Writing to learn: Instilling college ready writing skills

We have a national writing crisis and our teachers are not to blame

Today, the mastery of writing is critical for success in school, college, and in the vocational, business, and professional workplace. Teachers in K-12 schools across the nation hear their students express fear and loathing of writing – overwhelmed by the writing process and not knowing where to get started.  

Simply put, we have a National writing crisis and our teachers are not to blame. Some teachers enter the classroom without readiness to effectively teach their students how to write and develop positive attitudes toward writing. These teachers need guidance to help their students develop college ready writing skills – proactively adopting writing strategies that provide students with the motivation to take personal responsibility for their own writing.

That said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. SRSD Online Writing to Learn is accelerating the trajectory of students who are now more fully engaged in both traditional and creative writing. SRSD was established several years ago by Karen Harris and Steve Graham of Arizona State University who have spent decades researching Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) instructional model strategies. These tools provide teachers and students with evidenced-based writing strategies that serve as a key gateway to enhanced learning outcomes. Significantly, Harris and Graham have connected with hundreds of teacher and college faculty colleagues who have published books and research studies – read as, independently validating the positive impact these outcomes-based instructional strategies have on thousands of students. With future adoption of SRSD in whole schools, students have the opportunities to enhance their writing aptitude and mastery, as well as develop college ready writing skills – closing the gap of our National writing crisis.

Harris put it nicely this way: “we completed a meta-analyses of all the meta-analyses of SRSD and news is very good. SRSD has been recognized in Writing Next as having the single largest effect of any researched approach to writing instruction. We tend to get effect sizes that are, as Steve Graham calls them, dancing on the moon size: 0.8, to 1.2. SRSD is also programmed to achieve generalization so it is not so much learning to write as it is writing to learn.”

By way of illustrative example, four school districts in New England assessed 2nd grade level writing proficiency. Prior to the SRSD experiment, grade level writing proficiency was measured at an average of 29% among the four school districts. Following implementation, the average increase in grade level writing proficiency was 51%, with an average of 80% proficiency amongst the four school districts.   

Robert Reid of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln indicated “the most eye opening thing about SRSD is that, when it’s done correctly, it works. I’ve been teaching SRSD for over 20 years and I’ve literally never had a student fail to improve. It works because SRSD is scientifically based on 50 years of research in cognitive science and educational psychology. So you shouldn’t be surprised that it works.”

Debra McKeown, an SRSD Researcher and Professor at Georgia State University shared a powerful story about a “little boy who just didn’t write. And after he learned just one single strategy of SRSD he turned into a writer and, by the end, he said, “I want to be an author”. He had a lot of ideas but he just didn’t know how to get them on paper academically. SRSD gave him the structure to get his stories out of his head.”

SRSD strategies consist of 6 recursive stages that are essential for the progressive release of responsibility form the teacher to the student, which provides self-starting motivation for students to take personal responsibility for their writing. These stages consist of Activate and Background Knowledge, Discuss It, Model It, Memorize It, Support It, and Independent Performance, with several tasks associated with each stage.

We learned from SRSD Online Writing to Learn Co-Founders Randy Barth, Chuck Holland, and Sandra Jones that SRSD “collected years of advice from leading researchers and blended in our model of whole school delivery to facilitate a national, scalable writing to learn model. With emerging technology we can now bring the training and advice from mentors direct to teachers as they need it, and follow with advanced training as both students and teachers progress.”

Today, SRSD Online Writing to Learn has heighted aspirations to support all teachers by providing creative writing tools to motivate their students to take personal responsibility for their writing in the 21st Century.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. 


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