Three renowned reading and writing experts — Dr. Steven Graham, Dr. Louisa Moats, and Dr. Susan Neuman — address why writing is important, what the latest research tells us, and what educators and parents can do to support our children's development as writers.
If "reading is rocket science," shouldn't we give children as much support as possible? Though often overlooked, writing is an essential skill that can help children become stronger readers; it can provide the means to enhance vocabulary, comprehension, and spelling abilities. With the help of three top experts, this webcast explores the importance of writing skills, what the latest research tells us, and what teachers and parents can do to make the process smooth and successful.
Dr. Steve Graham is a professor and the Currey Ingram chair in special education at Vanderbilt University. He is the editor of Exceptional Children and the former editor of Contemporary Educational Psychology. He is the co-author of the Handbook of Writing Research, Handbook of Learning Disabilities, Writing Better, and Making the Writing Process Work.
Dr. Louisa Moats is the Director of Professional Development and Research Initiatives with Sopris West Educational Services. She directed the NICHD Early Reading Interventions Project in Washington, DC and worked on the California Reading Initiative as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. She is the author of many books and articles including: Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, Parenting a Struggling Reader, as well as the professional development program, LETRS.
Dr. Susan Neuman is a Professor in Educational Studies at the University of Michigan. She previously served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. In this role, she established the Reading First program and the Early Reading First program. At Michigan, she has directed the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA), focusing early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction. She is also the author of numerous books and articles, including Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practice.
Reading, Writing, and Related LDs
Find out about a new research-based program from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in this video featuring program director Dr. Brett Miller. The program focuses on how writing skills develop over time (pre-K through adults), why some struggle with writing, and effective prevention, remediation, and instructional strategies. Learn more at the program website.
Other writing resources from Reading Rockets
Articles and books by our presenters
Additional resources on writing
- Dr. Neuman started the webcast by sharing elements of good writing instruction. Which of these elements are present in your classroom? Which ones can you work to incorporate more explicitly, and how will you do that?
- What experiences have prepared you to teach writing? Reflect on and share any books, videos, or articles that have helped you shape your writing program.
- Dr. Neuman shared some ideas for writing across the curriculum, including ideas for math, social studies, and science. How have you integrated writing across your curriculum? What new ideas did you get from watching this webcast?
- Dr. Graham described four areas of skilled writing: planning, monitoring, evaluating, and revising. Of these, which is the most challenging area for you as a teacher? Why?
- Describe how you use children's writing to help you understand what they know about phonemic awareness and spelling.
- If writing is like juggling a lot of balls in the air, what types of jugglers are your students?
- Louisa Moats described elements of a good writing program. Consider the writing curriculum or program you use. Which components are there? Which ones are missing?
- Writing instruction for ELL students should include (among other things) dialogue and vocabulary instruction, oral language modeling and oral language expression. How can teachers in kindergarten and first-grade classes do that? Describe what it would look like.
- What writing skills and strategies have you modeled and explicitly taught recently? How did the lessons go? What changes would you make the next time you try it?
FS: "Did you circle your favorite line?"
Voice Over: What Are The Best Ways To Teach Writing? What Can Teachers Do To Help Kids Who Find Writing Especially Challenging?
Voice Over: I'm Delia Pompa. Please Join Me For Our Next Reading Rockets Webcast — "Teaching Writing"
Voice Over: The Reading Rockets Teleconference Series is a production of WETA. This program is made possible by the generous support of Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books and the leader in educational technology. Major funding for Reading Rockets comes from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Our partners for this program include the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the National Head Start Association, Parents Action for Children, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
Delia Pompa: Hello, I'm Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Reading Rockets webcast series. Today we're going to talk with three top experts about writing instruction. Joining me we have Dr. Steve Graham. He's the Curry Ingraham Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Susan B. Neuman is also with us. She's a Professor in Educational Studies at the University of Michigan, and she's also the former assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education in the Department of Education. And we have Dr. Louisa Moats.
Dr. Moats is an independent consultant with Moats Associates, and she's also consulting advisor on professional development and research initiatives with Sopris West Educational Services. That's a mouthful. I'd also like to welcome our studio audience of educators and parents. They'll share their own questions for our guests near the end of the show. Thank you all for joining us. Dr. Neuman, let's start with you. We know that far too many of our kids struggle with reading, how are we doing teaching writing?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well, not as good as we'd like to. When we look at the national assessment of educational progress in writing we've seen some good news and some not so good news. The good is from 1998 to year 2002 we see some small growth in terms of grades four and eight in writing. However that's not the case for grade 12, so we have some work to do certainly in this area.
Delia Pompa: Well, what are the consequences for kids who don't learn to write well?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well, I think the consequences are just tremendous. First thing, we know that children really want to write, and that writing is what Arthur Appleby once called "thinking with a pencil." It's a premier way in which children think and express themselves in ideas. And it's also a way that children are very creative and they express their uniqueness. They indicate what they want. And so therefore as they get old writing will take on an increasing importance in their activities. And it's very important that they write and they write well and succinctly.
Delia Pompa: Sounds like it's a real 'personal outlet' for what you've learned.
Dr. Susan Neuman: Oh, yes.
Delia Pompa: How much confidence do we have in the research we have about writing? And I guess the question I really want to ask is is there a consensus about the best way to teach writing?
Dr. Susan Neuman: I don't think so. I think we… a while back we became very confident that the writing process was the key to helping children learn to grow as writers. What this has often translated to is giving children a great deal of opportunity to write and write from their own personal perspective. I think we've learned a lot about writing — both what writing process does and does not. And one of the key things that I think we've learned is that children really need good instruction to write better.
Delia Pompa: Well, can you break that down for us, the instruction? What are the components of a good writing instructional process?
Dr. Susan Neuman: I'll give you just a couple that I think are just key. And as you know, I work with young children, so I want to focus first on a couple of things.
Delia Pompa: Good.
Dr. Susan Neuman: First I think we need to setup an environment that supports writing. Often I go into a room and see no area for children to write. If you have an area where the tools are immediately available — you have writing paper, you have alphabet, you have dictionary, you have objects around there, a message board for example — that supports children's natural desire to want to learn how to write.
The second thing I think is just critical is that we encourage teachers to read like writers. So in other words, when they read stories they should point out some of the writing strategies that these writers are using very, very effectively. And so the child begins to look at reading in a different way, from a different perspective. And they can do that very early on.
I think another important thing that is just critical is that the teacher model good instruction. The very early on is that modeling that children will see. How she goes about writing. That they will learn from. And those models are really wonderful.
And finally, teachers need to give children lots of opportunity and practice, and that practice should accompany corrective feedback. So we can no longer just say "gee, this is wonderful; the child is trying to expressively write." We now need to know that we go back and we help that child form those letters and write accurately and correctly.
