Comprehension, phonics, and other areas of literacy have been a "hot topic" in the literacy landscape. Writing though has been the area of literacy instruction that typically gets little notice. Each year, leaders in the field of literacy research are surveyed to share the "hot topics" in literacy. During the last 25 years, this survey has been given to literacy experts, writing instruction has not ever been on the What's Hot, What's Not in Literacy Report (Cassidy, Grote-Garcia, & Ortlieb, 2022). This is bothersome because reading and writing are reciprocal processes. As a child becomes a better writer, they become critical thinkers of what they are reading. It is the same for reading. When a child grows as a reader, their writing will reflect their understanding of printed text. This is why students need writing instruction early in their development. Writing typically starts at home with children creating scribbles and drawings. Then, when they enter school, they get proper writing instruction beginning with letter formation. Children will progress with more advanced instruction as they move through each grade level until they graduate high school.
Challenges in Encouraging Student Writing
From an early age, writers make choices every day about what they write. Whether it is a 3-year-old drawing scribbles and shapes on a page or a college student writing a written response in a discussion post. Writing is a way to connect personal experiences and knowledge with others. However, the issue many educators face is getting students to write. Sometimes, students do not want to write because they are unsure of what they want to write about, lack confidence, or lack of interest in the topic they are required to write about. Learning anything can be difficult at any age, but writing requires a lot of cognitive load in the brain. Cognitive Load Theory suggests that our working memory can only hold and process a limited amount of information at a time (Seweler, 1988; Van Merriënboer & Seweller, 2005). While writing, the brain has a lot of information to process. Students need to have knowledge about the topic, how to form letters, spelling, word choice, and sentence structure. In addition, students need to think about creating smooth transitions, coherence of the text, and thinking about what the reader really needs to know. As students become automatic in a skill, they will have more "cognitive desk space" to focus on the new skill that is taught. This is why writing is a struggle for many students in the classroom, as well as the teacher trying to get the students to write.
Fostering Teacher Engagement for Student Writing
So, how do educators get students motivated to write? Getting students motivated to write begins with the teacher. Their beliefs about writing reflect on how much time and effort is spent on writing instruction in the classroom. The teacher's beliefs about their writing abilities have a significant impact on students' motivation and engagement when it comes to writing (Cremin & Oliver, 2016). Many times, teachers are insecure in their writing abilities or their ability to teach writing. To overcome this challenge, proper professional development that grows the teacher as a writer is important. Professional development should include activities that engage teachers as writers and not just the instructor of writing. Writing is not only a process but a personal action that is visible to others. So, teachers have to address their own personal beliefs about writing before they can motivate their own students to write.
Nurturing Confidence in Student Writers
No matter what age, building a student's confidence in writing is key. Begin by praising the student's effort with writing no matter where they are in their writing development. Let students know what they are doing right. Whether the praise is happening during writing conferences or while writing in other content areas, students want to know what they are doing well. For example, there is a second grader who is writing just a string of letters. Point out how well they are forming their letters or simply ask them to share their writing. They have a story to tell. They just struggle with putting those thoughts on paper. The goal is to simply get them to write. Writing is a skill that is challenging and complex. As with any skill, students need consistent regular practice to improve their writing (Graham et al.,2012). Building a student's confidence is one of the most challenging hurdles teachers face when it comes to writing. Positive feedback will help the student begin to recognize themselves as writers.
Optimizing Writing Conference for Student Progress
Time is always the issue in classrooms, but allowing time to conduct writing conferences with students will provide an opportunity to move students forward in their writing abilities. Writing conferences can be brief but need to be intentional. In early childhood classrooms, writing conferences will focus on foundational writing skills, like letter formation and writing complete sentences. As students move forward in their writing development, then the conference time will shift to story structure and audience. The reason for this progression is that if students are required to think about all that is involved in writing a piece of text, then they will likely shut down. As stated before, the brain can only hold so much information at one time (Seweler, 1988; Van Merriënboer & Seweller, 2005). When students have the ability to automatically write letters and form sentences, then they can add to their cognitive load with new skills. The student will have more "cognitive desk space" to focus on a new writing skill they are learning.
Just as reading is not natural, neither is writing. Even though writing has not been a "hot topic" in the literacy field in the last 25 years, does not mean it is less important than reading. Writing is critical for comprehension, communication, self-expression, and a framework for our society. While writing is a complex process, students need to overcome their resistance to writing. Teacher beliefs, student confidence, and focusing on where the student is in their writing development during writing conferences are just the beginning. There are many facets to writing. But to get students to grow as writers, they have to build their confidence and motivation. With confidence and motivation, students will write.
Dr. Liza LaRue is a Texas Reading Academies cohort leader for Region 7. She has her doctorate in Supervision of Curriculum & Instruction for Texas A&M Commerce. Her research focus is early childhood literacy, digital literacy, and teacher attrition. Currently, she is the chair of the Texas Association for Literacy Education, an International Literacy Association state affiliate.
Cassidy, J., Grote-Garcia, S. & Ortlieb (2022). What's Hot in 2021: Beyond the Science of Reading, Literacy Research and Instruction, 61:1, 1-17, DOI: 10.1080/19388071.2021.2011236
Cremin, T., & Oliver, L. (2016). Teachers as writers: a systematic review. Research Papers in Education, 32(3), 269-295
Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Olson, C. B., D'Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers: A Practice Guide. NCEE 2012-4058. What Works Clearinghouse.
Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).
Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17(2), 147–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-005-3951-0