Though writing is an indispensable skill, students across the nation struggle to produce writing that meets college and career expectations. In 2019, 41 percent of students who took the American College Testing (ACT) exam did not score well enough to meet readiness benchmarks for a college-level English composition class. Or consider that employers find less than half of college graduates to be proficient writers.
Why haven’t writing outcomes improved? While the exact answer to this question is beyond the scope of this brief, the research here provides some important insights. Specifically, we examined the survey data collected from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing assessment, the most recent available.
For reference, the 2011 NAEP assessment was the first large-scale computer writing assessment done by NAEP. As part of the effort, federal researchers assessed eighth- and twelfth-graders. Each student was assigned two writing tasks that were completed in a word processing program. The writing tasks asked students to write for one of three purposes: to persuade, to explain, or to convey an experience. After the assessment, students and teachers completed surveys which provided context about students’ educational experience.
The NAEP data is the only nationally representative dataset on instruction and student performance in writing. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the background survey data has been analyzed and released publicly.
Outside of college and career, writing is an essential form of communication, from emails to tweets to texts, people are all writing a lot every day.
Students don’t spend enough time writing. In the same way that mastering any skill requires regular and consistent practice, students need to spend more time writing. In a guide produced by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) on teaching students to become competent writers, the organization recommends that students in kindergarten spend at least 30 minutes per day writing. For first graders, IES recommends students spend at least 60 minutes writing per day. These recommendations were developed on suggestions from The National Commission on Writing and research by Laura Cutler, University of Delaware, and Steve Graham, Arizona State University.
Our study of the NAEP data revealed only about 25 percent of middle school students and 31 percent of high school students write about 30 minutes a day, meeting the standard set out by experts. Even worse, many students are writing below this standard, with 33 percent of middle schoolers and 34 percent high schoolers writing up to 15 minutes writing a day.
The data revealed similar results for writing completed at home. While writing assignments could provide students with another opportunity to practice their writing outside of school, 41 percent of middle and 40 percent of high school students are only writing a page a week for homework.
Students are not spending enough time on persuasive writing. The ability to write persuasively is critical for students as they move through college and into their careers. What’s more, understanding how to craft an argument is an essential part of engaging with other people, and argument-based discourse is highly common (i.e. social media debates, opinion articles, politics, etc.)
Additionally, many of the elements of persuasive writing are present in other forms of writing. Consider research papers, where the writer is asked to form a hypothesis and explain how their research proves or disproves their hypothesis. This form of writing is inherently an argument.
Despite this fact, 15 percent of eighth-grade students and 13 percent of twelfth-grade students reported writing persuasively every week. In comparison, more than a quarter of eighth-grade students, and more than a third of twelfth-grade students said that they write to explain every week.
This is corroborated by teacher reports on how often they ask students to write persuasively. Only 13 percent of eighth-grade teachers ask their students to write persuasively weekly. In comparison, 38 percent ask their students to write to explain, and 39 percent ask their students to write to convey information every week.
This data displays a large gap in the types of writing teachers assign to their students. While writing for different purposes is crucial for students to become more effective writers, there should be more consistency in how much time is spent writing for various purposes. The disparity could be due to the limited amount of time that students spend writing overall. Argumentative writing is complex and time-intensive. Ineffective school schedules could inhibit a teachers’ ability to allocate time for students to do more persuasive writing.
Only 13 percent of eighth-grade teachers ask their students to write persuasively weekly. In comparison, 38 percent ask their students to write to explain, and 39 percent ask their students to write to convey information every week.
For this reason, writing across the curriculum can serve as an effective way for students to display their knowledge on a topic. It can also serve as a way for teachers to assess any gaps that may exist for their students. This is especially true in subjects like science and math. A student can memorize multiplication tables and still not have a conceptual understanding of what multiplication is. If students are asked to explain multiplication in writing, this could provide the teacher with insights into a student’s understanding.
Despite this fact, it appears that little time is spent writing in other subjects. In math classes, 84 percent of eighth-graders and 68 percent of twelfth graders spend less than 30 minutes writing per week. 82 percent of eighth-graders and 68 percent of twelfth graders write less than 30 minutes a day in their social studies class. In science classes, 86 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of twelfth graders spend less than 30 minutes writing.