Delia Pompa: Sounds like there's a much more explicit instructional process than we've ever talked about before.
Dr. Susan Neuman: I think you're right.
Delia Pompa: What are the challenges teachers face, the biggest challenges they face in sort of carrying out this good writing instructional process?
Dr. Susan Neuman: I think there are a number of challenges. First thing, some of the schools of education frankly are a little bit culpable. We don't have many writing courses. We don't teach writing in many of our college courses, so many of these teachers will not have had experiences in learning how to write. A lot of teachers are also haven't been taught the genres of writing. We know for example that very early on children want to write informational writing. And we haven't focused enough on evaluation, on what is good writing for children and how can we support them and develop that even further.
Delia Pompa: Give us some more techniques that teachers can use, I mean because it sounds like there is a lot that teachers need to know about this.
Dr. Susan Neuman: Oh, I think there are a number of very simple strategies. First thing, I think that sometimes we use a morning message, and a morning message is a strategy that teachers will talk about what is happening in the class. And I would encourage the teachers to not just say it's a sunny and warm, it's a beautiful day outside, but use it as an opportunity to say something really exciting or ask a provocative question and let the children use and read that and want to answer that question.
Delia Pompa: Give us an example.
Dr. Susan Neuman: I think the children are very interested in what's happening in the country right now in terms of the presidential election. I find that children are eager to learn more about some of these characters that they hear a lot about in television. And children have really early on some very wonderful opinions about what's going on that we should listen and they can write more about. I think teachers really need to use information. Children want to learn, they are knowledge seekers.
And so a lot of opportunities they can just… let's just describe this and what it looks like and how it feels and how our experience is with it. So I think providing opportunities for them to learn about information and write about information. And I think also, finally, some teachers can use something simple we call innovations where they can take a favorite text like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and create a new text using the same model that the children have just heard. They can integrate new words and it can make those stories their own in a very special way.
Delia Pompa: You know, we hear an awful lot about writing across the curriculum.
Dr. Susan Neuman: Right.
Delia Pompa: What does that really mean and what does it look like in the classroom?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well I think writing across the curriculum is so critically important, even in areas like math. They can make their own math books, and measuring things. And they can write about all sorts of interesting activities. I think they can go on wonderful field trips and summarize their trips on the basis of… and put pictures and words together in very interesting ways. I think that children are fascinated early on with science.
And in classrooms, believe it or not, even at the pre-K level we use science notebooks where we do an experiment and then the child actually writes about the experiment after they've seen it. So we give the children the opportunity at the very earliest stage where they begin to realize that it is an expressive act and it's a meaningful act that helps them learn about content.
Delia Pompa: Well you alluded to this, but you're talking about fairly young children. So there is a place — I'm asking, I guess, is there a place for writing instruction before kindergarten?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Oh, very much so. Can I show you just this wonderful little journal
Delia Pompa: Of course; of course.
Dr. Susan Neuman: This is a little child, her name is Connie Chung. She's not the famous Connie Chung for many but she's my famous Connie Chung. She's Chinese and she's learning how to write. What the teacher does is everyday she gives her an opportunity to actually have a journal. But unlike so many journals where the children just take a picture and they just write what they want to, various letters here, what this teacher does is she captions every single story that the child is writing, and she says the words very slowly.
And so the child begins over time to see the difference between what she is writing and what the teacher is writing. And you'll see by the end that this story is increasingly well written because the child has had enormous opportunity to write, but also examples of having her writing in corrective form. So she's learning so much about letters, but she's also learning to express herself. And that's done at four years old for a second language learner.
Delia Pompa: You know we toss the phrase developmentally appropriate instruction around a lot, and I would guess that that's one example of it. But what does it really mean in terms of writing, if you're going to be developmentally appropriate in your instruction?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well I think that's a wonderful question.
Delia Pompa: Good.
Dr. Susan Neuman: And it's a great opportunity. I think one of the things that we know is that children really want to express themselves. One of the first things they do is they write their name, and its incredibility powerful for them. Because they're basically saying "I am me." But then the next phrase they often say is a wonderful phrase that we hear all the time, and that's "I love you." And that tells us that they want to use writing for communication. So what we do in the very early beginnings of writing is we provide every opportunity. We write recipes; we write lists. And the writing may not be conventional but it's conveying the idea that writing has a function and it's very important.
Now let me just say one other thing, and I think it's something I want to emphasize, and that is writing is different than handwriting. So in the very beginning children will dabble with a lot of interesting ways of writing. And we need to privilege that, and we need to focus on the meaning of what they're trying to say.
And composition and handwriting has a place in the early childhood curriculum, but we have to be careful because sometimes their hand muscles are not well-formed to write very small letters.
Delia Pompa: You've given us a lot to chew on. Let's go to some of our other guests.
Dr. Susan Neuman: Sure.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Graham, your work has been focused on kids with learning disabilities.
Dr. Steve Graham: Yes.
Delia Pompa: What's different about teaching writing to them?
Dr. Steve Graham: I want to emphasize four different things. One relates to how well kids who struggle with writing or kids who have learning difficulties do in terms of learning informally or incidentally, and I'll use spelling as an example of this. When we take a look at kids who struggle with spelling or are poor readers, one of the things that we find is that they don't learn as much new spelling through reading and/or writing. And so it puts them a little bit behind the eight ball. So there's this issue of how much you learn informally. And a lot of these kids don't pick up as much kind of on the fly, on the go. So it places a great emphasis often on more explicit teaching, something that Susan mentioned as well.
A second thing is is that a lot of kids who have learning difficulties also have difficulties with self-regulation. And so it's regulating their thoughts, regulating their behaviors. And one thing that writing is all about is regulation: planning, monitoring, evaluating, revising. Those are all things that are important to skilled writing, and those are things that kids often who have learning difficulties may not do or may not do effectively.
A third thing is that a lot of kids with learning problems often have an incomplete knowledge base or a fragmented knowledge base. Now how does that play out in writing? So if you think about a genre — like story writing — if you don't have a sense of the genre and the basic moves that you can make and the way things are put together, that puts you at a disadvantage in terms of constructing a good story. You have to have a box, so to speak, some structure to work out of. That allows you to become more creative.
So a fractured knowledge base is a disadvantage in this particular case. And then another thing that can be very difficult to overcome is motivation. One of the things that we often see with kids who struggle with writing is they develop an intense dislike for it. And the longer that goes on the more difficult it is to deal with. Now I presented these four things as if they're separate, but they're really not, they work together. So let me give a kind of real example of this. There was a young first grade, young lady that we had the opportunity to observe over a period of time. And in this case she was a kid who had difficulty with handwriting and spelling, and I'm not particularly picking on those. It could've been something else.
