ERIC Identifier: ED446337
Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Smith, Carl B.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Writing Instruction: Changing Views over the Years. ERIC Digest
The emphasis in writing instruction over the past forty years has shifted
from product to process. This Digest will review the course and the primary
features of this evolution.
In the early 1960s, the National Council of Teachers of English commissioned
a study to find out what was known about the teaching of composition. The result
was a report entitled "Research in Written Composition" by Braddock,
Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer (1963), commonly known as "The Braddock Report." The
authors found only rudimentary understanding of the teaching of writing: "Some
terms are being defined usefully, a number of other procedures are being
refined, but the field as a whole is laced with dreams, prejudices, and
makeshift operations" (p. 5).
FROM PRODUCT TO PROCESS: THE 1970S AND 1980S
Writing in 1986, Arthur Applebee pointed out that instruction in the past had
been largely "prescriptive and product-centered," stressing correct usage and
mechanics while emphasizing "the traditional modes of discourse (narration,
description, exposition, persuasion, and sometimes poetry)." However, the 1970s
and 1980s saw "a groundswell of support for 'process approaches' to learning to
write" (p. 95). Today, the five-step approach to the writing process is widely
accepted, along with related activities such as brainstorming, journal writing,
teacher/student conferences, and an emphasis on multiple drafts.
Looking back on the 1970s and early 1980s, Applebee found that three
questions needed to be answered:
*How widely had they been adopted by that time?
*When adopted, how successfully were they implemented?
*When implemented, did they lead to noticeable
improvement in student writing?
PROCESS APPROACHES IN THE 1970S AND 1980S
Although they dominated the professional literature, process approaches had
not been fully implemented in all classrooms by the mid 1980s. Because less than
half of student writing was done for the English teacher, assignments in English
classes should not differ too much from other kinds of writing lest students
"decide that what they learn in English is irrelevant to the rest of their
writing" (p. 98). Furthermore, student writing too often focused on textbook
material, with the emphasis on accuracy of recitation rather than on each
student's own thinking.
In 1986, Applebee found little use of process approaches to writing
instruction. In particular, prewriting was often slighted and many papers did
not progress beyond the first draft (p. 100). On the other hand, he did
encounter terms such as "prewriting," "revising," and "editing" in textbooks,
suggesting that increased use of such textbooks would lead to "more widespread
attention to process-oriented activities" (p. 101). Applebee had also hoped to
"develop a series of models of effective instruction" and to find evidence that
efforts to use the process approach paid significant dividends. Instead, he
found that he had been too optimistic; his studies pointed to "some serious
problems in current conceptualizations of writing processes" (p. 102).
Some of these problems were rooted in the difficulties involved in helping
students understand what real writers actually do. Often, activities included in
process writing became separated from the purposes they were supposed to serve,
preventing students from developing "a generalized conception of the 'writing
process' that the writers used in all contexts" (p. 102). Other problems arose
from the fact that the process approach is not suited to every writing project:
Some may require extensive prewriting, while others may require more careful
editing and revision. Because students often ignore the great diversity of
writing tasks, "process-oriented instruction easily degenerates into an
inappropriate and lockstep formula" (p. 102).
Obviously, process-oriented instruction is of little value unless it makes a
difference in student writing. A study undertaken by Hillocks (1982) analyzed
"the results of experimental studies of writing instruction published between
1963 and 1982" (Applebee, 1986, p. 104). Hillocks considered four broad
approaches: a) a product-oriented, teacher-centered mode of instruction; b)
individualized instruction; c) natural process (an activity-based version of
process-oriented instruction); and (d) the environmental mode, a structured
process approach involving inquiry-based learning and group problem solving
(adapted from Applebee, 1986, pp. 104-105).
Hillocks favored the "environmental mode" and said that the process-oriented
approach was least effective of all. Applebee noted that each of the four
approaches led to some improvement in writing achievement and that "the
environmental mode that Hillocks champions is itself a version of
process-oriented instruction and draws on a panoply of techniques he seems to be
attacking" (1986, p. 105).
RECONCEPTUALIZING THE PRINCIPLES OF PROCESS
"Most instruction is based on the simple assumption that we can
specify a curriculum by studying what experts do and teaching our students to do
likewise" (p. 106). Process-oriented approaches were not effective in their
early stages because they were based on mistaken notions of what writers do and
of how the process should be taught. Applebee pointed out the need "to develop
more adequate conceptualizations of both of these aspects of writing
instruction" and specified the following criteria:
Writing processes must be reconstrued as strategies that writers employ for
For different tasks, writers will use different strategies, and for some tasks
these strategies may involve no more than the routine production of a first and
More extensive writing routines must be recognized as problem-solving heuristics
appropriate to work-in-progress; they are unlikely to be so useful in writing
about things (or in ways) the writer already knows well. (Applebee, 1986, p.
