Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” a crowd-sourced, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a stand-alone blog post. This is the eighth. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.
Explicit writing instruction not only improves students’ writing skills but also helps build and deepen their content knowledge, boosts reading comprehension and oral language ability, and fosters habits of critical and analytical thinking. The process of planning, writing, and revising can be taught in intentional, sequential steps. In following this process, students can improve their skills and overall comprehension and retention of information. It’s imperative that schools not scrimp on writing instruction as they help students recover from the pandemic.
To be effective, writing should be embedded in the content of the core curriculum and begin at the sentence level. As Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler describe in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, “Writing and content knowledge are intimately related. You can’t write well about something you don’t know well. The more students know about a topic before they begin to write, the better they’ll be able to write about it. At the same time, the process of writing will deepen their understanding of a topic and help cement that understanding in their memory.” They go on to establish six key principles of the Hochman method, which include explicit skills instruction, the infusion of grammar in practice, and an emphasis on planning and revising. These form a strong basis for high-quality, effective writing instruction for all students.
- Adopt and implement a high-quality English language arts curriculum (see the section on “Reading”).
- Select a writing curriculum and activities that feature explicit, carefully focused instruction and connect to a variety of content areas, including building writing time into all subjects. To date, “The Writing Revolution,” also known as the Hochman method, is the only curriculum that combines these two elements.
- Writing activities should start at the sentence level. Tasking young students with longer assignments will overtax them and short-circuit learning. Sentences are the building blocks for all writing.
- Expand teachers’ awareness and enthusiasm for the role that frequent sentence-level writing, sentence expansion and combining, and even note-taking activities can play in enhancing any kind of instruction. A school-wide study of The Writing Revolution can serve as a sound starting point.
- Invest in ongoing curriculum-based professional learning for leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers to build expertise and fully leverage the power of high-quality writing instruction.
Content and cognitive science
There is a robust body of research indicating that writing has the potential to boost comprehension and retention, extending back to the 1970s.
In a landmark study, undergraduates were given five minutes to read an article. They then were randomly assigned to one of four tasks: reading the article once; studying it for fifteen additional minutes; creating a “concept map” or bubble diagram of the ideas in the article; or writing what they could remember from the passage, known as “retrieval practice.” When tested a week later, the group that had engaged in writing had a clear advantage in recalling information and making inferences.
Writing about a topic is akin to preparing to teach something you have learned, which has also been shown to improve recall, a phenomenon called the “protégé effect.” Essentially, writing requires students to recall something they have slightly forgotten (the mechanism at work in retrieval practice) and explain it in their own words (the mechanism at work in the protégé effect). A recent meta-analysis found that writing about content in science, social studies, and math reliably enhances learning in all three subjects.
But most existing approaches to writing instruction fail to take full advantage of these potential benefits. Instead, they ask students to write about their own experiences or about random topics, without providing much background information.
In addition, most instructional approaches vastly underestimate how difficult it is to learn to write. Young students may be juggling everything from letter formation and spelling to putting their thoughts in a logical order. Yet virtually all strategies expect inexperienced writers, including kindergartners, to write multiple-paragraph essays. The theory is that students need to develop their voice, fluency, and writing stamina from the earliest stages. But writing at length only increases cognitive load, potentially overwhelming working memory and depriving students of the cognitive capacity to absorb and analyze the information they’re writing about, much less acquire target skills.
The Institute of Education Science’s Practice Guide on elementary writing cites twenty-five studies finding a variety of positive effects that follow from paying close attention to the writing process. It also recommends that one hour a day be devoted to students’ writing beginning in the first grade, and acknowledges that this is unlikely to be achieved unless writing practice occurs in the context of non-ELA content area instruction.
Starting at the sentence level
Studies have shown the positive effects of interventions such as sentence combining and sentence expansion and teaching sentence-construction skills generally. The IES Practice Guide recommends that students be taught to construct sentences. There are also indications in the literature on “writing to learn” that shorter writing assignments, including poems, yield larger benefits. In addition, focusing on learning to construct sentences before moving on to paragraphs lightens the load on students’ working memory, freeing up cognitive space for absorbing and analyzing the content they’re writing about.
And yet for some reason, there appears to have been no studies testing whether there are greater benefits from an approach that explicitly teaches students to write sentences before asking them to embark on lengthier writing.
In the meantime, it’s best to begin writing at the sentence level. Sentence-level instruction not only lightens cognitive load, it also makes instruction in the conventions of written language—such as grammar, punctuation, etc.—far more manageable. Teachers confronted with page after page of error-filled writing often don’t know where to begin, and they don’t want to discourage students by handing back a sea of red ink. And if students can’t write a good sentence, they’ll never be able to write a good paragraph or a good essay.
Many students don’t easily absorb the mechanics of constructing sentences from their reading, as most approaches to writing instruction assume. Rather, they need to practice how to use conjunctions, appositives, transition words, and so forth. Activities that teach these skills, when embedded in the content of the curriculum, simultaneously build writing skills, content knowledge, and analytical abilities.