Delia Pompa: Sure.
Dr. Steve Graham: But she had so much difficulty with those skills that she would avoid writing whenever possible. So if she had three days to pick a writing topic she'd take three days, plus. As a result she didn't write very much. She also developed a pretty negative attitude towards writing. Now I still know this kid 20 years later, almost. And if you ask her about her views on writing she still has an intense dislike for it.
She's actually a pretty good writer at this point, so she was able to overcome some of those basic text transcription skills, pick up some of the other things that she needed, but she doesn't like to write. And I suspect that's going to remain with her throughout her life.
Delia Pompa: So it's a complicated process. Dr. Moats, what about parents? What role can they play in this whole process, and what kinds of things can they do at home to help with writing instruction?
Dr. Louisa Moats: I would advise parents to spend some time helping their kids get their thoughts together, organize what they want to say. Plan an approach to any assignment that they have, instead of just letting the kid sit there at the table and agonize into their pencil and get up and go to the refrigerator, which is what a lot of kids will do to avoid putting pen to paper.
When you think about it, writing is the most complicated language skill that any of us have to master. It takes the longest to master. And we have fewer people who eventually ever master it and more people who have difficulty with it than reading or other forms of language. So first of all, parents need to empathize with the fact that kids are having to work very hard to accomplish their writing assignments.
But think of front-loading; that's a metaphor that helped me and my kid a lot — front-loading. Have the child talk about what they're going to write about. Think about writing down the words they may not know how to spell that they know they're going to use in their composition or their assignment. Help them organize the main ideas or main points that they're writing about. And help them understand what goal of their assignment is. So all of those things that involve knowing where you're going and how you're going to get there are things that parents can do.
And then give a time limit. Some kids who have trouble with this will agonize for hours, and then the whole family is at war after an hour or two because writing is such a struggle. So put the timer on and then plan something more fun, and do the hard thing first. That's just a little behavioral management tool that we use. Do the hard thing first. So do the writing and get it out of the way, look forward to doing something else.
Delia Pompa: Thank you everyone, that's lot of information; many, many good chunks there. Now we're going to take a look at a first grade classroom in Connecticut where the teacher is keeping a close eye on her student's spelling.
Spinello & Class: "…the little yellow chicken thought he'd have a party."
Voice Over: The Mary T. Murphy Elementary School is located in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut.
Voice Over: First-grade teacher Carol Spinello turns a spelling lesson into something much more fun.
Spinello & Class: "'Welcome to my party' he said to his friends."
Spinello: Boys and girls, the next activity we're going to do using the story of The Little Yellow Chicken is you're going to plan your very own party.
Voice Over: As kids list things they'd like to bring to the party, Ms. Spinello analyzes spelling mistakes
Spinello: Balloons, good. You might have balloons at your party. What else?
Boy: Bumper cars.
Spinello: Bumper cars!
Voice Over: Spelling opens a remarkable window on a child's mind.
Dr. Louisa Moats: If we know how to look at a child's spelling we can tell what that child understands about word structure, about speech sounds, about how we use letters to represent those. And as it turns out ah, anything that is going to cause trouble with a child's reading will show up even more dramatically in the child's spelling and writing.
Voice Over: When a child comes up with an unconventional spelling, it's not always a sign of trouble. In fact, kids should be encouraged to try writing words as soon as they know some letters and letter sounds. As they make up spellings, they practice letter-sound connections.
Spinello Tell me what you hear when you say the beginning part. Let's do the "bump."
Spinello /B/ /um/ /p/.
Spinello What letters do you hear? Look at me first. What letters do you hear? /B/ /um/ /p/.
Spinello You have your B.
Spinello What makes the /um/ sound?
Voice Over: Ms. Spinello uses inventive spelling to coax her students to think hard about the sounds within words.
Spinello Good for you. Good for you. And listen to what's following that "u"… /B/ /um/ /p/. /B/ /um/ /p/. What letter is that? Mmmmm.
Spinello M. So let's try that again… /B/ /um/ /p/. So what two letters should go before the P.
Boy: U M?
Spinello U M. Good for you!
Voice Over: Working with a kid's first efforts at stringing letters together is a great way to make spelling seem like an engaging puzzle that can be solved with rules.
Dr. Louisa Moats: It is appropriate and in fact beneficial for young children in kindergarten and the beginning of first grade to sound out words they don't yet know how to spell because if they sound out a word and write it inventively they are exercising their phonemic awareness abilities. And using what they know about sounds and symbols.
Spinello What do we know about G as a letter? It's a tricky consonant. What do we know about it?
Boy: It makes two sounds.
Spinello It makes two sounds. It makes that hard sound and that soft sound. And I think you used it here for the soft sound.
Spinello Sitting with that child and saying to them, "Wow, I can see here that you know that g makes two sounds because I can see why you used the word g here." That is that teachable moment. That's when I can say to them, "you are right." That g is making that soft sound but in this case this does begin with the letter j.
Voice Over: Kids shouldn't get the idea that conventional spelling doesn't matter. But inventive spelling does help young readers discover spelling patterns on their own.
Spinello It sounded like a "j"
Voice Over: It's an important step on the path to becoming a good speller and, ultimately, a good reader.
Spinello Doing it on a worksheet isn't going to mean anything to that child but when it's in their writing, a piece that they own and that they're proud of, they're going to be more apt to listen to a particular lesson that pertains to what they need to spell that word correctly.
Delia Pompa: Well spoken, Dr. Moats. I'll bet a lot of adults join me in asking you, why is spelling so important?
Dr. Louisa Moats: Spelling is very important, and it's the poor relation in language arts instruction, in my opinion. It's important first of all because it's a courtesy to the reader to spell accurately and to write clearly. Secondly, from a scientific perspective spelling knowledge, in fact, is very closely associated with things you wouldn't think like reading comprehension. And some of the latest sophisticated studies that you can find, in scientific studies of reading and so on, really show that knowledge of spelling is a variable.
And knowing about words, being word-conscious, that's associated with knowing word meaning, it's associated with comprehension, and it's certainly associated with better writing. Those who can spell well and who learn to spell accurately as a foundational skill are more likely to write longer and better structured compositions as they move into the higher levels of written expression. So spelling is very important. And I'm glad I have a chance to respond to that video, which I had forgotten all about. And I can anticipate a question maybe about invented spelling.
Delia Pompa: Well, I was going to ask you, what's going on in the kids' heads when they're using invented spelling? Is that sort of related to phonemic awareness?
Dr. Louisa Moats: Absolutely. And I want to emphasize that when we talk about inventive spelling as a beneficial step for young children, what I mean by 'young' is four-year-olds and five-year-olds who have not yet entered into formal instruction. I believe much more strongly that kids will learn to spell better and faster, and learn the fundamental tools of writing, if we teach them explicitly from kindergarten on.
