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Theories about how writers compose texts frame current research and pedagogy. Informed by LeFevre’s (1987) paradigms for writing, Applebee’s (2000) models of writing development, and Ward’s (1994) analysis of various dialogic pedagogies, this research-paper uses four frames to characterize research and practice in writing: emergent, cognitive, social constructivist, and critical.
The emergent frame has its roots in a diverse set of sources: (a) phenomenological philosophy, (b) Bruner’s (1962) studies of cognition and creativity, (c) Chomsky’s 91965) view of language acquisition, and (d) the Paris Review interviews (Plimpton, 1963). Phenomenology is based on the idea that reality is organized and experienced by the individual through language. Bruner’s early work focused on the ways in which children’s learning developed through manipulation, representation, and symbolism of the external world, and Chomsky theorized that children acquired language through a series of successive gram-mars. The Paris Review interviewed 20th-century poets, novelists, and essayists about their work, highlighting the creative and often challenging process of exploration and discovery. The common focus was the writer finding voice and perfecting the craft of writing.
Two major studies of writing instruction in the classroom, one conducted in Britain (Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, & Rosen, 1975) and the other conducted in the United States (Applebee, 1981), found that writing assignments tended to be limited in scope and purpose and typical assignments were fill-in-the blank exercises or first-and-final draft reports written for the teacher. Britton et al. (1975) developed a model that suggests learning to write is a process of learning to use language in different ways, from everyday language to formalized language in new genres to inform, persuade, or entertain. Writing follows a developmental continuum in which younger students engage in more expressive writing and older students move toward transactional and literary writing.
Educators enacted Britton’s ideas, emphasizing writing for multiple purposes and audiences other than the teacher. For example, freewriting could help students generate ideas, and teachers and students could discuss those ideas with instructors asking open-ended questions about texts and processes. Elbow (1981) argued for using writing groups in which readers pointed to effective features of the text, summarized the author’s ideas, described what they experienced reading the text, and showed their understanding by suggesting metaphors for the text. Instructors in this model are experienced coaches with whom a student can consult.
Calkins (1983) documented the progress of a third grader for 2 years. She found that peer conferences, teachers talking about writing, and the use of model texts assisted the student in developing composing strategies and confidence. From this work, she recommended workshops that incorporated student choice of topics, writing for real audiences, developing revision strategies, and sharing work with peers. Conventions such as capitalization and punctuation were taught through minilessons and the context of students’ own writing. Teachers organized the workshop into a predictable structure and provided modeling and support for students. As teaching strategies for writing workshops were refined, teachers across the United States implemented aspects of the workshop.
Some teachers continue to implement workshops despite the current focus on state testing. Effective writing workshops demonstrate a particular convention or genre, provide authentic writing opportunities, use appropriate models such as books and other students’ writing, and are guided by the teacher. Yet, conferring with students, helping students revise their work, and assessing students’ progress are ongoing challenges to teachers implementing workshops. Teachers who have implemented workshops for years continue to do so; however, many teachers, especially in low-income schools, feel pressured to use mandated, packaged curriculum. The National Writing Project has helped maintain and enhance workshop models through its nationwide network of sites for professional development that emphasizes teachers as leaders who engage in writing and conduct inquiry into their own practices.
Writing workshops fit well with a developmental perspective of language and literacy that derives from the work of Marie Clay (1975). By focusing on the patterns underlying different forms of writing, Clay found that children used invented spelling as they developed more conventional spelling. Writing begins early as preschoolers become increasingly purposeful in representing concepts in their environment. Through immersion in print-rich environments and interacting with knowledgeable language users, children learn the forms and functions of print and learn to link meaning and form.
Sulzby (1985) found that kindergarten children used different forms of writing for different tasks such as words, sentences, or stories; they used immature forms of writing (e.g., scribble) when attempting a more difficult task like writing a story. Sulzby identified developmental patterns including drawing, making letter-like units, using random letters, using invented spelling, and then writing conventional words. Teale and Martinez (1989) followed kindergartners who participated in an emergent literacy writing program. They found that connecting writing to authentic purposes, literature, and to each other fostered students’ writing development. Casbergue and Plauche (2005) found that a kindergartener developed through different stages as she gained control of mechanical aspects of writing; at times, she appeared to regress as she alternated focusing on form and meaning. Tolchinsky (2006) argued that children’s writing development does not move unidirectionally from smaller to larger units, but rather through four stages. In the initial stage, meaning of the pattern is determined by the place it appears. The child proceeds through a gradual process of selecting and combining forms until he or she arrives at the alphabetic principle. The knowledge acquired at one level both guides and constrains what can be learned at other levels.
