Writing is the skill we use to express ourselves in the digital age and good writers know how to convey information clearly and effectively. Unfortunately, roughly three-quarters of both 8th and 12th grade students lack proficiency in writing according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.
So what opportunities do students need to become great writers? And why do so many students miss them? The journey starts when we are very young; it takes a combination of deep, authentically interesting observations and a masterful command of the chosen language. Research into how students learn can help us boil them down to 5 basic needs for every aspiring writer. Let’s take a look.
#1: Instructors who are Proficient and Motivated
Good instruction requires more than just a strong curriculum - students need teachers who are proficient in the skills being taught and motivated to teach them. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, finding instructors like this is difficult. According to a 2016 study including almost 500 teachers grades 3-8, fewer than half of the teachers had taken a college class that included a substantial component on teaching students to write. And fewer than a third had taken a class entirely dedicated to this subject. Of that same group of teachers, only 55% reported that they enjoyed teaching writing to students.
That’s why when selecting a writing instructor, institutions of learning need to prioritize finding teachers who have a strong background in teaching writing as well as a sincere desire to teach aspiring writers. We understand this and that’s why our writing teachers come from backgrounds of professional writing, publishing, and/or editing. Our teachers enjoy guiding students through the writing process and see it as an opportunity to explore ideas and concepts that are interesting to the students. A classroom atmosphere that allows students to grow as writers is only possible when it’s led by a teacher who meets these standards.
#2: Opportunities for interaction with highly-proficient language users
Humans, all of us, learn by observing. Whether it’s language, cooking, sports, or social cues. Writing is no different - aspiring writers need to be given examples of how language can be used so that they can start experimenting with it for themselves. Students who regularly have interactions with highly-skilled speakers are much more likely to use language effectively. School teachers are obviously an important part - not only do they assign students material that exposes them to different ways to use language, but they act as models of communication that students learn to mimic.
But that’s only half of the story. One of the factors that’s most predictive of language mastery, according to research conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is frequent opportunities to use the language in an informal context. This means chatting with friends, talking over dinner, and having engaging conversations about a wide variety of subjects. The best way to do this is to structure conversation with open-ended questions - questions that require the participant to think and explain their thoughts. By doing this regularly, children are trained to structure their thoughts and express them in a way that makes sense to others. The connection between complex thoughts and good writing is fundamental. And this brings us to our third factor:
#3: Developing Critical-Thinking Skills
It isn’t enough for students to understand the grammar and usage of a language. In order to become a great writer, students have to be able to think critically about a number of things: who is their audience and what will they respond to? What is the best, clearest, and most interesting way to organize their writing? How can they separate what information is relevant and what is not?
Critical thinking, like playing an instrument, or math, or writing itself, is a set of skills that can be learned through instruction. However, many institutions of learning, even universities, still lag behind in this aspect. A study found that critical thinking measurements increased by 3.5 times more in a class that included critical thinking as a part of the curriculum. Students were able to develop their critical thinking skills in one semester of classes focusing on them as they were in 2 years of study without this added curriculum element. In short, critical thinking can be learned, but students need the opportunity to learn them. That’s why we have worked with a team of Harvard Graduate School of Education-trained curriculum designers to put together our Thinking & Communication Development courses; they are designed to address the deficiency that research has to exist in many academic programs.
#4: Constant Academic Support
The quality frequency of instruction is equally as important as the quality instruction. All students, and especially bilingual ones, require continued academic support to thrive. The OECD details the need for academic support outside of class - things like tutoring, homework help, and writing assistance. Overall, what’s important is the consistency of language instruction. This is because students are not only building language proficiency, but building content literacy across several different academic disciplines.
This is why universities often offer tutoring and writing centers for students to take advantage of. And although public school teachers do their best to make themselves available for office hours, opportunities for additional instruction outside of class and feedback on writing projects are now more limited than ever because of the way that most public schools have reorganized their weekly schedules to adapt to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why both our college counselors as well as the instructors for our writing classes stress the importance of regular writing assignments and give students regular feedback on their progress.
#5: Practice, Practice, Practice
You may have been able to see this one coming. Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “magic number of greatness” - 10,000 hours of practice to master a subject - or the old adage that “practice makes perfect,” there really is no substitute for consistent practice. The key here is consistency. The Chinese American Educational Research and Development Association, in addressing writing development, notes that regular writing assignments, particularly in a journal format, can “motivate them to write more in length and richer in content.”
Journal and other types of practice writing can be used to supplement instruction - as when teachers ask students to respond to a book or other text through guided questions. These kinds of question-response journal assignments prompt students to think deeply about a question and structure a response to them - the exact skills they will be required to use throughout life as they are asked to express their opinions on a variety of topics. And unlike a proscribed assignment, journal writing gives teachers a broader, more holistic understanding of a student’s interests and strengths when writing. But however they get it, students will be best served by finding the kind of writing that they enjoy and doing it - and often!