The best kindergarten writers I've seen has been in classrooms where teachers have decided from the get-go that those kids will learn how to spell the highest frequency words accurately instead of inventing them, and that they'll embark on a study of the structure of words from a phonological perspective and an orthographic perspective. What that means is that we start teaching them right away with the most common patterns of spelling are in the language.
And in order to do that, and this is where inventive spelling comes in, inventive spelling is really a diagnostic tool. It's very important that kids get to a point, and if they're taught well it should be by the middle of kindergarten, where they can put a good representation, a logical representation, for all of the sounds in words. And I, as a reader, can tell what they're trying to say because I can decode sound-by-sound or phonetically what they've tried to write.
When kids get to that point they're probably out of the woods when it comes to basic decoding skills and spelling skills. Because that is the most important foundational skill for being able to spell and decode — being able to segment the sounds in a word and be able to come up with a reasonable representation using their knowledge of letters. However, all this, it proceeds much more quickly if we teach kids directly what they need to know. And we have very good programs now that enable kids to get a really good head start on these skills.
Those kids who can form the letters because they've been taught, can identify the speech sounds because they've been taught, can spell accurately the high frequency words and the pattern-based words, are the ones who are more likely to write longer compositions with more detail and with more narrative structure or expository structure. Because writing is like juggling a lot of balls in the air. If you have automatic mastery of some of these basics then you can focus on the more demanding complex reasoning skills.
Delia Pompa: Let me ask you a couple of questions that might help our viewers understand this a little better. Can you give me first an example of something a teacher could decode and tell within the invented spelling what this child means? And then also can you tell us what a paper would look like written by a student who really is struggling with writing, what their invented writing would look like?
Dr. Louisa Moats: Okay.
Delia Pompa: How could you tell the difference between invented writing and struggling students?
Dr. Louisa Moats: All right. Let's take a couple of the words that were in the video. I couldn't see the video so I'm just imagining what the child was doing. If the child writes the word bump — and this is middle of kindergarten — writes the word bump with a B a U and a P, that's a very good inventive spelling for the middle of kindergarten. We can forgive not putting the M in because we know linguistically that that mmm sound disappears in the articulation of that word and it takes a little more instruction to get that across.
On the other hand, if the child wanted to write the word bump and put a P and some other letter, maybe an E or an A and just got one of the sounds that was in the word, maybe. And got it in the wrong place, that would be a warning sound to me that that child was not segmenting the sounds in that word mentally as the child was trying to write the symbols left to right. Or the word balloon, a good inventive spelling might be B, L, U, N. That would be a good inventive spelling; that would be good. But I don't want to stop there.
I want that child to progress to another level which is to be able to say B, A, L, OO and UN, five sounds, and then by first grade, to be able to know something about how each of those sounds is typically spelled.
Delia Pompa: Give us an example, specifically, how does a teacher move a child? What are the strategies to move a child from invented writing to the standard writing?
Dr. Louisa Moats: Okay. Well you need a sequence of lessons that's planned out. I do not advocate leaving this up to chance. I am not an advocate of just correcting kids as they do their own writing. But I do think a balanced approach, if I could use that word — that's not a word I often use. A balanced approach is one where… as with reading, a certain amount of the instructional time goes to developing fluency and accuracy with the component skills. And then a critical piece, that sometimes is ignored, is the application of those skills into writing that goes anywhere from a sentence to a story where there is some inventiveness required, there's an expressive component to that. So that's what a good writing program should encompass. But the spelling part of it should be planned out. We should not leave this to chance. There is an order in which we can teach the structure of language.
One of the most effective ways of teaching kids decoding is to teach it through spelling, through phoneme/grapheme correspondence. And the second emphasis there is not only the patterns, based on phoneme/grapheme correspondence, but also we want to teach kids about word origin. We want to teach them about the connection between spelling and word meaning. And we want them to master the most commonly used words in the language. And Dr. Graham, a number of years ago, put together a list with the most often used words in writing; 1994, which has I think up to the 3000 most commonly used words in writing.
I still refer people to that because practicing the most commonly used words and learning them is very important. The reason is this: if a child gets through first grade inventing words like "they" and "said," those habits are very hard to undo later on. And you talk to the fourth and fifth grade teachers who are tearing out their hair because kids are inventing "they" and "said." Those have to be practiced correctly and mastered at a level of automaticity.
Delia Pompa: You just took us from kindergarten to fourth grade.
Dr. Louisa Moats: Sorry.
Delia Pompa: No, no. At what point in the process do the errors become inappropriate and the sign of a bigger problem?
Dr. Louisa Moats: And that's a really good question. And I would inject here in this discussion that one of the things we know about spelling and the symbolic transcription part of written expression is that individuals vary a great deal in their aptitude for it. And we all know many bright, accomplished people who have never been able to learn how to spell. And it's been their nemesis for years. I've known professors, known medical doctors, lawyers.
So one thing we have to keep in mind is that dyslexia, which I think… and hallmark of dyslexia is poor spelling will begin to emerge and be a stumbling block for kids from first grade on. And they will not be able to remember the highest frequency words. They'll continue to try and invent those even though they've had good instruction and a lot of practice. They will continue to spell words in a dysphonetic way; that's a big term. And what it means is you look at the spelling, and you see that there isn't a good correspondence between the sounds that are in a word and the spelling. And that's the phonological problem that comes out. So it's a combination of inability to remember a letter sequence and difficulty with speech sounds, and just lack of awareness, lack of strategies for thinking about words.
Some people just can't be good spellers. In the twin studies in Colorado, the genetic determinant of spelling is as strong as it is for decoding, and it's a real hallmark of dyslexia. So we have to be forgiving as teachers and parents. We have to think, when this really emerges as a problem and we know the child has been taught and has had opportunities to learn and still can't remember and still struggles, then we have to really pay attention to what Dr. Graham was saying, which is we can't let that problem interfere with the person learning to compose as a tool for academic success.
Delia Pompa: Given… because you've covered a lot of different elements that go into good writing…
Dr. Louisa Moats: Yeah.
Delia Pompa: …and good writing instruction…
Dr. Louisa Moats: Yeah.
Delia Pompa: Given that you have to include all those mechanics, thinking, organization, vocabulary, all that, how does a teacher systematically assess a child's writing ability, especially in the early years?
Dr. Louisa Moats: I think as Dr. Neuman said very early on here, we do not have really good, widely used tools for assessing writing, especially in the early stages. We have some developing rubrics; there's a lot of debate about those. I have colleagues who feel strongly that we are expecting kids to do things that they aren't ready to do in written expression. So evaluation is tough. But basically what we have to do is decide on a rubric that does make sense in relation to the research we have and talk to kids.Make those expectations explicit and organize our instructional strategies and programs around explicit expectations for what we want them to do at certain grade levels and certain stages of development. And at the same time we have to adapt those for the individual variation that we're going to find. Again, this is the hardest skill to learn and the latest developing. It takes some people a long time just to get to the point where they can write a paragraph that makes sense and that is rendered in a way that's acceptable.
