Writing and Grammar

The Alliance for Excellent Education has issued a 77-page meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental research, the Writing Next Report (via Anne Davis), and have come up with the following recommendations for writing instruction:

Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction
  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

The report notes that these 11 elements are,

effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning. [However] ... even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum.

The report adds this qualifer because, as they note, there may be effective strategies that have not yet been studied.

Grammar Instruction
The controversial topic of grammar instruction is also touched upon:

Grammar instruction in the studies reviewed involved the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences.The meta-analysis found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative.This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers also yielded negative results ... However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction, as this approach improves students’ writing quality while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Overall, the findings on grammar instruction suggest that, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.

Most of the studies analyzed in this report looked at L1 students. However, decontextualized grammar instruction without frequent feedback is also unlikely to have a positive effect for L2 students. A while back, I noted that on the related topic of error feedback (see links below) to acquire competence in any field, extensive practice accompanied by appropriate feedback was necessary. It seems unlikely that grammar should be the lone exception.

Alternative Methods of Grammar Instruction
Perhaps grammar instruction/practice/feedback could become more effective if we were to design it along the lines of those 11 elements. For a beginning point, suppose we reorient some of those 11 elements toward grammar:

  1. Writing Strategies that teach students strategies for editing their grammar
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to explain and summarize grammar's rhetorical effects
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan grammatical choices and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the grammar they need to acquire
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for checking spelling and grammar
  6. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good grammar

One implementation of these elements can be found in the grammar logs recommended in Error Feedback: Practice. Grammar logs have specific grammar goals and models of the grammar points to be learned.

Theoretical Understanding of Grammar Instruction
Simply using these 11 elements, as even the report stated, is insufficient to design a "full writing curriculum." LIkewise, it's not enough to use them innovatively for grammar instruction without a theoretical understanding of why and how these 11 elements work. Along the lines of ACT-R Theory (see also Error Feedback: Theory), key elements of learning include:

  1. time on task
  2. the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  3. accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  4. feedback

It's easy to see from these elements why traditional grammar instruction doesn't work. Although it may use examples and explanations, students are not spending time on tasks integrating grammar into their writing (outside of fill-in-the-blank sentences) nor necessarily receiving appropriate feedback. In contrast, Writing Strategies, Summarization, Inquiry Activities, and Models of Study easily fit into these key elements of learning. Collaborative writing, however, is not always effective for learning. To be done appropriately, it needs to integrate accurate diagnosis and understanding of the task, along with feedback. Otherwise, collaborators can just as easily reinforce misunderstandings of grammar and writing. Word processing, because it can underline grammar and spelling questions, focuses students' attention on recurring errors, thus allowing for more diagnosis of the problem and encouraging more time on task.

The Writing Next Report is worth reading, and having a theoretical understanding of learning elements is important for integrating its recommendations effectively, whether for grammar instruction or other writing goals.

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