Studies with older students also support the premise that children develop writing skills as they mature. Bissex (1980) followed her own child’s development from ages 5 through 10 and found that he used a variety of forms including signs, notes, and stories for communicative purposes. Her son developed a range of writing strategies from invented spelling to conventional spellings through his literate environment and interactions with his parents. Langer (1986) explored children’s knowledge of genre at ages 8, 11, and 14 and found that children developed more complex prose structures and more elaboration in their writing with age and experience. Practitioners who work within the emergent framework have found that young children use a variety of genres in their writing. Research conducted from the emergent perspective highlights the developmental nature of children’s writing as they interact with print.
Proposing a model of writing derived from cognitive psychology, Hayes and Flower (1980) challenged previous assumptions about how writers composed text. They identified three major components: (a) the task environment; (b) cognitive processes involved in writing such as planning, translating, and revision; and (c) long-term memory including knowledge of topic, genre, and audience. Emig’s (1971) seminal study on the writing processes of twelfth graders reinforced that writing is a tool for reasoning and learning rather than a means to demonstrate knowledge already acquired. These researchers initiated cognitive studies that (a) identified recursive aspects of composing such as planning, organizing, drafting, and revising; (b) focused on the differences between novices and expert writers; and (c) suggested processes vary according to the task, context, and students’ backgrounds.
To understand the role of memory, problem solving, text production, and motivation, researchers have investigated factors in the writing process. For example, good writers coordinate multiple subprocesses more easily than poor writers. Problem solving, decision making, and inferencing influence writers’ representations of texts. Writers draw from their understanding of tasks and knowledge of their audience to compose texts, which involves producing parts rather than whole sentences (Hayes, 2000). But students often have difficulties identifying problems in their own texts and avoid making major revisions. Torrance and Galbraith (2006) suggest that the writing process is a set of “delicately balanced . . . interrelated processes” (p. 73) that are being frantically coordinated rather than the relatively strategic and deliberate process that Hayes and Flower described.
Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) delineated two different writing processes: knowledge telling and knowledge transforming. Knowledge telling enables students to write about what they know about a topic; it is often appropriate for the narrow demands of school tasks. Knowledge transforming goes beyond telling to develop new ideas and transform writers’ understandings. In their research on fifth-grade, tenth-grade, and adult writers, Bereiter and Scardamalia found that novice and expert writers differed in their composing behaviors. Elementary writers tend to do little planning or goal setting, instead using a what-next strategy of writing from one sentence to the next. Knowledge telling may be an adaptive function for novice writers when they are constrained by working memory or the task. Yet effective instruction can help students learn components of the process to improve their writing over time.
The cognitive model has influenced several intervention programs that help students to become motivated and strategic writers. Hidi and Boscolo (2006) found that providing instruction on argumentative writing and using extensive collaborative writing activities with junior high school students improved self-efficacy and interest in writing. Follow-up studies have shown that interest, self-efficacy, and self-regulation are closely related—usually an interested writer is also self-regulated; mastery of cognitive and linguistic tools tends to improve motivation.
Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing (CSIW; Raphael & Hiebert, 1996) and Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI; Guthrie et al., 1996) were designed to help elementary students improve their writing and to increase their awareness of composing processes. Research investigating the effects of such instruction has demonstrated positive effects on students’ ability to synthesize information from multiple sources; identify various text structures; and use strategies to collect information, organize information, and write reports. Guthrie et al. found that the increased use of strategies was highly correlated with students’ motivation. A meta-analysis of studies of groups (experimental and control) and single subjects determined that strategy instruction improves students’ writing performance (Graham, 2006). This is noteworthy because the effects on student writing were not related to the type of student, grade-level placement, type of strategy instruction taught, or genre.
Research from the cognitive frame has also examined the role of genre. A study of students’ texts in grades kindergarten through five indicated that even the youngest students were able to differentiate between stories and informational texts, and produce the requested genre by second grade. Direct teaching of story structure improves children’s understanding of those genres, and explicit instruction in composing different types of texts results in students outperforming those who did not receive explicit instruction (Donovan & Smolkin, 2006). Research from the cognitive frame has produced important information about the subprocesses writers use when composing text, the role of motivation on learning to write, the effects of explicit strategy instruction, and the effect of understanding genre on students’ writing.
Social constructivist theories assume that knowledge is the product of negotiation and consensus among members of a discourse community and that writing is a psychological tool that mediates thought (Vygotsky, 1978). LeFevre (1987) articulated the foundations of social constructivism for writing: (a) the writer is influenced by the social context; (b) writing norms and genres build on knowledge from the past; (c) writing may be enhanced by an imagined dialogue with another; (d) writers involve others as editors, collaborators, and devil’s advocates; and (e) social context influences how texts are received, evaluated, and used.
