinary-curriculum control (n = 24). Online, self-report process measures suggested that training resulted in a substantial and sustained increase in preplanning as a result of the intervention, but little increase in the extent to which students revised their text. Product measures indicated a substantial and sustained increase in text quality and improved use of coherence ties.”

 Tracy, B., Reid, R., & Graham, S. (2009). Teaching young students strategies for planning and drafting stories: The impact of self-regulated strategy development. The Journal of Educational Research, 102(5), 323–332. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “In the present study, participants were 127 3rd-grade students, to 64 of whom (33 boys, 31 girls) the authors taught a general strategy and a genre-specific strategy for planning and writing stories; procedures for regulating the use of these strategies, the writing process, and their writing behaviors; and knowledge about the basic purpose and characteristics of good stories. The other 63 3rd-grade students (30 boys, 33 girls) formed the comparison group and received traditional-skills writing instruction (mostly on spelling, grammar, and so forth). Strategy-instructed students wrote stories that were longer, schematically stronger, and qualitatively better. Strategy-instructed students maintained over a short period of time the gains that they had made from pretest to posttest. In addition, the impact of story-writing strategy instruction transferred to writing a similar but untaught genre, that of a narrative about a personal experience. Strategy-instructed students wrote longer, schematically stronger, and qualitatively better personal narratives than did children in the control condition.”

Troia, G. (2014). Evidence-based practices for writing instruction (Document No. IC-5). Gainsville, FL: University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Development, Accountability, and Reform Center. Retrieved from

Yarrow, F., & Topping, K. J. (2001). Collaborative writing: The effects of metacognitive prompting and structured peer interaction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(2), 261–282. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Background. The structured system for peer assisted learning in writing named Paired Writing (Topping, 1995) incorporates both metacognitive prompting and scaffolding for the interactive process. Aim. This study sought to evaluate the relative contribution of these two components to student gain in quality of writing and attitudes to writing, while controlling for amount of writing practice and teacher effects. Sample. Participants were 28 ten- and eleven-year-old students forming a problematic mixed ability class. Methods. All received training in Paired Writing and its inherent metacognitive prompting. Students matched by gender and pre-test writing scores were assigned randomly to Interaction or No Interaction conditions. In the Interaction condition, the more able writers became ‘tutors’ for the less able. In the No Interaction condition, the more able writers acted as controls for the tutors and the less able as controls for the tutees. Over six weeks, the paired writers produced five pieces of personal writing collaboratively, while children in the No Interaction condition did so alone. Results. On pre- and post-project analyses of the quality of individual writing, all groups showed statistically significant improvements in writing. However, the pre-post gains of the children who wrote interactively were significantly greater than those of the lone writers. There was some evidence that the paired writers also had more positive self-esteem as writers. Conclusion. The operation and durability of the Paired Writing system are discussed.” REL West note: This article is more than 15 years old, but we include it as a relevant, seminal document.


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

“Instructional practices” AND [“motivation” OR “engagement”] AND “Writing” AND [“elementary school” OR “grades K–6”]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published in the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed or both by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities and considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in that order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.