How to teach writing, reading and thinking

“Explicit teaching of writing makes kids better writers” and readers. Does writing improve thinking? Dan Willingham looks at the evidence in The Atlantic.

Not all writing instruction is helpful, Willingham writes. Students learn to write well if they’re taught “the nuts and bolts,” such as “text structure, how to use specific strategies for planning, revising, or editing text, and so on. . . . if a teacher does not show students how to construct a paragraph or a well-written argument, some will figure out it anyway, but many will not.”

Writing instruction improves reading comprehension, but again the details matter. When students write about what they’ve read — analyzing, interpreting, summarizing and answering questions — they build comprehension, Willingham writes. Explicit teaching of writing conventions helps students understand how authors use conventions.

It’s worth noting that these two advantages — better writing and better reading — will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets — exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Students need assignments that include writing in longer formats with some formal structural requirements.

The research is not as clear on the question of whether teaching writing improves thinking, he writes.

There is a certain logic to the idea that students can become better critical thinkers by completing writing assignments. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Writing encourages you to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages you to select your words carefully. Writing holds the promise (and the threat) of a permanent record of your thoughts, and thus offers the motivation to order them carefully. And indeed some forms of writing–persuasive or expository essays for example — explicitly call for carefully ordering thinking.

However, studies on teaching thinking through writing have “mixed” results. Asking students to write isn’t enough. They need to write about subject matter.

Willingham suggests asking history students to write about “ how World War II might have ended differently if the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded.” If they don’t have background knowledge about the war or German history, they won’t know how to research the question. They’re likely to write drivel.

What works? The sage on the stage

Unless they’re experts, students learn more when teachers fully explain the material, write Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner and John Sweller in the new American Educator.

Discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, constructivist learning — whatever the label, teaching that only partially guides students, and expects them to discover information on their own, is not effective or efficient. Decades of research clearly demonstrates that when teaching new information or skills, step-by-step instruction with full explanations works best.

Minimally guided instruction (“the guide on the side”) takes a great deal more time than explicit instruction (“the sage on the stage”). The  brightest and best-prepared students may “discover” what they’re supposed to, but the less-skilled students will fall even farther behind, the authors write.  ”Minimally guided instruction can increase the achievement gap.”

In a second story, Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine discusses “highly effective instructional practices, such as teaching new material in small amounts, modeling, asking lots of questions, providing feedback, and making time for practice and review.”

If it works for struggling math students …

Explicit instruction in math — once the traditional way to teach — works for struggling and learning-disabled students. It would work for all students, argues Barry Garelick on Education News.

What Works Clearinghouse finds strong evidence that explicit instruction is an effective intervention, stating: “Instruction during the intervention should be explicit and systematic. This includes providing models of proficient problem solving, verbalization of thought processes, guided practice, corrective feedback, and frequent cumulative review.”.

Also, the final report of the President’s National Math Advisory Panel (pdf) states: “Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation.

Learning disability diagnoses increased for years until the advent of early intervention programs for high-risk students, Garelick writes. Now fewer students are being labeled as learning disabled. He believes effective interventions, such as explicit, systematic instruction, deserve some of the credit.