Bruffee’s (1984) work made the link between social constructivist theory and writing in college classrooms; he suggested that instructors take advantage of the social nature of writing by supporting students’ engagement in dialogue about their own writing. Englert, Mariage, and Dunsmore (2006) have translated the tenets of sociocultural theory into pedagogical principles for guiding instruction for elementary students. These principles mandate that teachers of writing should (a) offer cognitive apprenticeships to help students acquire tools, discourses, and actions; (b) facilitate performance in advance of requiring students’ independent performance; and (c) establish communities of practice for writing in their classrooms.
The effect of the social constructivist frame is apparent in studies of writing conferences, collaboration, the role of community and context, and issues of identity and positioning. In ideal teacher-student conferences, the teacher invites the student to set the agenda and gives the student critical feedback, while the student responds, asks questions, and describes his or her own work.
Research on writing conferences has found that instructors differ in their approaches; some teachers are prescriptive and others are collegial. Ideally, teachers should vary their style to accommodate differences in students—teachers may adopt a facilitative style for students who are readily able to self-assess but a more directive style for students who face more challenges (Beach & Friedrich, 2006). Teachers tend to be less directive with strong writers than weak writers, and they elicit opinions more frequently from strong writers. Students’ diverse backgrounds affect teacher-student interactions and help structure the event (Patthey-Chavez & Ferris, 1997). Tensions and miscommunication resulting in misevaluations of students’ performance and lost teaching opportunities can occur during conferences. Freedman (1987) found that successful teachers had a strong writing philosophy, guided students but did not take over their students’ writing, and established classroom activities that allowed students to communicate their ideas. In collaborative conferences teachers and students actively negotiate topic and structure, whereas students simply accept teachers’ ideas in less collaborative conferences. Additionally, conferences function differently at various points in the writing process (e.g., prewriting, drafting, and revision), and students obtain different benefits depending on the circumstances (Sperling, 1998). High school students tend to revise surface and stylistic features of their writing depending on the classroom context and focus of instruction (Yagelski, 1995). Engaging assignments that allow for alternative perspectives can foster in-depth revision. In elementary schools, researchers have found that students’ text revisions reflect conversations during conferences and that the conferences have differential effects on students with different levels of experience as writers (Fitzgerald & Stamm, 1992). Effective teacher feedback needs to be specific, descriptive, nonjudgmental, and varied according to the student’s developmental level, language skills, and ability to self-assess.
Researchers investigating classroom interactions during writing time noted that not all “writing process” classrooms were alike; contexts shape classroom activities and student learning (Lipson, Mosenthal, Daniels, & Woodside-Jiron, 2000). Context includes factors such as the history of classroom events, teachers’ own histories, and institutional, disciplinary, and social contexts (Prior, 1998). Factors such as students’ knowledge of books or the writing topic, perceptions of teacher expectations, and the particular task also influence students’ writing.
Sperling and Woodlief (1997) compared the writing environments of two tenth-grade classrooms, one in a White, middle-class school and the other in an urban, multiethnic school. They found that the teachers and students created quite different kinds of communities as expressed through teachers’ goals and assignments and students’ values for writing. Gutierrez (1992) found that the quality of instruction and the specific classroom context affected elementary students’ learning to write. Writing increases in complexity and richness when children respond to each other, to readings, and to the teacher’s suggestions. Other researchers have found that the nature of the writing opportunities, the quality of the student-teacher interaction during writing time, and the ways in which peers respond to one another influence students’ understanding of the tasks and their willingness to engage in the composing process (McCarthey, Garcia, Lopez-Velasquez, Lin, & Guo, 2004). Although collaborative peer groups provide support for writing and development of ideas, students need training in strategies for providing specific responses as well as group process skills.
Research from the social constructivist frame has also found that cultural contexts affect students’ attitudes toward writing, their positioning of themselves in relation to the tasks, and the ways in which they construct their identities as writers. Students’ participation in writing classrooms depends on their perceptions of themselves and others, their attitudes toward writing, and their perspectives about what is important in each setting. Abbott (2000) found that students’ motivation to write was strongly influenced by social context and the teacher’s willingness to allow them to pursue their own interests. Age of students, their purposes for writing, and the context for writing are important factors that influence students’ attitudes and performance.
Students use writing for a variety of personal and social functions, including the exploration of new roles and social identities (Kamberelis & de la Luna, 2004). McCarthey (2002) found that elementary students constructed their identities as writers in accordance with the school curriculum as well as the teacher’s, their parents, and their peers’ views of them as literacy learners. A yearlong study of a primary classroom revealed that students interwove social, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of themselves as they struggled to become writers within a workshop setting (Bomer & Laman, 2004).
Practices such as collaborative writing also derive from social constructivist theories. Daiute (1989) found that young children enjoyed writing together and enhanced their skills when they were encouraged to play and invent on the computer. Schultz (1997) identified many types of collaboration including sharing texts, writing about the same topic, and writing a single text in a fifth- and sixth-grade classroom that encouraged students to work together. Working in pairs can help students become aware of their decisions and enhance sharing of information during text production.
