by Kelly Gallagher
A California school district provides a case study in how to improve student writing across the curriculum.
Over the past several years, I have been fortunate to work with an incredible array of teachers from across the United States who have given me valuable insight into their professional challenges. For a while now, I’ve started each workshop by asking the same question: “How many of you are seeing a decline in your students’ writing abilities?” Sadly, no matter where I’m presenting or what the demographic of their students, the teachers’ responses overwhelmingly confirm my worst fears: Wide swaths of students are not developing their writing skills—skills we know to be foundational to their literate lives.
Reasons to Write
- When students write, they generate deeper thinking in any content area.
- Writing helps students become career ready.
- Writing helps students become college ready.
- Writing across the curriculum is now assessed on many state tests.
- We want our students to be lifelong writers.
Why are writing skills in decline? To answer this question, one might start by reading a recent study of U.S. middle schools conducted by the Education Trust (2015), in which the researchers examined a key question: Do classroom assignments reflect today’s higher standards?
Their findings were sobering.
Only 38 percent of assignments were aligned with a grade-appropriate standard. About 85 percent of assignments asked students to either recall information or apply basic skills and concepts. The assignments were “largely surface level,” the report noted. Only 1 percent of assignments required students to think for extended periods of time; most assignments could be completed in one class period.
This lack of rigor was especially evident in schools’ writing expectations for students in middle school (see fig. 1).