As mentioned before, writing requires a lot of practice, but that practice should not be limited to English class. If students are writing across the curriculum, they learn to write for different contexts and audiences. This would increase the amount of time students spend writing and be a powerful way to improve student learning.
There is a large body of research that shows that formal, isolated grammar instruction has little impact on student writing and can even negatively affect student writing. Most experts agree that grammar is essential to writing, but when taught in a vacuum, it does not help students become better writers.
The NAEP data reflects that writing instruction is less focused on grammar instruction. Overall, a quarter of eighth-graders report that a majority of their English instruction is focused on mechanics and conventions, and only 20 percent of eighth-grade teachers report grading mainly on mechanics and conventions.
However, for Black and Hispanic students, there is a significant difference in the emphasis placed on grammar. Over a third of Black eighth-graders and a quarter of Hispanic eighth-graders report that most of their writing instruction is focused on mechanics and conventions. Additionally, 25 percent of Black and Hispanic students are graded mainly on mechanics and conventions compared to 18 percent of white students.
One potential explanation is that Black and Hispanic students are graded more heavily on grammar and mechanics because they are more likely to have accents, dialectic differences, or speak another language at home, which educators may classify as deficient. For example, Black students may speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Studies have shown that educators view AAVE negatively, which can affect how they perceive and instruct students who speak this dialect. This implicit bias could creep into how teachers grade their students, causing teachers to focus more on black students’ use of grammar than other students.
There are considerable differences in keypresses across demographic subgroups on the NAEP assessment. For the first time, the NAEP assessment went digital in 2011. As part of the assessment, researchers recorded the keypresses of students. While the number of keypresses a student makes does not directly indicate the length of an essay, it has implications for a student’s digital fluency, or their ability to use technology.
The number of keypresses is notable because there is a high correlation between keypresses and achievement levels in writing. Over 70 percent of students who made 4001 or more key presses fell into the proficient or advanced category. In comparison, 90 percent of students who made 0-1000 keypresses fell below basic.
However, in looking across demographic subgroups, there are large discrepancies in the number of keypresses made. For example, 93 percent of eighth-grade and 97 percent of twelfth-grade ELLs make under 3,000 keypresses compared to 78 percent and 82 percent of non-ELL twelfth graders, respectively. 87 percent of eighth-grade and 90 percent of twelfth-grade students who qualify for free or reduced lunch make 3,000 keypresses or less compared to 73 percent, and 78 percent of students who do not qualify.
This data suggests that vulnerable populations may be less digitally fluent, which comes as no surprise. Consider low-income students who may not have access to a computer at home, limiting their opportunities to practice typing. Or ELL students who are used to typing in a different language on a non-American keyboard.
While more data on precise word processing actions would be necessary to examine the correlation between keypresses and writing outcomes, these disparities are hard to ignore.
One potential explanation is that Black and Hispanic students are graded more heavily on grammar and mechanics because they are more likely to have accents, dialectic differences, or speak another language at home, which educators may classify as deficient.
The NAEP survey data suggests that schools have still not made writing a priority. In order to boost outcomes in writing, schools need to give writing more time and attention. Increasing the amount of time students spend writing, both at home and school has significant implications for improving writing outcomes. Providing students with many and different opportunities to write, builds familiarity with the writing process. If students are comfortable with writing, they are likely to become stronger, better writers.
Furthermore, there needs to be more focus on addressing vulnerable populations’ needs when it comes to writing. Black, Hispanic, low-income students and ELLs perform at significantly lower rates. These numbers are simply too low, and for these students, many obstacles can interfere with writing instruction that goes beyond writing.
For one, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to experience bias from their teachers. These biases, like the belief that a student will not succeed, can have severe consequences. If a teacher has lower expectations for specific students, that can manifest in how they interact with their students through instruction and grading. The combination of these factors can decrease student motivation and interest in writing, leading to lower achievement in writing.