Another important aspect of
process writing is the concept of instructional scaffolding, based on the belief
that "learning is a process of gradual internalization of routines and
procedures available to the learner from the social and cultural context in
which the learning takes place" (p. 108). New skills are learned as children
work on tasks that might be too difficult to undertake alone. Parents or
teachers can ask questions and rephrase children's comments to provide focus and
direction. In the classroom, "The scaffolding provided is embedded in the
materials of instruction (textbooks, assignments, direct instructional
activities) as well as in the more immediate interactions between teacher and
student" (p. 109).
Finally, Applebee discussed several aspects of instructional scaffolding that
"suggest some of the features that a more comprehensive reconceptualization of
teaching will require": (a) allowing students to take a more active role; (b)
building on students' knowledge while introducing challenging new material; (c)
following a natural sequence of thought that helps students learn useful
approaches to the task; (d) collaborating with students to help them solve
problems; and (e) encouraging students to take increasing responsibility for
their own learning (adapted from Applebee, 1986, p. 110).
Application of the preceding principles would result in more effective
application of process-oriented approaches to writing.
*Students would be encouraged to choose their own topics whenever possible,
and assignments would be expanded to allow students' opinions and solutions to
play a part.
*Teachers would become interested readers and skilled editors of students'
writing, not just evaluators.
*Emphasis would shift from students' knowledge about writing to strategies
and procedures they need to deal with more and more challenging tasks. (p. 111)
THE VIEW FROM THE 1980S AND 1990S
In the early 1980s, Hairston (1982) asserted that writing instruction had
undergone a "paradigm shift" as a result of research in the preceding decades.
Some of the elements in the new paradigm include focusing on the writing
process, with teacher intervention as needed, and teaching strategies for
invention and discovery. Furthermore, writing is evaluated according to how well
it fulfills the writer's intentions, and writing is also considered a recursive
rather than a linear process. Finally, writing is viewed as a way of learning
and developing and as a disciplined creative activity that can be analyzed and
described (adapted from Hairston, 1982; cited in Graves, 1999, p. 13).
Thirty years after publication of The Braddock Report, Jensen (1993) followed
up on its findings by asking a number of experts to respond to this question:
"What is the single most important thing that we as a profession know now that
we didn't know 30 years ago about the teaching and learning of writing in the
elementary school?" After reviewing the 16 responses received, she reached these
*Writing in the early years is a natural "gateway to literacy."
*All children can be writers.
*Understanding writing and writers means understanding complex and
interrelated influences--cognitive, social, cultural, psychological,
linguistic, and technological.
*We write so that both we and others can know what we think.
(Jensen, 1993; cited in Graves, 1999, p. 26)
Elaborating on the first point, Peter Elbow of the University of
Massachusetts said that very young children "can write anything they can say,
whereas they can read only a fraction of the words they can say." Therefore,
"writing is easier, quicker, and, in a sense, more 'natural' than
reading--certainly more naturally learned" (Graves, 1999, p. 27). Concerning the
idea that all children can be writers, Glenda L. Bissex of Northeastern
University said that an expanded view of writing allows many more children to
see themselves as writers. They include "not only the young poets and
storytellers, but the inventive spellers who are working to understand and use
our writing system, the children who write about dinosaurs and kittens" (p. 28).
Colette Daiute of the Harvard Graduate School of Education stressed that
"gaining an interdisciplinary view of the myriad influences on writing will
increase our ability to help children who have serious difficulties with
literacy." Susan Florio-Ruane of Michigan State University pointed out that "the
forms and functions of literacy in school children's lives transcend classroom
reading and writing instruction." We must consider "both the different home and
community experiences children have around literacy and the nature (and
limitations) of classrooms as places to learn and practice literacy" (Graves,
1999, pp. 28-29).
Applebee, A. N. (1986). Problems in process
approaches: Toward a reconceptualization of process instruction. In Petrosky and
Bartholomae (Eds.), "The teaching of writing: Eighty-fifth yearbook of the
National Society for the Study of Education", Part II, Chapter 6. Pages 95-113.
Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). "Research in written
composition". Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Graves, R. L. (Ed.). (1999). "Writing, teaching, learning: A sourcebook".
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Hairston, M. (1982). The winds of change: Thomas Kuhn and the revolution in
the teaching of writing. "College Composition and Communication", 33, pp. 76-88.
In R. L. Graves, (Ed.), "Writing, teaching, learning: A sourcebook" (pp. 3-5).
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Hillocks, G. (1984). What works in teaching composition: A meta-analysis of
experimental treatment studies. "American Journal of Education", 93, 133-170.
Jensen, J. M. (1993). What do we know about the writing of elementary school
children? "Language Arts", 70, pp. 290-94. In R. L. Graves, (Ed.), "Writing,
teaching, learning: A sourcebook" (pp. 25-32). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Petrosky, A. R., & Bartholomae, D. (Eds.). (1986). "The teaching of
writing: Eighty-fifth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of
Education". Part II. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.