Delia Pompa: What should a teacher be looking for when she's assessing the writing skills of an English language learner, and I mean when they're writing in the second language?
Dr. Louisa Moats: Okay.
Delia Pompa: Their second language.
Dr. Louisa Moats: It's even more complicated when there is overlay of the first language on a second language. So, one of the things that will happen is the use of some sound-symbol constructions that may be a carryover from their first language into the second language. Like for a Spanish speaker, the use of the letter J, it's different in Spanish from English. So they'll be those kinds of issues.But the main issue will be that second language learners may learn some mechanical skills — and I don't really like that 'mechanical' word — but they may learn how to spell or fill in slots in a sentence without really knowing what the words mean. So meaning is much more of an issue. And what I would strongly advise is combining: oral language modeling; oral language expression; saying the sentences aloud in the paragraphs and the ideas; talking about the words; having the instruction be very interactive. Meaning there's a lot of dialogue and a lot of vocabulary instruction embedded in that writing lens.
Delia Pompa: Thank you, thank you very much. Dr. Graham, how can a teacher effectively individualize writing instruction for each of her students? That seems like a lot.
Dr. Steve Graham: I have a good friend who passed away, a guy named Michael Pressley, who's done a lot of studies taking a look at exceptional teachers and what they do. And one of the things that he saw in looking at these exceptional literacy teachers is that they have a common framework generally in their classroom, and they adapt within that framework. So one of the things that I think is important is that if you work out of a framework it provides some structure to what you're doing, and it makes it easier to make adaptations for individual students.It's very difficult to adapt for every single student in your classroom. I mean it's just simply an overwhelming program. So one of the things I think is very important is we have that structure, within that structure we make adaptations. Some teachers seem to be really good at doing this, and other teachers seem not to make much in the way of adaptations at all. And we want to help them do more of this, particularly for kids who struggle.
Delia Pompa: We've heard a lot, Dr. Neuman, about what teachers need to do. Are teachers up for that challenge? What are we doing about training them to teach writing, are we doing a good job?
Dr. Susan Neuman: I think we need to do more. I alluded to that before. But one of the things I think we've seen is that a lot of teachers themselves don't enjoy writing. And if you don't enjoy writing you tend to shy away from it. You tend to not provide opportunities for children to do it. But the other thing you tend to do is not evaluate children's writing very carefully. I've seen — and I've done this myself — where a child is writing and he's filled up an entire page and you say oh, this is great. And it may not be great.
And we need to take what that child has done and be able to transform that in a way that is a better piece of writing. And I think what it requires from teachers is to have a sense of the genre, more of the characteristics of the genre. So in other words, children… when they write stories, we need to be aware of the story genre and what constitutes a quality story: it has a beginning; it has challenge; it has events; it has a problem and it has a resolution. And we should look at children's writing to see if they conform to that genre.
The other thing I also suggested before is we need to give children much more opportunity to do information writing and by providing them with models. We can actually show them how to do that better. So I think one of the things that we have to do a little bit better is work on looking at that child's writing and making comments to improve that child's writing. And that will constitute where we have to really look at: what is the medium and what is the message.
Now I'm sure you had this happen when you were a child, but when I was a child I remember that red pen of the teacher, and she took it and she marked all over with that pen. And that pen was all about saying I didn't use capitals in the right way; I didn't have a period; I had a run-on sentence. And so initially that's what I thought writing was, about only spelling or those kinds of editing issues.
I think teachers really need to be sensitive to what the child is trying to say, and separate those two very carefully so that then she can go and look at the content, focus on the genre and the content, and then revise in terms of…
Delia Pompa: Digging even deeper than word count and grammar in some cases.
Dr. Susan Neuman: That's right; exactly.
Delia Pompa: Thank you everyone. Next we'll look into a classroom in Houston where students are discovering the adventure of writing.
Reichle: "Where have the unicorns gone? Into the flowery moment of dawn."
Voice Over: Lynn Reichle and her second-grade students are about to begin a writing adventure.
Reichle: And aren't her words just wonderful?
Voice Over: Developed at Columbia University, the framework Ms. Reichle uses is called The Writers' Workshop.
Reichle: She just didn't say that it went to a flower, did she? No. To a valley of flowers.
Voice Over: The tight link between reading and writing in this program appeals to Poe's Principal, Anne McClellan.
McClellan: The reason we chose our writing program is there's research out there that says we need to make writing real for the kids. And also to use best models and we thought why not connect the reading and writing which is what the research says and showcase the author's voice through wonderful pieces of literature.
Reichle: I would like to get some suggestions of what you are going to begin with today. Leila?
Leila: Where do leaves go when they blow away.
Reichle: Yeah, where do they go? Zach.
Zach: THE ENDLESS ANIMALS!
Rebecca: Where do shells go in the ocean?
Voice Over: Not all teachers present writing as explicitly as Ms. Reichle.
Foorman: A lot of teachers were not teaching writing. We began to investigate the few teachers that were and we saw not only were their children better writers but they were also better readers.
Voice Over: It's now time to move from planning to the next stage of writing: drafting.
Voice Over: The kids fan out and begin their own stories.
Voice Over: Most kids work alone, but Ms. Reichle is always available to help … and to introduce them to the next critical stage of writing: revising.
Girl 1: How could it leave me in shame? Although I know there's no one to blame, just like that, the seasons run by, bye bye spring, adios summer, that's a bummer.
Girl 2: Where do the bees run?
Girl 2: Eager to leave the deadly hum of silence, pass cities of waves, soaring in the air, past yesterday's cry of the rooster, past opposites of colors.
Reichle: Even though you repeated the word "past" a lot, it didn't make me want to stop hearing it, so that's good. I like that.
Girl 2: It just put an exciting touch to it.
Reichle: Yeah, yeah.
Voice Over: Ms. Reichle arms her students with powerful guidelines for editing-the final stage of writing.
Reichle: We're not going to use tired words, right? And you, you know what some of the tired words are, right? Jessica? Girl: Pretty.
Reichle: Pretty. What else?
Reichle: And that's where the literature comes in also. These books are filled with beautiful language and sophisticated words. And that also helps them to figure out another way to say it.
Girl: What if we need to use the tired words?
Reichle: If you need to use a tired word, I want you to think really hard another way you can say it.
Voice Over: For the kids the best part of Writer's Workshop is sharing their stories. And research shows that peer discussion helps them become better writers too.
