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Key Literacy Component: Writing

National Institute for Literacy
Students who don’t write well aren’t able to learn and communicate effectively. This article explains what good writing skills are and how to help struggling young writers gain those skills through proper instruction.

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Writing is the ability to compose text effectively for various purposes and audiences [1]. Writing is a tool for communication and learning that allows us to document, collect, and widely circulate detailed information [2]. Writing also provides a means of expressing oneself and persuading others. Writing, however, is not just a method of communication and expression. Several researchers have found that, much like reading, improving one’s writing skills improves one’s capacity to learn [3], and learning to write well requires instruction.

In addition, many of the skills that are involved in writing, such as grammar and spelling, reinforce and are reinforced by reading skills [4]. Therefore, teachers who can contribute to improving the writing of struggling adolescent readers should positively affect these students’ literacy levels.

What do good writers do?

As the demands of content instruction increase, so do literacy demands in both reading and writing. Students are expected to read and write across various genres and disciplines [5]. Skilled writers employ different types of strategies to help navigate the writing process. Skilled writers learn to be self-directed and goal-oriented. Good writers employ self-regulation strategies that help them to plan, organize, and revise their own work independently [6]. Self-regulation strategies include goal setting, self-instruction, and self-monitoring. Good writers are aware of and able to compose various text genres [7], such as narrative, persuasive, and descriptive essays.

What challenges do adolescent readers face with morphology?

Students who do not write well are at a disadvantage because they lack an effective communication and learning tool. Furthermore, the inability to write well greatly limits adolescents’ opportunities for education and future employment [8]. Finally, teachers use writing to assess the content knowledge of students, so those students who do not write well often suffer academically [9].

How can instruction help adolescent students with morphology?

Several instructional strategies have been found to be effective in improving the writing of struggling adolescent readers. These strategies include using direct, explicit, and systematic instruction; teaching students the importance of pre-writing; providing a supportive instructional environment; using rubrics to assess writing; and addressing the diverse needs of individual students.

Use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction to teach writing

Direct, explicit, and systematic instruction is the most widely suggested instructional practice for improving writing skills. Directly teaching adolescent writers strategies and skills that enhance writing development allows educators to build upon students’ prior knowledge and introduce new information contextually [10]. Examples of strategies and skills that can be taught across content areas include the steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, and editing) and skills relevant to editing and revision. To use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction in writing:

  1. Explain the writing skill or strategy and model how to apply it in writing in a manner that is similar to what students will be asked to do,
  2. Guide students in using the skills and strategies in their writing assignments and provide corrective feedback,
  3. Provide time and opportunities for independent practice with the writing skills and strategies, and
  4. Repeat these instructional steps until students are able to use them independently in their writing.

Teach students the importance of pre-writing

Students need to learn the steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, and editing) [11]. Too often students do not take the time to plan before they write nor do they revise and edit after they write. Research has indicated that pre-writing or planning, in particular, provides students with time to figure out what they know about their topic and organize their thoughts [12]. Regardless of the content area, pre-writing or planning is helpful.

In a typical ninth grade social studies class, students might be expected to write an essay or a research report on the industrialization of America. Pre-writing allows students to think through what they know about American industrialization and what they might need to research regarding this topic. In addition, the organization of the essay or report can be planned during this pre-writing stage.

The most common types of pre-writing strategies taught are:

  1. Brainstorming and making lists,
  2. Developing outlines, and
  3. Using graphic organizers [13].

These planning activities can help students shape their loosely organized thoughts and ideas into a useful framework [14]. With brainstorming, teachers should encourage students to speak and think freely. It is only later that the most relevant information to the topic is extracted from the list created from the brainstorming activity.

Outlines have the potential to become too elaborate for struggling adolescent readers, so teachers should encourage students to prepare less detailed outlines to help frame their thoughts [15]. These outlines could be only three layers with main topics, subtopics, and supporting details Graphic organizers, such as spider maps, series-of-events chains, and compare-and-contrast matrices, are useful in helping students to visualize connections between the information to be included in an essay or report [16].

Provide a supportive instructional environment for students

Writing skills are best developed with practice in a supportive instructional environment [17]. Providing students with substantial support at each step of the writing process is important to their success with writing [18]. Suggestions for providing a supportive environment for writing include:

  • Make writing a regular part of the activities in every class, across content areas;
  • Give students opportunities to engage in extended writing;
  • Ask leading questions that prompt students to plan next steps in the writing process. For example, you might ask a student who has decided to write about cars but has not decided what type of writing to produce, “So would you like to create your own story about cars or persuade someone that one kind of car is better than another?”;
  • Model a love for writing by sharing your work with students;
  • Convey the ways in which writing will be useful to them in their lives outside of school;
  • Connect writing to reading and other academic subjects; and
  • Display the students’ writings in prominent places.

Using rubrics to assess writing

Although this section describes writing instructional strategies that may be useful to teachers as they teach within their content area, it is important to address how the writing will be assessed. Assessment tools such as rubrics are available, and teachers should make students aware of these tools during instruction so that the students will understand the standards and expectations of good writing before they begin the writing process.

In addition, students can use the rubrics to evaluate their own writing and the writing of their peers. Thus, the rubric becomes an assessment tool for the educator while also promoting self-evaluation, student autonomy, and student collaboration [19]. Rubrics are important in assessing writing because they do not simply attribute a grade or score to the writing assignment but detail a clearer understanding of strong and weak areas. This insight provides students the information needed to improve their writing [20].

Address the needs of diverse learners

A “one-size-fits-all” writing program does not address the diverse needs that are encountered by most teachers in their classrooms. The needs of struggling adolescent writers vary depending upon their prior knowledge, skills, motivation, and level of self-regulation. Periodically allowing students to write about a topic of their choice is an important means of promoting individual diversity and tapping into the personal interests of students.

Teachers should strive to motivate struggling adolescents to write by exploring topics of interest to them [21]. Teachers need to stress the importance, particularly in high school instruction, of the significance and usefulness of writing beyond the classroom and emphasize the value of writing in success in college or in the workplace.

What do we still need to know?

Although a review of existing literature provides insight into how to teach writing to adolescents, research is needed to understand how best to identify, prevent, and remediate writing difficulties. Research is needed to explore the role of the key literacy components (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) in the development of adolescents’ writing ability. Finally, additional research is needed to investigate how adolescents’ beliefs about their writing ability impact the development of their reading ability [22]. This type of research is important to promote a better understanding of the relationship between reading and writing development in adolescents and to design more effective instructional approaches to support overall literacy development in adolescents.

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Adapted from What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy. Retrieved from