For example, students learning about the Civil War might be given the sentence stem “Abraham Lincoln was a great president _____________.” and then asked to finish it in three different ways, using “because,” “but,” and “so.” This kind of explicit instruction can also familiarize students with the syntax and vocabulary that are found in written but not spoken language, and can boost reading comprehension. Once you have learned to use a word like “despite” or a construction like the passive voice in your own writing, you’re in a much better position to understand it when you encounter it while reading.
Example: The Writing Revolution
The potential of explicit writing instruction that is embedded in the content of the curriculum and begins with sentence-level strategies is enormous. As far as can be determined, the Writing Revolution method is currently the only approach to writing instruction that combines these two features. It rests on six key principles:
- Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.
- Sentences are the building blocks of all writing.
- When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.
- The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities.
- Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.
- The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.
Once students are ready for lengthier pieces, the Writing Revolution focuses considerable attention on teaching students to construct clear, linear outlines. When students transform their outlines into finished pieces of writing, they are able to construct coherent, fluent paragraphs and essays by drawing on the sentence-level strategies they have been taught.
Arnold, K., Umanath, S., Thio. K., Reilly, W., McDaniel, M., Marsh, E. (2017). Understanding the cognitive processes involved in writing to learn. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 23(2), 115-127.
Bangert-Drowns, R., Hurley, M. and Wilkinson, B. (2004). The Effects of School-Based Writing-to-Learn Interventions on Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 74(1), 29-58.
Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). “Writing to Read: Evidence for how Writing Can Improve Reading. Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report.” Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education.
- Teaching sentence-construction skills has improved reading fluency and comprehension.
Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York.” Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Graham, S., Kiuhara, S.A., and MacKay, M. (2020). The effects of writing on learning in science, social studies, and mathematics: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. 90(2), 179-226.
- Embedding writing instruction in content and having students write about what they are learning in English language arts, social studies, science, and math has boosted reading comprehension and learning across grade levels.
Hochman, J. and Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Jossey-Bass.
Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., and Olinghouse, N.(2012). “Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Karpicke, J., and Blunt, J. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science. 331(6018) 772-775.
Mueller, P. A., and Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168.
- Two key takeaways: the benefits of writing for information retention are strongest with writing by hand rather than on the computer; and the act of writing solidifies students’ knowledge of a subject.
Naka, M., & Naoi, H. (1995). The effect of repeated writing on memory. Memory & Cognition, 23(2), 201–212.
- Demonstrates the crucial link between writing about something and remembering the content involved.
Panero, N.S. (2016). Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing. Improving Schools, 19(3), 229-245.
- Summarizes the research on improving writing quality as well as writing strategies that improve reading comprehension, and connects those to practices taught in The Writing Revolution.
Seven, S., Koksal, A.P., Kocak, G. (2017). The Effect of Carrying out Writing to Learn Activities on Academic Success of Fifth Grade Students in Secondary School on the Subject of ‘Force and Motion. Universal Journal of Educational Research. 5(5), 744-749.
Tindle, R. and Longstaff, M.G. (2015). Writing, Reading and Listening Differentially Overload Working Memory Performance Across the Serial Position Curve. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 11(4), 147-155.
Wexler, N. (2019). “Writing and cognitive load theory,” ResearchED, Issue 4,
- “Writing can impose such a heavy burden on working memory that students become overwhelmed, unable either to improve their writing skill or to benefit from the positive effects that writing can have on reading comprehension and learning in general.”
Willingham, D. (2003). Students remember … what they think about. American Educator, 27(2), 37–41.
- Writing can facilitate students’ thinking about what they are supposed to learn.
 From Brian Pick: I think it is important here to address both the writing process and the writing mechanics. Both matter but sometimes schools focus almost exclusively on only one or the other.
 From the editors: See “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” For more about writing and retrieval, see “The effect of repeated writing on memory,” which compares memorization among Japanese and American students using writing as a memorization strategy.
 From the editors: For example, in a study by Muis et al., elementary students who were solving complex math problems used more metacognitive strategies when preparing to teach those strategies compared to a control group. In a study by Nestojko et al., participants who were told they would be teaching a passage had better recall than those who were told they would be tested on the passage.
 From the editors: See “The Effects of Writing on Learning in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis.”
 From the editors: Research shows that writing imposes a heavier cognitive load on working memory than reading. See “Writing, Reading, and Listening Differentially Overload Working Memory Performance Across the Serial Position Curve.”
 From Jamila Newman: I think it's important that schools see writing as gateway to student independence and agency. Reading and listening often position students as consumers, but writing and speaking position students as producers of argument, opinion, and ideas.
 From the editors: See “Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers.”
 From the editors: See “The Effects of School-Based Writing-to-Learn Interventions on Academic Achievement” and “The Effect of Carrying out Writing to Learn Activities on Academic Success of Fifth Grade Students in Secondary School on the Subject of ‘Force and Motion’.”