Reichle (Voice Over): Did you circle your favorite line? Circle your favorite line. Your favorite one so far.
Boy 1: Where does time go? It goes into yesterday and then tomorrow, and then it goes into today. Where does time go? It ticks away in the day.
Girl 3: Where do shells go? In the deep ocean blue, in the bumpy lumpy sand, where do shells go?
Boy: Where have the Pegasus gone?
Voice Over: Writing is grueling for many children, but Writers' Workshop makes it inviting. With a structured approach and a gifted teacher like Ms. Reichle, these children are developing their skills-and even discovering that writing can be fun.
Reichle: I think how this helps the children--it makes them become life-long writers. It makes them comfortable; they have no inhibitions about writing.
Voice Over: These students are preparing for the challenges ahead, gaining the power to write their own happy endings.
Delia Pompa: Dr. Graham, that teacher did a terrific job. Those kids did some really good work and she seemed to really encourage their creativity. What can other teachers learn from her approach?
Dr. Steve Graham: I think there's a lot of things. One of the things that stands out right away is it was a very pleasant environment in which to be a writer. You know, kids got to interact with each other in positive ways. They interacted with the teacher in positive ways. They shared their writing. We want writing to occur in a pleasant environment where kids feel free to take risks. This looks like an environment in which they can do that.
A second thing that I think is very important in terms of what this particular teacher did is she made the connection between reading and writing. I think often starting off with reading as your starting point in writing as an entry point into a genre is very helpful because it gives a model of what you're trying to do. Now she is the professional author. You can also use kid's writing to do the same thing; you know, it can be very powerful in that sense. The other thing that she did that's very, very positive is that she emphasized process. So we see kids planning, thinking about their topic. We see them drafting, revising and editing, and along the way she provided some instruction. And I also like that kids got to share; because what's the purpose of writing if we're not sharing? That's the reason most of us write. It's not the only purpose, but it's a very important one for young kids.
Delia Pompa: Well, what are some other techniques that maybe we didn't see there, but that teachers can use to encourage young writers?
Dr. Steve Graham: Okay. One of the things that I thought was somewhat absent is that there wasn't as much focus on actually teaching kids how to carry out these processes. So things like planning and the actual process of revising, or thinking about what you're going to do when you're drafting, it's all up here, you know, it's not visible. So one of the things we saw was a little effort to make some of that visible, but not a concerted effort.
And so for something like planning more work on making that accessible by modeling how to do the process, providing some instruction where teachers and students work together, and then having students work together on that, I think could've been a boon to this particular group of kids. It'll make that process more visible, both for kids who struggle and also for kids who are pretty good writers to begin with.
Another thing that we didn't see that's also important to mention — I'm assuming that it's taking place in the background so we don't see it here — is that part of becoming a good writer is automatizing handwriting and spelling, becoming facile in sentence construction, and obviously, as I've already mentioned, becoming reasonably facile in terms of planning, revising, et cetera. So we don't see how that takes place here, and that's going to be an important component of that.
Also, we did show her focus in on using vocabulary and trying to use words that would help the message that you're trying to bring. You know, there's going to be other things like grammar and stuff like that that are going to pop up that we're also going to have to deal with as teachers.
Delia Pompa: You've focused a lot and written a lot about teaching writing to students with learning disabilities. What are some best practices that teachers can use in teaching writing to these kids?
Dr. Steve Graham: Okay. I'm going to start off on the transcription end, but it's not necessarily the most powerful of these. But one of the things that we often see with kids with learning disabilities — not all of them — but we see with many, is that they struggle with spelling and handwriting early on. And it has a number of negative consequences for them. One, if you can't read the message you can't get it. Second, if the message is illegible — if there's a lot of spelling miscues — people will devalue what you say. And third, difficulties in this area interfere with other writing processes.
So if you have to think about how to spell the word while you're trying to construct a sentence, it interferes with that sentence construction process. So one of the things that a number of people have found is that if we provide some extra attention to these skills — now I'm not talking about going crazy here, okay, because we want to have a balanced approach. We don't want to have writing instruction that's all handwriting and spelling for young kids. That would be disastrous in my opinion.
But if we provide some extra attention there it often pays off in very strong ways: kids' spelling gets better, their handwriting gets better, and there are carryover effects in terms of sentence construction, how much they write, and often in terms of the quality of what they write. So we get something back for our bucks, so to speak. The other area that I think is very important for us to focus in on is how you go about becoming facile in terms of forming sentences? And it's important that we model that process.
And a common way of doing that is to take smaller kernel sentences, model how to make those into more complex ones, have kids work with you to do the same thing, have kids work together, then have them apply that in their own writing. And the finally, I think something that's extremely important is that we help kids become familiar with how to carry out the processes involved in planning, revising, monitoring, evaluating. We show that directly. We help kids master those things, and we encourage them to use those things.
Delia Pompa: You know, all of you have talked about how many elements there are in good writing and good instructional process for teaching writing. Is there a difference between the approach you'd use to help students who are struggling with mechanics versus students who are struggling with putting concepts together, and how would you do it different?
Dr. Steve Graham: Okay. First the assumption is is that the two are not related, and actually they are. So kids who struggle with mechanics often don't create as much text. So it can be a cause on the text creation side. It can be an interfering factor. But I think the way that you'd go about this also is going to change somewhat depending upon the student. So if we think about a kid who struggles with mechanics, as a starting point I would provide some extra focus instruction to help kids move past that point. So with something like handwriting we're going to focus in on letter formation or fluency depending upon what the problems are there. With spelling it's going to be more complex.
There's also going to be some kids we're going to be looking for alternatives for by the time they start hitting second and third grade. So I'm going to use an example with my daughter. My daughter was a kid who struggled with spelling and handwriting mightily. And one of the things that happened was in second grade she started working on a word processor. Now she flies across the keyboard. Didn't help the problem that much, but it certainly helped…
Delia Pompa: Spell check.
Dr. Steve Graham: Well, the spell check may be not as powerful as we'd like to believe. But it really did help her in terms of the fluency issue.
And then for some older kids, sometimes word processing isn't the answer either. So sometimes in high school for these older kids we're looking at another compensatory technique which might be speech synthesis. And I didn't mention that with younger kids because they often have high squeaky voices and they're not very accurate with kids like that.
Now in terms of the content generation end, which you talked about, like I said, it may be a problem in part because of the mechanical end. I mean, obviously, if you struggle writing the words you're going to produce less. So that's one of the issues. But sometimes on the content end, it's a structure kind of thing or a knowledge kind of thing. If we ask kids to write about things they don't know a lot about then we put them at risk in terms of what we're hoping to see in the product. We need to teach them ways of organizing their ideas, how to get those ideas. So it's going to be a different focus. It's going to be on getting content and organizing it and thinking about it; and what will be useful in the paper and what will be useful for the reader to hear in terms of your purpose for the text.