Research from the social constructivist frame has focused on writing conferences, classroom context, identity, and collaboration. The studies suggest that teacher-student conferences and response groups are effective in supportive contexts with quality instruction. Contexts affect students’ motivation and identities, and the quality of their writing.
Paolo Freire (1970) based his pedagogy on the idea that it was essential to replace traditional banking models of education with dialogic, liberatory ones. He theorized that humans are able to reflect on their lives and take action to transform their worlds, yet many people cannot develop their full potential because of their social positions. Those who are oppressed and illiterate are unable to think critically about their positions. Therefore, educators can help others transform their situations by creating democratic relations within the classroom and bringing students into critical dialogue with one another.
Educators at the college level were the first to apply Freirean pedagogy to their composition classes, having students write about their everyday experiences and engage in dialogues about themes from their essays. For example, Shor (1987) advocated for writing classes that provide opportunities for students to engage in critical analyses of texts; reflect upon their own experiences as members of racial, cultural, linguistic, and gender groups; and compose texts that effect changes within a community.
Fairbanks (1998) demonstrated the potential for secondary students to become connected to their social and political contexts through writing. Students conduct projects in which they generate themes from concerns of their own lives, write texts, turn their problems into questions, and develop a service project that addresses a real-world problem. DeSitgter (1998) involved Latino and Anglo at-risk high school students in a reading and writing project that drew upon family histories to form a democratic community. In work exploring youth-run centers for LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer) youth, Blackburn (2002) documented the ways in which youth transformed their literacy practices to claim and perform identities at the same time they worked for social change. Henry’s (1998) study of African Caribbean adolescents found that allowing girls space to talk and write about their lives resulted in students’ beliefs that they were learning and becoming empowered. A group of Australian elementary teachers have engaged students in social critique of texts (Comber, 2001). Bomer and Bomer (2001) have involved elementary students in activities to identify problems within their communities, conduct research projects together, and write to specific audiences to raise awareness of community issues.
While several writing programs have been organized to engage students in using writing to become more reflective about their social circumstances, other research studies have used a critical frame to consider issues of race, social class, gender, and ethnicity. For example, the narratives of 27 Puerto Rican and Mexican students written while they were in eighth grade and then again as juniors in high school revealed that these students were highly critical of both their educational experiences and their own academic decisions (Quiroz, 2001). In their work establishing a democratic, first- and second-grade classroom with a multicultural language arts curriculum, Solsken, Willet, and Wilson-Keenan (2000) found that a Latina student interwove her home, school, and peer languages in her writing to serve a variety of social and personal agendas; however the educators acknowledged that deeply rooted barriers in schools and society prevented them from noticing the sophistication of her texts.
Bakhtin’s (1981) theories, which focus on language as mediation and highlight the struggle among diverse voices as they interact, has influenced writing research. Knoeller (2004) used a Bakhtinian framework to show how high school students created complex narratives (oral and textual) in which they reconciled multiple, competing perspectives on race relations and other social topics. Dyson (2003) documented the ways in which students from a first-grade classroom represented their official (classroom) and unofficial (out-of-school) worlds in their writing through a Bakhtinian frame. By drawing extensively on popular culture such as sports, cartoons, raps, and other features of the media and through their interactions with a small circle of friends, students developed complex texts that rearticulated their literate identities. McCarthey (1994) examined the ways in which elementary writers struggled to assimilate and resist the authoritative voice of the teacher in their own texts. Lens-mire (2000) used a Bakhtinian lens to provide a critique of writing workshops in the elementary schools, specifically noting that the conception of voice was limited; he provided an alternative conception of voice that emphasizes the struggle in which a student does something new with existing resources.
Studies from a critical frame have focused on the tensions that arise from individuals as members of different racial, socioeconomic, and linguistic groups, and the differences in power relations resulting from an inequitable society. Researchers have examined the conflicts between teacher’s expectations and students’ own goals in writing, as well as clashes between students’ unofficial and official worlds. These researchers suggest that the seeds of change exist within these critiques. Therefore, researchers who frame their work within a critical perspective see the potential for writing to serve as a tool for revealing tensions and inequities and for reducing those inequities within the larger society.
The four frames serve to organize the theories, research, and pedagogy that have emerged in the last 30 years about writing. Each model has theoretical strengths and weaknesses in its conceptions of the writer, the processes of composing text, and the instruction that best supports students’ learning to write. No single frame for understanding writing can capture the complexity of the process nor completely inform us about the best methods of instruction to enhance the abilities, motivations, and products of writers. But together the frames provide different lenses for viewing the processes, the writer, the context, and the text. By continuing to conduct research about the composition of written text, we can generate new understandings of writing.
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