What Factors Affect Writing Performance?

According to data from the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 28% of fourth graders, 31% of eighth graders, and 24% of twelfth graders performed at or above a proficient (i.e., competent) level of writing achievement for their respective grade level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). There are several reasons why so many children and youth appear to find writing challenging, which reflect the nature of written expression, changing student demographics, instruction, and individual student characteristics.

Nature of Written Expression

Composing text is a complex and difficult undertaking that requires the deployment and coordination of multiple affective, cognitive, linguistic, and physical operations to accomplish goals associated with genre-specific conventions, audience needs, and an author’s communicative purposes. Even prolific authors find writing challenging. Gene Fowler, celebrated author, editor, and journalist, epitomized the inherent difficulty of composing with his comment, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Student Demographics

Many more students today come from impoverished homes, speak English as a second language, and have identified or suspected disabilities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). This increasing diversity of the school-aged population has occurred within the context of the standards-based education movement and its accompanying high-stakes accountability testing. As a consequence, more demands for higher levels of writing performance and for demonstration of content mastery through writing are being made of students and their teachers, while teachers are simultaneously facing a higher proportion of students who struggle not only with composing, but also with basic writing skills.


The quality of instruction students receive is a major determinant of their writing achievement (Graham & Harris, 2002), and the quality of instruction varies dramatically (cf. Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Christenson, Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & McVicar, 1989; Palinscar & Klenk, 1992; Westby & Costlow, 1991). In some classrooms, students are taught by exemplary educators who blend process-embedded skill and strategy instruction with writing workshop elements such as mini-lessons, sustained writing, conferencing, and sharing (e.g., Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Troia, Lin, Cohen, & Monroe, in preparation; Wray, Medwell, Fox, & Poulson, 2000). Yet, for students with disabilities who tend to develop or exhibit chronic and pernicious writing difficulties, even this type of instruction may be inadequate. What these students need is considerably more intensive, individualized, and explicit teaching of transcription skills and composing strategies that incorporates effective adaptations to task demands, response formats, student supports, and teacher practices (Troia & Graham, 2003).

Individual Student Characteristics

According to Troia (2002) and Troia and Graham (2003), many poor writers possess limited knowledge about writing, have underdeveloped writing skills, and exhibit weak motivation to write. With respect to writing knowledge, struggling writers: (a) are less knowledgeable about text structure organization, (b) know fewer strategies for accomplishing writing tasks, (c) know less regarding the topics about which they are asked to write, (d) have impoverished linguistic knowledge (e.g., phonemic awareness, vocabulary, word structure, and sentence structure), and (e) tend to be insensitive to the needs and perspectives of their audience. As for skill deficits, they often (a) have difficulty producing age-appropriate spelling, handwriting, capitalization, and punctuation, (b) do very little meaningful planning or revising, and (c) fail to self regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout the writing process. Finally, in terms of motivation, poor writers: (a) exhibit maladaptive attributions, attributing academic success to external and uncontrollable factors such as task ease or teacher assistance but academic failure to internal yet uncontrollable factors such as limited aptitude, (b) demonstrate negative self efficacy (competency) beliefs, and (c) lack persistence. These characteristics of poor writers must be dealt with head-on by teachers if these students are to become competent writers.

What Are the Key Attributes of Strong Writing Instruction?

In order for teachers to support the development of all students’ writing abilities, certain qualities of the writing classroom must be evident. There are ten attributes of effective writing instruction that constitute the foundation of any good writing program (see Atwell, 1998; Calkins, 1994; Culham, 2003; Elbow, 1998a, 1998b; Graves, 1994; Spandel, 2001; Troia & Graham, 2003):

