Good writing is taught and caught – How to encourage developing writers

Good writing is taught and caught – How to encourage developing writers

Providing students with an environment designed for feedback, positive support and the exploration of language, is the best way to raise better, more confident writers. In this article, Professor Steve Graham explores the importance of both the ‘taught’ and ‘caught’ approaches to writing.

Good writing is a complex and demanding task [1], with many competing mental actions a writer must activate and orchestrate. Consider the seemly simple process of writing a sentence. The writer must decide what to say, bringing one or more ideas forward and determining if each is suitable given the author’s intentions, the audience, and the context.

The selected idea must then be made more precise, as the writer crafts it into a grammatically correct sentence, selecting just the right words to convey the intended message in a way that will make sense to the reader. This sentence must then be transformed into text where words are spelled correctly and punctuation and capitalization occurs according to convention.

The resulting text, if produced by hand, must also be reasonably legible or the reader may misunderstand the intended message. If we up the ante, so to speak, and move to a larger piece of text, the writer must further address issues involving coherence, organization, genre, and voice as well as orchestrate a variety of mental processes that revolve around planning, drafting, evaluating, and revising text.

Many people believe that good writing cannot be taught [2]. This stems from the belief that professional writers, such as novelists, are artists who possess a special talent. In essence, good writers are born writers.

While talent may play a role in writing development for some people, its potential is not likely to be realized if the right conditions are not in place to foster its growth. Conversely, the capacities of less talented writers may be amplified by creating learning environments in which writing development can thrive.

One way to facilitate writing growth is by creating a learning environment where needed writing skills, processes, knowledge, and dispositions are caught [3]. According to this approach, engaging in writing and reading for real and meaningful purposes facilitates writing development. Writing provides learners opportunities to apply, develop, and extend their writing capabilities.

Reading can lead to important insights into writing as the reader thinks about why an author used a particular word, phrase, sentence, or rhetorical device.  It can also improve spelling as the reader is exposed to correct spellings. Observing how others write can further sharpen one’s knowledge of writing as it can suggest new ways for carrying out the writing task.

While the methods underlying the writing using the caught approach fuel writing growth, they are not enough for most learners, especially developing writers.

While increasing how much young children write enhances the quality of their text [4], this simple adjustment has little to no effect on the writing of older students [5]. While some readers may actively and purposefully think about the author’s intentions when reading, others are typically more utilitarian in their approach, reading a novel to be transported to a different place for example.

While multiple exposures to a word through reading can improve spelling, we still misspell words we have read again and again in text. While observing others write can provide new ideas on how to carry out the process of composing, it can go only so far as much of what happens in writing is not visible, occurring strictly in our heads.

To ensure then that developing writers become good writers, we need to design learning environments where writing is not only caught, but taught [6].  As a foundation, developing writers must be provided ample opportunities to apply and develop their craft. This includes writing frequently, writing for extended periods of time on the same project, reading regularly, periodically analyzing material read to determine the author’s intent and methods, and methodically considering how others go about the process of writing.

This basic footing must be fortified by teaching developing writers the knowledge, skills and strategies needed to write skillfully [7]. This includes teaching them about the basic building blocks of different types of text, such as the primary elements of a good argument, as well as the attributes of good writing, including a clear organizational structure, clearly and completely developed ideas, and sentences and words that convey a compelling message. It also involves teaching handwriting, spelling, typing, sentence construction, and strategies for planning, evaluating, revising, and editing text.

Instruction in handwriting, spelling, and typing should emphasize using each of these skills correctly with little or no effort. Sentence construction should stress flexible and thoughtful use of sentences to convey the writer’s intended purposes, including writing sentences with correct grammar and usage.

Strategy instruction should involve teaching schemas and heuristics for managing and directing all aspects of the writing process from conceptualizing the writing project all the way to publishing it.

The ‘writing is taught’ approach includes an additional element that is especially important for developing writers [8]. provide them with support as they write. This includes creating a writing environment where students feel free to take risks, setting clear and specific goals for assigned writing tasks, putting into place routines that emphasize the importance of planning and revising, encouraging students to work together as they write, and providing students with constructive as well as positive feedback about their writing.

Designing learning environments where writing is taught and caught puts the power of writing at learners’ fingertips.  It makes it possible for them to use writing to learn, persuade, create imaginary worlds, explore who they are, communicate with others, and share their ideas more broadly.

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Steve Graham is the Warner Professor in the division of leadership and innovation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. For more than 30 years, he has studied how writing develops, how to teach it effectively, and how writing can be used to support reading and learning.

  1. Graham, S. (in press). A writer(s) within community model of writing. In C. Bazerman, V. Berninger, D. Brandt, S. Graham, J. Langer, S. Murphy, P. Matsuda, D. Rowe, & M. Schleppegrell,(Eds.), The lifespan development of writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of English.
  2. Graham, S., & Harris, K.R. (1997). It can be taught, but it does not develop naturally: Myths and realities in writing instruction. School Psychology Review, 26, 414-424.
  3. Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, 1703-1743.
    Graham, S., & Harris, K.R. (1997). It can be taught, but it does not develop naturally: Myths and realities in writing instruction. School Psychology Review, 26, 414-424.
  4. Graham, S., Kiuhara, S., McKeown, D., & Harris, K.R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 879-896.
  5. Braddock, R. (1969). English composition. Encyclopedia of Educational Research. NY: MacMillan.
  6. Graham, S., Harris, K.R., & Santangelo, T. (2015). Research-Based Writing Practices and the Common Core:Meta-Analysis and Meta-Synthesis. Elementary School Journal, 115, 498-522.
  7. Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 445-476.
    Graham, S., Kiuhara, S., McKeown, D., & Harris, K.R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 879-896.
  8. Graham, S., & Harris, K.R. (2016). A path to better writing: Evidence-based practices in the classroom. Reading Teacher, 69, 359-365.

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