Fixing Our National Writing Crisis From the Foundation Up

To improve students' writing skills, it is important to teach writing explicitly, to model for specific strategies and processes, and to provide students with ample time to practice and apply their writing skills.
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Our nation faces a writing crisis. And unless we fix it, we risk a generation of Americans ill prepared for work and society.

In 2012, high school graduates attained an average score of 488 on the writing portion of the SAT. This is the lowest average score since the test was introduced in 2006, and it is well below the level of proficiency required for success in today's knowledge-based economy. According to College Board, the test sponsor, 43 percent of the students who participated were poorly prepared for course work at the college level. Moreover, only 40 percent of students took the test in 2012.

Students performed just as poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, with a mere 27 percent of 8th- and 12th-graders scoring at or above grade level on the written portion of the 2011 assessment.

These test scores are especially alarming in light of identifiable shifts in the American workplace. We have transitioned to a knowledge-based economy in which communication skills are more important than ever. It's how we inform, explain, argue, persuade, and convey actionable information to others. We interact through tweets, blogs, emails, presentations, and other types of formal and informal writing. Effective communication through these media outlets has become crucial to full participation in economic and social life. Therefore, the alarming decline in writing proficiency constitutes a true crisis.

So, if we are in the midst of a writing crisis, what's the solution?

It starts with foundational writing skills -- the building blocks of written language. As children learn to write, they develop the knowledge, skills and processes necessary for skilled writing: how to recognize letters and how to shape them, how letters go together to form words, how words are put together to form coherent sentences, how to plan and revise text and how to write for specific purposes and audiences. These processes are developed concurrently with reading comprehension skills and an awareness of genre and narrative structure.

Research has borne out that there are at least seven foundational skills required for writing mastery. These include:

  1. Handwriting. Studies have repeatedly shown handwriting instruction and practice to be linked to better letter perception, reading acquisition, word learning, composition and writing fluency. When handwriting becomes automatic, it reduces cognitive load and allows students to concentrate on idea generation, genre and creative expression.

  • Spelling. In addition to mastering letter formation, students must learn how letters work together to form words. Poor spelling negatively impacts a reader's perception of writing quality and can interfere with other writing processes.
  • Vocabulary development. A strong vocabulary is critical for both reading comprehension and effective writing. Writers must be able to choose the right words to convey meaning and intention to capture a reader's interest.
  • Sentence construction. Effectively using a variety of sentences to convey meaning and emphasis helps keep readers engaged and ensures that the intended audience understands the writer's message.
  • Writing process. Multiple studies have demonstrated the importance of explicit instruction in the writing process, including the systematic planning, drafting, revision, editing, and publishing of writing.
  • Writing strategies. Students also need specific strategies for each stage of the writing process. These may include brainstorming, outlining, goal setting, and self-evaluation.
  • Genre knowledge. Students must be able to apply writing skills across a variety of genres and to write for a variety of purposes.
  • Instilling these seven foundational skills requires intentional focus in the classroom. To improve students' writing skills, it is important to teach writing explicitly, to model for specific strategies and processes, and to provide students with ample time to practice and apply their writing skills. Students also need continual and frequent feedback on their writing.

    Students should be exposed to various genres in the early elementary years and should receive instruction specific to each genre. Similarly, it's important not to limit writing to English or language arts, but to integrate writing instruction across all subjects.

    Finally, it's critical to establish a positive environment for writing by providing a safe and supportive learning space where students can apply new skills, knowledge, and strategies.

    Our national transition to a knowledge-based economy is certain to continue, requiring an increasing level of writing proficiency for workers across all industries and job levels. Giving young students a solid foundation, intervening with older students who struggle, and sharing responsibility for writing across the entire education community can help turn our writing crisis into a writing revolution.

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