Low-income students are less likely to have computer access both in and out of school, meaning they may have fewer opportunities to use word processing software, which is tied to positive writing outcomes. Limited access to computers means fewer chances to practice and develop their typing skills. For computer-based assessments, adequate typing skills directly correlate to higher achievement levels, so low-income students may suffer as a result of limited access to computers. In addition to this, students in high poverty schools tend to have larger classroom sizes, meaning by default, teachers have less time for each student. These students are likely receiving less personalized instruction than a student in a school with smaller classroom sizes.
ELL students also face several challenges when it comes to writing. Cultural differences could cause a student to write in a different model than what is expected for a course or an exam. As a result, these students are likely to receive lower scores on their writing. Additionally, if students have comprehension or translation issues, they may need more or different types of support than most of their classmates. Teachers are already stretched thin and may not have the time necessary to adequately address their ELL students’ needs.
In addition to creating more support for these populations, we need to do more on a broader scale to help students become better writers.
More research on teaching writing and analysis of student writing. The amount of research on how to teach writing is limited compared to research on teaching other fields, like math and reading. A 2019 review of research on teaching writing found only 14 studies that met rigorous standards of research. In comparison, they found 69 studies in a review of research on reading programs.
While writing and reading are often viewed as interconnected, there is an apparent disparity in the amount of research about teaching writing. Moreso, many teachers report not feeling prepared to teach writing in their classrooms, and this lack of confidence can seep into their teaching. Increased research on how to teach writing could clarify how to improve writing outcomes for students and help to develop more widely agreed-upon strategies on how to teach writing.
Similarly, there is very little analysis of student writing as a whole. While the NAEP assessment is meant to represent the nation, it is one of a few widespread analyses on student writing. More extensive studies that look at student text could provide insights into areas where improvement is necessary and focus the conversation on those areas that students need help. Without taking a closer look at how and what students are writing, it will be difficult to create better practices that help students become stronger writers.
Increased research on how to teach writing could clarify how to improve writing outcomes for students and help to develop more widely agreed-upon strategies on how to teach writing.
While increasing equity should be addressed in all subjects, it is particularly necessary for writing teachers, as writing is a vital form of communication. As seen in the NAEP performance data, there are evident disparities in writing outcomes across different demographic subgroups. Schools can do more to promote inclusive practices in their classrooms. For writing specifically, this could look like integrating dialectic awareness programs. Programs like these can promote tolerance of linguistic differences amongst teachers and students. It can also ensure that students feel validated in the classroom, which can lead to increased motivation and interest in learning. Additionally, this could provide students with a deeper understanding of the differences between the way they speak and how they are taught to write.
Another way to increase equity in writing instruction is by implementing anti-bias training for teachers. Although diversity in schools is increasing and studies show that students benefit from teachers that look like them, most teachers are white. Teachers are not exempt from holding biases, and research shows teachers that teachers are only slightly less biased than the general population. In writing, these biases could come out in grading, like in the NAEP survey data that shows that Black and Hispanic students tend to be graded more on grammar and mechanics. They can also come out in instruction or general treatment of students. In order to increase equity, especially in writing, it is necessary for teachers to have an awareness of the ways implicit and explicit bias present themselves. When it comes to writing, specifically, this is imperative because students are tasked with expressing themselves. If a student does not think their opinions will be valued, or they are not held to the same standard as their peers, they are likely to struggle with writing.
Better technology for teachers and students. Increased access to computers and reliable internet could vastly improve writing outcomes for students. A survey on K-12 district connectivity found that 25 percent of districts had shared devices available for students. More concerning, only 10 percent of districts reported students having 1:1 computer access at home. Students who do not have access to a computer at home could miss out on opportunities to practice their writing at home.
Better technology would also mean more access to writing tools, which can help students as they learn to write and support teachers in their instruction. These assisted writing tools, like MI Write or Revision Assistant, can help cut down on the amount of time it takes for teachers to provide feedback, thus giving them more opportunities to practice their writing. However, the field of assisted writing feedback tools is new and developing. Many of the tools on the market are expensive or only address one aspect of writing. The creation of more robust tools has serious implications for improving writing outcomes.