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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Research Matters / Is Process Writing the “Write Stuff”?

Those of us who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s recall that with the exception of the occasional history term paper, we were not expected to write much outside English class. Generally, our writing consisted of essays about literature, which a teacher marked for errors, graded, and returned. Instruction in grammar and writing conventions usually took place separately, unrelated to the writing we did. Research conducted at the time provided evidence that this kind of disconnected instruction in discrete skills did not produce good results, but researchers could not yet come up with alternatives (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963).
Things have changed. Writing is now taught in subjects across the curriculum. It is an independent category in state and national standards and is assessed on state, national, and international achievement tests. In addition, researchers have developed a consensus on the most effective approach to writing instruction. Best known as process writing, this approach emerged from researchers' study of the steps that accomplished writers engage in as they write: planning and organizing ideas, translating ideas into text, and reviewing and revising the result (Flower & Hayes, 1981).
This research was translated into instructional guidelines for five stages of the writing process: (1) engaging in prewriting tasks; (2) creating an initial draft; (3) revising the text; (4) editing for conventions; and (5) publishing or presenting a polished final draft. Teachers implement instruction in these stages through such practices as conducting writers' workshops, having students complete multiple drafts of their papers, holding frequent individual and small-group conferences with students, and encouraging peer review of written products.
Even as process writing has become an established practice during the past 20 years, research has advanced into new areas. We now see writing not just as a process taking place inside an author's head, but as a collaborative act influenced by complex and interrelated social factors (Atkinson, 2003; Sperling & Freedman, 2001). Researchers have conducted many small-scale case studies, frequently at the classroom level (Langer, 2001). These studies are informative, but teachers may find it difficult to apply their findings to other classrooms and situations. Unfortunately, large-scale, formal evaluations of the effectiveness of writing instruction, including process writing, are rare (Stahl, Pagnucco, & Suttles, 1996).

What We Know

One large-scale data set may cast light on the effectiveness of certain aspects of process writing. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been administering a test of writing to large national samples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 for many years, including 1992 and 1998. In addition to analyzing test responses, NAEP researchers reviewed answer forms to see how students had used a page that was set aside for prewriting activities. Students also completed a background questionnaire about the instructional methods used in their writing classes. Combined, these data sources suggest effective instructional practices in writing.
The 1992 survey asked students how much emphasis their teachers placed on several writing practices that characterize process writing. NAEP found that students who reported greater use of these activities had higher average writing scores (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996). For example, students in all three grades who had engaged in any kind of prewriting activity scored significantly higher than those who did not.
On the 1998 assessment, 80 percent of the students in the sample reported regularly engaging in process writing activities, indicating how firmly this approach has been institutionalized in U.S. schools. Again, process writing instructional practices were associated with higher test scores. For example, examination of the prewriting page showed that two-thirds of 8th and 12th graders who used prewriting for at least one of the two test prompts had higher average writing scores than those who did not. In addition, students in grades 8 and 12 who reported that their teachers “always” asked them to write multiple drafts and plan their writing achieved comparatively higher scores (Greenwald, Persky, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999).

What We Can Do

  • Planning the writing;
  • Making a formal outline before drafting;
  • Defining the purpose and audience;
  • Using resources other than the textbook; and
  • Writing more than one draft of a paper.
Therefore, the results of the NAEP surveys offer reassurance to teachers who use a process writing approach that includes these five practices. The results suggest that students trained in process writing may transfer their writing skills and strategies successfully to such on-demand situations as the NAEP's 25-minute essay.

Educators Take Note

We cannot conclude from the NAEP analyses that students' higher average scores were necessarily caused by their engagement in process writing practices (Hedges, Knonstantopoulos, & Thoreson, 2003). The practices delineated by NAEP surveys may mask other program effects, such as a simple increase in the amount of time spent on writing. Further, because NAEP is not designed to test alternative approaches to instruction, even if process writing is effective, students might become good writers using other approaches as well.
The current body of evidence provides only cautious support for process writing instruction. In fact, one small-scale study that compared process-oriented and traditional instructional approaches concluded that “once reading ability was accounted for, [students'] writing ability . . . was surprisingly unaffected by the different instructional programs” (Stahl et al., 1996, p. 142). Certain school practices in one program, such as heightened academic expectations and pressure to cover more material in reading instruction, did appear to have an indirect effect on writing ability. However, these were general practices that one might expect to find in either a process-oriented or a traditional approach.
By focusing attention on an area of instruction that often has been overlooked, the process writing approach has had a significant impact on U.S. education. Even if only tentatively supported by research, the principles of process writing provide guidance to teachers on potentially effective instructional practices. Future research focused on the contextual and social variables that influence how students acquire writing skills, combined with more rigorous evaluation of instructional approaches, will build the evidence base that educators need to teach the “write stuff.”

Atkinson, D. (2003). L2 writing in the post-process era: Introduction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12, 3–15.

Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). Research in written composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Flower, L. S., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365–387.

Greenwald, E., Persky, H., Campbell, J., & Mazzeo, J. (1999). NAEP 1998 writing report card for the nation and the states. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Hedges, L., Knonstantopoulos, S., & Thoreson, A. (2003). NAEP validity studies: Computer use and its relation to academic achievement in mathematics, reading, and writing (NCES 2003-15). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Langer, J. (2001). Beating the odds: Teaching middle and high school students to read and write well. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 837–880.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1996). Can students benefit from process writing? (NCES 96-845). NAEP-FACTS, 1(3). Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs96/web/96845.asp

Sperling, M., & Freedman, S. W. (2001). Research on writing. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed.). (pp. 370–389). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Stahl, S., Pagnucco, J., & Suttles, C. W. (1996). First graders' reading and writing instruction in traditional and process-oriented classes. Journal of Education Research, 89(3), 131–144.

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