Delia Pompa: What are some of the factors that lead to writing difficulty for children?
Dr. Steve Graham: One way of thinking about this — and this is not going to be a complete picture because we're still drawing this painting.
Delia Pompa: You're still figuring it out.
Dr. Steve Graham: Yeah, we're still figuring it out. And my guess is it'll change considerably over the next 10 to 15 years. I think one of the things that is very critical, and I'll start there, is that for kids who develop writing difficulties, I would say about two out of every three, and this is an estimate, start off with difficulties on the text transcription end: handwriting and spelling. They'll be doubled with problems in that area, but it's not every kid, okay, that has a writing problem. The other end of this is this kind of self-regulation, planning, organizing, monitoring and evaluating.
We see about two-thirds of kids that have difficulty with that. Now you're going to be saying Steve's math is pretty bad because that's one-and-a-third.
Delia Pompa: Well we're talking about writing, not math.
Dr. Steve Graham: Yeah. There's a group of kids in the middle, if we just keep this simple, that have difficulties with both of these. So we have some kids who primarily have a text transcription problem or basic skill problem, some kids who have a self-regulation problem, and some kids who have both of those. Now if you add on to that, the motivational overlay, those things play a role over time as well. But for each of these groups of kids, the motivation problems tend to be pretty persistent over time, but in a simplified way. That may be a useful framework for thinking about this.
Delia Pompa: Well you said we don't know everything thing and that we're going to have to wait another 10 or 15 years. But what research-based strategies do we have now that we know are effective with kids learning to write, and their handwriting in particular?
Dr. Steve Graham: Okay. I'm going to hold off on the handwriting for a second and come back.
Delia Pompa: Okay.
Dr. Steve Graham: One of the things that we know from research that is very effective, with both struggling writers and kids in general, is if we make explicit the processes of writing. We teach strategies for how to go about carrying out the process of writing, whether that be planning, revising, helping them learn to monitor what they're doing, setting goals. If we make those things explicit, we model how to do it, we help them acquire those skills and we encourage them to do it, it has a positive effect. And that can be done either by the teacher doing it or in combination with peers.
The other thing that we know is that if we make it really explicit, really clear what the goals are for the writing that we ask kids to do, guess what, they're more likely to do those things. That really probably shouldn't come as a surprise to us, but that's obviously the case. We also know that technology has a strong impact in terms of writing. So switching over to something like word processing allows you to move text easily, it's often very motivating for kids. And for some kids who have the text transcription problems it can be a great boon.
Teaching kids how to form sentences using models from reading is very important. Having kids do inquiry to get ideas for their writing can also have a positive affect. So we actually have a pretty good setup for things that we can do positively in terms of teaching writing.
Now I want to add one thing on to that because I don't want to forget this. The process approach that we just saw this teacher using, there's evidence that when teachers are well prepared to do that, it has a positive effect on the overall quality of their writing. And one of the reasons that I think that is, is because these teachers know what they're doing. They focus in on process; they're dedicated to teaching writing and they have tools that they bring to the task. So there's nothing that's going to replace in all these things that I mention, a well-prepared teacher. I think that's critical.
Delia Pompa: Well this leads right to the next question I had, which is Dr. Neuman, how do you help teachers that are finding teaching writing particularly challenging? What advice do you have for them?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well one of the things I think is very important is that they do writing themselves, that they actually plan and involve themselves in writing, and actually have a writers club amongst themselves. We have seen teachers transform dramatically on the basis of just having a regular time to write, to talk about their writing, and it has multiple effects. They become teacher/researchers. They become interested in the process themselves.
So I think one of the things that's very important is that teachers will have to self-teach themselves in many respects because, again, we haven't had a great deal of attention in our pre-service education. I think they can also learn a great deal from one another, effective strategies that work for them. I think providing time every single day to have children write is really essential, that if you look at many of the curricula right now, so much time is spent on reading that we often forget that reading and writing are very important. So having a regular time in that schedule where teachers provide time for writing is really essential, I think.
Delia Pompa: Well thank you everyone, this has been so informative. And I know our audience has a lot of questions. So let's go to them; it's time to take some questions from them. Go ahead.
FS: Hello. My question is where can we find a specific scope and sequence of writing skills that should be taught and mastered in grades K through 12?
Dr. Steve Graham: I'll volunteer Susan for that question. [laugh] You know it's a really difficult question. There is no fully developed scope and sequence that exists yet. I mean each state has their own scope and sequence. And I'm going to use California as an example, because they are so influential. And honestly, for anybody from California I don't mean to pick on you. But if you look at second grade in California they emphasize two kinds of writing; writing a personal letter and writing a personal narrative. Those are important, I mean no doubt about it. But where is informative writing, where is writing stories, where is the other kinds of writing that we typically look at?
So one place that we can look is to look at the state guidelines which are often incomplete. You know, a second place to look — because basal series have to, in a sense, be cognizant across a large number of states — is to take a look at basal series to look for the types of things that they emphasize in each grade level. But you have to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt because they're trying to satisfy 50 masters, so to speak. So they got everything in the kitchen sink in there. So if you can separate out a little bit the wheat from the chaff, then I think that may be a place where you could look as well.
Delia Pompa: Thank you. Did anybody want to add anything to that?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well, I just wanted to add a little bit to what Steve has said. I know of no particular scope and sequence. In fact I did an analysis of state standards in reading/writing across all the states. And I'm afraid to say that there are very different sequences and very different requirements across the state. And so I think what is really critical, however, is that teachers must develop a sequence and plan for how to teach writing. That 'hit or miss' — we're going to do a letter one day, we're going to do informational text another day — will not work. Teachers must really delve into each genre and be sure to teach it both as a genre and the mechanics that are associated with each.
Delia Pompa: That sounds like a challenge with little guidance for teachers. Dr. Moats, did you want to say something?
Dr. Louisa Moats: I think there are few materials and programs out there that embody a very systematic approach that are very useful if you're teaching writing for the first time and you need a good model for how to approach it. And I'll tell you after the show is over what I think some of those things are.
Delia Pompa: Well that's something to look forward to. We have another question.
FS: Hi. My question is how much different of a process for the brain is writing on paper versus on the computer?
Dr. Steve Graham: That's a tough question because I don't think we really know much about what happens in the brain with writing, where we do know a little bit — and I would emphasize a little bit — with reading. We don't know as much as writing. But let me take it in a slightly different direction. I think if you're a skilled writer, there's probably not a whole lot different going on. And sometimes if you're a struggling writer, there's not a whole lot of difference going on. So why am I saying that is a way to think about this?
