There’s very little research on how to effectively teach writing and few pre-service teachers explicitly learn how to teach it in credentialing programs. And yet good writing has become a central skill for most subject areas, including math and science, where teachers are now asking students to explain their thinking. Many teachers use model texts and writing assignments rooted in students’ lived experiences to give kids practice writing. Proponents of this approach say too much focus on grammar and sentence structure stunts the individual’s voice. On the other side of the debate are people like Judith Hochman, who believes writing should be taught starting at the sentence level.

The most recent National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows that three quarters of both 8th and 12th graders are not proficient in writing. It’s clear that teaching writing is an area of growth for American schools, but what is the right approach? Instruction that blends the technical aspects of writing with inspiring ideas and content may be the best way to go. And Dana Goldstein writes in her New York Times article that something in-between is supported by the research that does exist on teaching writing:

Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.

All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.

Why Kids Can’t Write

Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay.

What’s The Middle Ground Between Grammar And Voice When Teaching Writing? 3 August,2017Katrina Schwartz

  • Garreth Heidt


    I read this on the NYT page yesterday. Thanks for the cross post here, though, as I hope it will reach a larger audience. One thing I noted, though, is that the title of the NYT piece, “Why Kids Can’t Write” is really not supported by the article itself. That is, the claim the title makes implies there’s some point at which kids “can write” but there’s no standard for what that is. At the level of physicality, most all able bodied kids “can write.” At the level of the “National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows that three quarters of both 8th and 12th graders are not proficient in writing.” Does that mean kids can’t write? Or that they can’t write to meet the NAEP tests? And then the article itself is really about how teachers aren’t really prepared to teach writing well. That’s proving a different point than whether or not kids can write. Isn’t it?

    Then there are other issues that the article fails to address: class size, class make up, etc. I’m not saying that the “middle ground” isn’t a fine resolution to the conundrum of improving students’ writing. (I mean, seriously? The findings of the article are that there’s a way somewhere between the two extremes? Gosh! Who would have guessed?)

  • Keith Rhodes

    The large body of research on how people learn to write suggests that this article presents a false dichotomy, and probably not a useful one. Teaching grammar doesn’t work; in fact it tends to lower the quality of student writing. That’s the most well-established and durable finding in the field (rather recently found yet again in Graham, et al., “A Meta-Analysis of Writing Instruction for Students in the Elementary Grades,” Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 104 (2012). Opponents of that view nitpick at it, but have presented no contrary research. Meanwhile, “voice” based approaches do some good, but research has uncovered approaches that work better. A good starting point is George Hillocks, Jr.’s oldie but goodie “Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice” (grounded on Hillocks’ own earlier, extensive metastudy of writing research). So rather than finding the middle ground between a bad and a weak approach, it might make sense to look a little harder for the existing research. We do have some evidence that some sentence-based approaches help, but they are neither grammar nor voice-based. Further research into the existence of research might be in order before writing a critique of this kind.

  • kryten8

    “The most recent National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows that three quarters of both 8th and 12th graders are not proficient in writing.”

    Have you ever written your best work on a test? Speaking with any author, you’ll find that time for reflection and revision are of the utmost importance, and I believe you’ll also agree that something scored in a few moments or less (like the NAEP) isn’t a great measure of writing talent.

    Am I saying that we can’t improve writing instruction? Of course not! The first step would be to back away from tests like the NAEP and focus less on formulaic writing and more on authentic writing experiences that make kids want to reflect and revise.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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