  • an established routine that permits each student to become comfortable with the writing process and move through the process over a sustained period of time at his/her own rate
  • a focus on authentic writing tasks and meaningful writing experiences for personal and collective expression, reflection, inquiry, discovery, and social change
  • a common language for shared expectations and feedback regarding writing quality (e.g., traits)
  • explicit instruction designed to help students master craft elements (e.g., text structure, character development), writing skills (e.g., spelling, punctuation), and process strategies (e.g., planning and revising tactics)
  • procedural supports such as conferences, planning forms and charts, checklists for revision/editing, and computer tools for removing transcription barriers
  • a sense of community in which: (a) risks are supported; (b) children and teachers are viewed as writers; (c) personal ownership is expected; and (d) collaboration is a cornerstone of the program
  • integration of writing instruction with reading instruction and content area instruction (e.g., use of touchstone texts to guide genre study, use of common themes across the curriculum, maintaining learning notebooks in math and science classes)
  • a cadre of trained volunteers to respond to, encourage, coach, and celebrate children’s writing, which helps classroom teachers give more feedback and potentially individualize their instruction
  • resident writers and guest authors who share their expertise, struggles, and successes so that children and teachers have positive role models and develop a broader sense of writing as craft
  • opportunities for teachers to upgrade and expand their own conceptions of writing, the writing process, and how children learn to write, primarily through professional development activities, but also through being an active member of a writing community (e.g., National Writing Project)

All of these attributes must be in place to form a comprehensive writing program for students. These qualities of exemplary writing instruction are equally relevant for elementary and secondary teachers, regardless of content area focus, and their young writers. If students are expected to become competent writers, then writing instruction must be approached in similar ways by all teachers who expect writing performance in their classrooms and must be sustained across the grades to support students as they gradually become accomplished writers.

What Do I Need to Do to Create An Effective Writing Program?

Establish Routines

A major step in implementing an effective writing program is to establish routines for (a) daily writing instruction, (b) covering the whole writing curriculum, and (c) examining the valued qualities of good writing. A typical writing lesson will have 4 parts:

  • a teacher-directed mini-lesson during which writing skills, strategies, and craft elements are demonstrated and practiced;
  • a quick check-in to establish at what stage of the writing process each student is and what each student plans to accomplish during that day’s writing period, including how he or she intends to incorporate information from the mini-lesson;
  • sustained time for authoring and conferring; and
  • an opportunity for students to share their work with others and receive feedback on their ideas and writing Coverage of the writing curriculum also should be guided by a carefully orchestrated routine. One type of routine includes genre study (others might include author study or writing trait study). In genre study, each instructional cycle focuses on a single genre (e.g., poetry) and one or two particular forms of that genre (e.g., cinquain and haiku). To develop a strong sense of the genre, a genre study cycle typically lasts about a marking period. For primary grade students, it is advisable to begin genre study with a highly familiar genre, such as personal narrative, so that students have an opportunity to become accustomed to the activities associated with genre study. For any genre of instructional focus, teachers need to:
  • develop students’ explicit understanding of the genre structure, perhaps using a graphic aid or mnemonic (e.g., for narratives, SPACE = Setting, Problems, Actions, Consequences, Emotions)
  • share touchstone texts that exemplify the structure and valued traits (perhaps solicit suggestions from students)
  • give students time to explore potential seed ideas for writing through reflection, discussion, and research (writing notebooks are helpful for accomplishing this)
  • identify and teach key vocabulary/phrases and leads that will help students create texts that “sound” like those written by authors
  • provide students with graphic aids for planning their texts
  • have students flash-draft parts of their papers to diminish their reluctance to revise
  • allow enough time for students to proceed through multiple iterations of revising and editing before publishing the finished product

Finally, students need to develop an understanding of the valued aspects or traits of good writing and the capacity to incorporate these traits into their writing. Developing a routine for communicating about specific writing qualities is essential to the success of a writing program. A number of resources are available to help teachers do this (e.g., Culham, 2003; Spandel, 2001). The most commonly taught writing traits are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. These closely resemble the dimensions on which many state-mandated accountability measures assess writing achievement (i.e., content, organization, style, and conventions). It is probably better to limit the number of traits that receive instructional focus at any given time to one or two; the decision regarding which traits are targeted should be guided by the genre and form of writing being taught as well as students’ needs.