We sometimes we see kids… I mean one of the advantages to word processing is your ability to revise, move text, change it very easily. We often see kids who are struggling writers. They approach the word processor much like they approach their written text: I'm going to change a little something here; I'll try to get this spelling error here, et cetera. So if you come to the process to a word processor with that view point then it's not going to differ very much.
However, we have seen kids who come at word processing with the idea that they can use the tool, and they know how to use it, and in a sense it frees up much of the writing process, particularly on the revising and editing end. So one of the things that we see, many more revisions on the upfront during drafting than we see when kids do it by hand — maybe not surprising cause it's easy to do it.
Delia Pompa: Thank you very much. I know everyone has something to say, but we really want to get as many questions in as we can. And we have another question from the audience.
FS: Good afternoon. My question deals with the new wave in our culture with text messaging and instant messaging. Our students are on their computers and their cell phones all the time. What impact do you see on our students reading, writing, spelling development through this slang and this text language that they've developed?
Delia Pompa: Dr. Moats, you want to take a stab at that?
Dr. Louisa Moats: It's not helping. Because kids are spending a lot more time practicing what was essentially a different form of language and communication, and practicing conventional writing skills less that they need in an academic setting. But I'm probably showing my age here and I think the key problem for teachers is getting across to kids that conventional writing skills embody a whole different set of conventions that they're going to have to learn. I don't know. Anybody else?
Dr. Steve Graham: Do you mind if I make a comment? I would turn it on its head. I've had this conversation before and one teacher said you know what we do in our classrooms, is we have kids do something with text messaging as a starting point for our writing. Then the idea is that they work on it to make it into something more formal so that they learn more about this code switching. So we can take what they do now — which they're very motivated to do — and use it as an instructional tool.
Delia Pompa: Well we've certainly had a 21st century question there. Let's take another question from the audience.
MS: Hi. Over the years the focus on writing instruction have shifted from product to process. What does that mean to the classroom teacher?
Delia Pompa: Dr. Neuman?
Dr. Susan Neuman: Well I think that's a fascinating question. I think what… and probably it's a little bit controversial. I'll tell you where I think it has gone. I think we originally thought of a product, meaning how much text is actually on the paper. And as long as the paper was filled it was okay. Then we went to writing as a process, focusing on thinking, and planning, and revision, and editing. I think we now have to return a little bit to a more balanced approach where we think about the process, but we also think about the product.
Louisa Moats was describing before a thing that I see quite frequently where I go into a school. I see a lot of invented spelling on walls, you know, as we walk past. I call it developmental writing. Because developmental writing/invented spelling was really designed as a mirror, a window into the child's mind of what they were thinking. But that was not a final product. And I think one of the things that we want to re-invigorate is this notion that there is correct writing and spelling. And so the wonderful process that the children go through, eventually they have to have correct form. And when I go through the hallways, even for kindergarten children, I want to see correct spelling, and construction that looks like good writing.
FS: And product.
Dr. Louisa Moats: And product.
Delia Pompa: Good, thank you. We have another question.
FS: Yes. The process of writing requires the use of a lot of automatic operations: spelling, grammar, structure. To what extent do all of those requirements restrict a child when it comes to creative expression, such as journaling or stories?
Delia Pompa: Who wants to take that?
Dr. Louisa Moats: I'd like to take that on. There really isn't any evidence that an emphasis on handwriting and spelling restricts or inhibits creativity or the expressive aspects of writing. And if a program is well designed, in fact, what the end result… the products that children generate are likely to be better formed and lengthier if they've mastered handwriting and spelling conventions.
It's work at the University of Washington, for example, and work that Dr. Graham has done, they've generated a number of studies that show that this is a kind of myth that teaching kids handwriting and spelling and sentence mastery is somehow an inhibition to better writing composition.
So the trick, however, is to have a complete program of instruction. And one of the formats for doing that is to have, say, a 40-minute writing lesson in which the first 15 or 20 minutes are devoted to skill development, and then the next half is devoted to the more creative aspects of writing whatever the assignment is, whether it's expository writing or narrative writing or poetic writing or sentence manipulations. And it's not "either, or." And we have to get away from this kind of dichotomous thinking that skills somehow inhibit writing.
Delia Pompa: Thank you. And thank you to our studio audience.
FS: Thank you.
Delia Pompa: Before we finish up here, I'd love to get a final thought from each one of our panelists. We'll start with you, Dr. Neuman.
Dr. Susan Neuman: Thank you. It somewhat reflects that last question. We have this notion… we have this notion that writing has to be creative. And good writing is always a creative expression involving imagination. But one of the things I just want to strongly support is that inevitably good writing — when the child grows up and goes into work — is informational in nature, and descriptive, and accuracy. And so I think what Louisa said was very important in emphasizing a couple of things. One, I think we should move to, moving toward more strategies for informational writing.
And secondly, I think we had the notion of providing mini-lessons. And I would like to get away from the notion of mini-lessons to maxi-lessons to focus more on: there are skills that children need in order to be successful in writing. And I think that's really important to emphasize.
Delia Pompa: Thank you. Dr. Moats, leave us with a thought.
Dr. Louisa Moats: Well I agree fully with all that my colleagues have said. And I think what I would add is that we have to ask why are we in this pickle, and I think we're in a pickle educationally with too few kids who are proficient writers, that's what our national data are showing. How did this come to pass? It came to pass because in some respects we had a very successful National Reading Panel report that told us about essential skills of teaching reading. And many of our schools have worked hard to implement the policies that have emanated from that report for the better.
We're doing a better job teaching reading. But it was a mistake, it was a mistake to separate writing from reading. We have to bring these back together again and have educators understand and practice the understanding of the unity of these language functions, their interrelationships, and the common denominators. So I think that's where we're moving now and that's why we're here today.
Delia Pompa: Thank you. Dr. Graham, your thoughts?
Dr. Steve Graham: Mine's going to be a little unusual: don't 'pee' in the classroom — post, explain and expect (P.E.E.). What often happens, or what we often see, is that teachers will describe something to students, they'll explain it, and then they'll expect it. So we want to show, we want to do it with them, and we want to bring them to mastery on it so they can do it by themselves.
The other thing that I want to point out as a last thought is writing's all about writing, I mean that's the end game. Kids have to write if they're going to improve. It's not enough. But we want to be sure that kids are writing at every grade level. We want them to write in narrative, we want them to write in expository, we want them to choose their own topics, but we want them to be excited about writing. That's the end point here, just like we want kids to be excited about reading.
Delia Pompa: Thank you all so much. And thank you for joining us for this Reading Rockets webcast. For more information about how you can help the struggling readers in your lives please visit us at the Web: www.readingrockets.org. And while you're there, please let us know what you thought about this program. Click on "webcast" to find our online survey. Again, thank you for joining us and take care.