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.

Error feedback posts

Joel Spolsky cites with approval Dave Winer's post "The unedited voice of a person":

Do comments make it a blog? Do the lack of comments make it not a blog? Well actually, my opinion is different from many, but it still is my opinion that it does not follow that a blog must have comments, in fact, to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog.

We already had mail lists before we had blogs. The whole notion that blogs should evolve to become mail lists seems to waste the blogs. Comments are very much mail-list-like things. A few voices can drown out all others. The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you're looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones.:

Joel then turns to the destructive nature of comments:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

Although noting that comments have their down side, Clay Shirky disagrees:

This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons that comes from being able to hijack an audience to get attention for your own views becomes too persistently tempting when that audience is large. At large scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.

But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or Joel make it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.

If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”.

Shirky has a point that scale matters, as does the content and quality of the initial post, which I've mentioned earlier in Rethinking Comments and Trackback:

Over at weblogg-ed [original post link misplaced], I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

Different factors do affect the quality of comments, some of which are scale, subject matter, quality of post, and tone. And Shirky's concluding remarks are pertinent:

the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.

Thus, for educators, we need to ask, How will our communities of students use comments. Will a majority of them use comments to offer new insights or useful contributions to their classmates' posts? Or will most simply say, "I agree"? No doubt, students' ages and levels of maturity can make a difference, so that it wouldn't necessarily be one size fits all. Thus, on a case by case basis, the primary consideration should be, Will comments enable learning or disable it?

Related posts:

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has posted selected essays of Peter Elbow. Professor emeritus at UM Amherst and part of the expressivist tradition, Elbow's work has had a tremendous influence on the field of composition.

The Guardian has an interesting article, "Paul Sniderman: Identity Crisis" (via EdNews.org". Sniderman is the Fairleigh Dickinson Professor of Public Policy at Stanford University. According to Sniderman,

"While any society will always have its fair share of bigots, we also found that governmental multiculturalism made the problem worse. By arguing that all groups in society should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs and customs, they were encouraging people to see themselves as different from one another. And not just a little bit different, but fundamentally different. So it fostered a them-and-us attitude to politics." ...

what also emerges from this study is the thinness of the line between difference and prejudice. "We found that views typically held by otherwise tolerant Dutch people - that Muslims treated women badly and were too authoritarian with their children - were counterbalanced by Muslim attitudes towards the Dutch," says Sniderman. "Muslims believed the Dutch were disrespectful towards women and failed to discipline their children properly. So this wasn't about prejudices held by religious fanatics on both sides; it was a genuine conflict of values between two communities. It was the focus on these differences, through the pursuit of multiculturalism, that tipped the balance towards prejudice in some cases." ...

The biggest predictor of integration and social mobility in the Netherlands is the ability to speak Dutch ...

"[western governments] should legislate less for how they want people to feel, and more on the things that really matter, such as educational opportunity."

So, although multiculturalism's intent is to promote respect for diverse cultures, its results can be that of prejudicing people against those who are different.

Here are the links to my series of posts on Turnitin, plus a list of plagiarism resources and two others related to reasoning:

Related readings on Turnitin, plagiarism, and intellectual property:


  • "Before Models Can Turn Around, Knockoffs Fly"
  • A debate is raging in the American fashion industry over such designs. Copying, which has always existed in fashion, has become so pervasive in the Internet era it is now the No. 1 priority of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which is lobbying Congress to extend copyright protection to clothing.

Why Use Turnitin?
My experience in my first-year composition (FYC) classes for ESL students indicates that many, perhaps most, students do not understand what constitutes plagiarism. Even after defining it and doing exercises, how to attribute sources properly remains difficult for my students, in part because of language and in part due to conceptual understanding. I still remember three months into one semester a few years back when, after I commented on an example of plagiarism, one student exclaimed, "That's what you mean by plagiarism?!" So, although I haven't used Turnitin much, what follows are my thoughts on how I plan to use Turnitin.