Teach Writing Skills and Strategies to Accommodate All Students

Even when predictable routines are firmly established in the classroom, some students will require additional assistance in mastering the skills and strategies of effective writing. Such assistance can be provided through adaptations, which include accommodations in the learning environment, instructional materials, and teaching strategies, as well as more significant modifications to task demands and actual writing tasks. Elementary school teachers must explicitly teach spelling and handwriting to their students (this is not to say that secondary educators do not address these, but they do so to a much lesser extent). For students with disabilities and other struggling writers, more extensive practice and review of spelling vocabulary and letter forms and the thoughtful application of other adaptations (e.g., individualized and abbreviated spelling lists, special writing paper) by the teacher will be required. Whether teaching spelling or handwriting, certain curriculum considerations should be addressed, including sequencing skills or grouping elements (words or letters) in developmentally and instructionally appropriate ways, providing students opportunities to generalize spelling and handwriting skills to text composition, and using activities that promote independence.

Students who struggle with writing, including those with disabilities, typically require explicit and systematic instruction in specific composing strategies, especially those that support the planning and revising aspects of the writing process, which happen to be the most troublesome for these students. Fortunately, there have been numerous studies that have examined the effectiveness of various planning and revising strategies for students with and without high-incidence disabilities in multiple educational contexts (i.e., whole classrooms, small group instruction, individualized tutoring). Two excellent resources that describe this research and give advice on how to teach the many available strategies are, “Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties,” (Graham & Harris, 2005) and “Making the writing process work: Strategies for composition and self-regulation” (Harris & Graham, 1996). The teacher should first model how to use the strategy, and then give students an opportunity to cooperatively apply the strategy while producing group papers, and finally let students practice using the strategy while writing individual papers. Throughout these stages of instruction, the teacher should provide extensive feedback and encouragement, discuss how to apply the strategy in diverse contexts, solicit students’ suggestions for improvement, and directly link strategy use to writing performance.

Integrate Writing Instruction with Content Area Learning

Teachers often feel that devoting ample time to writing instruction is problematic given the voluminous content area information that must be covered in the typical curriculum (Troia & Maddox, 2004). Simultaneously, they sometimes struggle to identify relevant and stimulating writing topics and assignments that will help students develop their expertise as writers. One way to resolve these dilemmas is to integrate writing instruction with content area learning. One important aspect of content area learning is developing communicative competence for interacting with others who have shared knowledge about a discipline or area of study. Individuals within a discipline—such as literary critics, historians, economists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians—possess a unique way of talking and writing about the theories, principles, concepts, facts, methods of inquiry, and so forth connected with that discipline. Thus, a common goal of content area instruction and writing instruction is to help students acquire proficiency in disciplinary writing. This does not mean, however, that less content-driven writing exercises are undesirable or unnecessary; the inclusion of disciplinary writing is simply one part of a strong writing program. If teachers have students write regularly in content area classes and use content area materials as stimuli for writing workshop, it is more likely that students will develop the capacity to communicate effectively in varied disciplinary discourse communities and will write for more educationally and personally germane purposes.

There are a number of very simple ways to encourage content-relevant writing on a frequent basis in a social studies, science, or mathematics class. For example, the teacher can ask students to produce a one-minute closing paper (on an index card) at the end of each lesson in which they: pose a genuine question about the topic studied that day, identify the key point from the content materials reviewed, summarize a discussion, or develop a question that might be used for a class test. Journaling is another vehicle for writing across the curriculum. In science class, for example, students can be asked to describe what was done, why it was done, what happened, and why it happened. In math, students might record the specific problem-solving procedures they employed for the problems assigned, why these were effective or ineffective, and advice they would offer to other students faced with the same math problems. In social studies, students can keep a diary journal in which they use their accumulating knowledge of a historical character to write a first-person fictionalized account of the individual’s life. As with all other forms of writing, students will require immersion in texts related to a particular area of study (e.g., Earth science, history, politics), extensive teacher modeling, and guided practice with feedback before being asked to independently produce writing that reflects a particular disciplinary perspective. So, for instance, students should be given ample opportunity to read the diaries and essays of the historical figures they are studying before attempting to keep a fictional journal as an historical character.