ERIC Identifier: ED250694
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Holbrook, Hilary Taylor
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.

Qualities of Effective Writing Programs. ERIC Digest.

Teachers and administrators involved in developing writing curricula must reconcile public demands for educational improvement and accountability with research findings on composition and composition instruction.

This Digest explores the following components of effective writing programs: emphasis on practice and process in writing, inservice programs, school-wide emphasis, and administrative support.


Any writing program is more likely to be successful if students are given ample opportunity to write. For example, students in the Vermont Writing Program's six model schools write an average of 45 to 90 minutes daily (Neill 1982).

However, authorities on writing instruction observe that little classroom time is devoted to extended writing projects. At the elementary level, skill drills are predominant in many classrooms and opportunities to write complete pieces are often marred by excessive concern with mechanical "correctness" (Graves 1979). At the secondary level, most writing activity is of a mechanical nature, such as "fill in the blanks" or "short answer" (Applebee 1981).


Successful writing instruction should emphasize the total writing process, including prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Neill (1982) lists a core of concerns cited by teachers in the Bay Area Writing Project (now the National Writing Project) as important to successful writing instruction:

--the composing process (from prewriting activities through revision)

--syntax (including sentence combining, examination of common errors, and Francis Christensen's rhetoric)

--sequence (moving from personal to analytical writing, from thesis to logical arguments)

--small group techniques (peer criticism, writing for real audiences within the classroom, reading aloud in small groups)

--writing assessment (holistic evaluation, systematic school-wide assessment)

In a meta-analysis of 72 experimental studies, Hillocks (1983) found that an environmental mode of instruction was the most effective. In this mode, the teacher chooses classroom activities involving high levels of student interaction and paralleling writing encountered outside the classroom. The teachers in Applebee's 1981 study also point out that an effective writing lesson includes an active role for students, minimal teacher dominance, and natural emergence of writing out of other activities.

In summary, classroom characteristics for an effective writing program include the following (Goldberg 1983; Graves 1978; Howard 1984):

--opportunity for students in all grades to write frequently with delayed or "as needed" instruction in grammar

--teachers writing with students

--students learning to write for many audiences and in many modes, including those required for subjects other than English

--nonthreatening evaluation of student writing with emphasis on revision rather than correction


Teachers and administrators in Neill's survey cited the importance of voluntary and ongoing inservice training programs taught by trainers from both inside and outside the school or the district. Neill observes that trainers who are also teachers have more credibility as inservice instructors than do "nonteaching experts." Enthusiasm, knowledge of current theory on the writing process, and a focus on practical application of techniques are also essential qualities for inservice trainers.

In addition, Neill's respondents suggested modeling writing programs on those that have already proven successful. In the National Writing Project, which appears to be the most far-reaching program model, teachers attend workshops to improve their own writing skills and their teaching of writing. Participants may then act as consultants for school or district inservice sessions, so reinforcement occurs naturally.

Other qualities for successful inservice programs include the following:

--attention to specific skills in which teachers may be weak

--time and opportunity for teachers to gain confidence in their ability to teach composition, allowing for structured feedback about their use of new skills

--opportunities for observation in other classrooms

--attention to issues that concern teachers, such as paperwork, evaluation, diagnosis, remediation, and explaining the writing program to parents

--administrator involvement in both program and session activities


When writing is given a school-wide emphasis, students improve their understanding of the disciplines that emphasize writing, practice their writing in several classrooms, and grasp the importance of writing outside the English classroom. In addition, interdepartmental cooperation is encouraged (Glatthorn 1981).

A curriculum-wide program can involve direct intervention by the English department in content area assignments, an approach taken by Boston University's College of Basic Studies. In a more informal program, English teachers may provide instructional materials to content area teachers and/or offer assistance to interested students with content area writing assignments (Lehr 1982).

A curriculum-wide writing program will best succeed when adminstrators do the following:

--acquire interdepartmental cooperation by ascertaining needs and perceptions of content area teachers

--develop program objectives for both students and teachers

--focus on the elementary as well as the secondary level


One way school and district administrators can indicate support and commitment to writing programs is to monitor the current programs in their schools. Applebee (Neill 1982) lists five signals that identify a weak writing program: low or failing scores on writing tests, widespread use of objective tests, omission of writing samples from writing assessments, lack of help for students with writing problems, and complaints about declining achievement.

A second sign of commitment is support for a staff development program. Allowing for released time or options such as team teaching, repeated half-day sessions, or a reduced school day will encourage participation in inservice training. Furthermore, principals and other administrators who participate in training sessions can evaluate the inservice meetings and identify excellent teachers and those striving to improve their teaching (Neill 1982).

Third, meetings with parents demonstrate a commitment to writing improvement. Adminstrators can inform parents of student progress, suggest ways to improve children's writing at home, and provide assistance to parents who want to improve their own writing. Identifying and using parent talents for tutoring or inservice consulting can also be beneficial (Glatthorn 1981).


Programs that effectively meet the instructional needs of both students and teachers as well as public demands have the above features in common. Carefully adapted to individual schools or districts, any one or all of these features can go a long way toward improving the quality of composition instruction.


Applebee, Arthur N. WRITING IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL: ENGLISH AND THE CONTENT AREAS. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1981.

Glatthorn, Allan A. "Writing in the Schools: Improvement through Effective Leadership." Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1981.

Goldberg, Mark F. "Writing Objectives: The National Writing Project." NASSP BULLETIN 67 (October 1983): 110-l11.

Graves, Donald H. "Balance the Basics: Let Them Write." New York, Ford Foundation, 1978. ED 192 364.

Haley-James, Shirley M., editor. PERSPECTIVES ON WRITING IN GRADES 1-8. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1981. ED 198 565.

Hillocks, George. "What Works in Teaching Composition: A Summary of Results." Paper presented at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, Denver, Colorado, November, 1983.

Howard, James. "Writing to Learn." Washington, D.C.: Council for Basic Education, 1984.

Lehr, Fran. "ERIC/RCS Report: Promoting Schoolwide Writing." ENGLISH EDUCATION 14 (February 1982):47-52.

Neill, Shirley Boes. "Teaching Writing: Problems and Solutions. AASA Critical Issues Report." Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators, 1982. ED 219 776.

Robertson, Linda R. "Stranger in a Strange Land, or Stimulating Faculty Interest in Writing Across the Curriculum." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Wyoming Conference on Freshman and Sophomore English, Laramie, Wyoming, July, 1981. ED 211 996.

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