Before Using Turnitin
The main purpose of Turnitin should be a learning tool. Thus, establish an appropriate learning environment for using Turnitin. Rather than a "got'cha" environment, students should understand that Turnitin is a tool to help them see where they need to make changes in their paper, whether in revising or in citing. Generally speaking, don't penalize rough drafts for matches to other documents.

Teach how to use sources appropriately.

  1. Give examples of appropriate and inappropriate use with explanations of the differences.
  2. Have students practice recognizing whether a source is plagiarizing or not.
  3. Have students practice paraphrasing and quoting select passages.

This sequence of tasks helps to move students from a mental understanding of appropriate attribution to the ability to cite sources correctly. It's only a beginning, however. Students may need the entire semester of working and re-working with their papers to make their understanding and skill automatic in practice.

Using Turnitin
Explain to students why you are using Turnitin and how it works. Basically, learning to cite sources appropriately can take time, and Turnitin can help that process. Be sure to include a statement about its use and purpose in the class syllabus. (For a model of such a statement, see Greg Reihman's example.)

Students, rather than the instructor, should submit their papers to Turnitin and get an originality report. If there are problems, whether true or false positive, they can tackle it alone or you can discuss it together. Being able to see possible cases of plagiarism and to discuss actual examples are important for students to build up a contextualized understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. In those cases technically constituting plagiarism, students' access to turnitin's originality report function lets them see whether their writing needs work in summarizing, paraphrasing, or citing, and where it needs it. Thus, the originality reports can provide a point of departure for discussing what is plagiarism and what isn't, what is effective paraphrase and what isn't, and what must be cited and what doesn't. It also helps teachers to identify students who are having difficulty in learning these distinctions and to provide the extra help they need.

In addition, students can see how they have revised from one draft to the next. As Tracy Morse wrote,

Since Turnitin.com retains every submitted paper in its database, it is possible to submit different drafts of the same paper and learn from the plagiarism report generated from Turnitin.com how much one draft has changed from the next. The benefit for students is that they can have a quantitative report in the percentage referring to how much of their draft is the same, or "plagiarized" in Turnitin.com terms, to their previous draft submitted to the database.

This ability to see changes is helpful because students often feel that they have revised a paper when all they have done is edited it, making a few grammatical or vocabulary changes. Turnitin also has an anonymous peer review system. I haven't used Turnitin in this way (or for revising), but Dennis Jerz comments,

I also find the peer-review feature very useful. Students can trade anonymous peer reviews within the system. I find I have to ask very specific questions, since the system doesn't permit students to cross out a sentence or draw a wavy line under a confusing passage.. the system doesn't really encourage global revisions, but this limitation does force me to decide, for each peer review, what are the specific things I most want students to be looking for when they review each other's work. And that forces me to focus on whether I'm actually teaching those skills to the students.

Much has been claimed about the potential for Turnitin to alienate students. But actually, it has the potential to motivate students. According to self-determination theory, motivation is driven by three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) write,

teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Naturally, Turnitin could be used in controlling ways. However, if students (instead of the teacher) are submitting their work to Turnitin and taking responsibility for learning to use sources in an encouraging atmostphere, then their autonomy is being supported. In addition, being able to see these distinctions in originality reports should help them learn to use sources more competently, thus again motivating students as they themselves see their improvement in using sources.

(For more detailed caveats, see Nick Carbone's "Strategies for Teaching with Online Tools" and Sharon Gerald's "Confessions of a User".)

  • Turnitin is a tool, not a teacher. It supports instruction; it does not subsitute for it.
  • Turnitin can give false positives in their originality reports.
  • Turnitin can also give false negatives: It does not find every instance of plagiarism.
  • The teacher must interpret the originality reports. The percentage number provided with an originality report does not necessarily correspond to an amount of plagiarism.
  • Students are learning. Unless clearly indicated otherwise, consider most instances of "plagiarism" detected through Turnitin to be non-intentional and an opportunity to help students better understand how to use sources.

Turnitin, used properly, can be one tool among others, not simply for catching plagiarism, but more importantly for teaching students how to use sources appropriately.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Turnitin Bibliography