Annotated Bibliography of Writing Research

by Kristin Thomas

Best Practices for Composition Instruction

“50 Years of Research on Writing: What Have We Learned?” YouTube. Web. 15 Jul 2010.

  • Charles Bazerman, author of Handbook of Research on Writing among others, discusses the impact of fear on student writing and the importance of acknowledging that fear and helping students move past fear to become better writers.
  • Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers, considers the difference between high-stakes writing and low-stakes writing.  Students need a varied audience, not always the teacher.  Students should be taught to consider content, form and correctness separately.  He stresses the time required to write effectively and that instructors of composition should guide students to take the time necessary to become better writers.
  • George Hillocks, author of Reflective Teaching, Reflective Learning, notes that teachers often stress form, not content, and that students need to be taught how to address content—they have no intrinsic ability to do so without instruction.  For instance, students often have no idea what the instructor means by “be more specific,” and must have targeted lessons that engage the student in the act of content-specific writing.

Applebee, A. N., and J. A. Langer.  “The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools:  What Existing Data Tells Us.” Center on English Learning and Achievement, 2006. Web. 30 July 2010.

  • Applebee and Langer are working on a two part report on writing in American schools.  This first part provides data that gives a snapshot of the frequency and type of writing done at the secondary level.  The authors conclude that, “overall, this study leaves us with some disturbing findings about how little time many students are spending on writing, but it also leaves us with more questions than answers” (ii).
  • This research team is currently working on “examining in depth how writing is incorporated into each of the major academic subject areas, the cumulative experiences of individual students learning to write, and the contextual factors that support or inhibit effective opportunities for students to learn to write well in their secondary school coursework” (1).

Brannon, Lil, et al. “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” English Journal 98.2 (2008): 16-21. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

  • In this article, a UNC Charlotte Writing Project collaboration, the authors take issue with two articles, published in English Journal, that defend the teaching of the five-paragraph essay structure.  The authors decry the publication of these articles because they are opinion pieces whose claims are not substantiated by research.  The effect of such articles, according to the authors, is to give teachers in secondary schools and in freshman writing programs more reason to continue to teach formulaic writing and consequently to risk those students “never experienc[ing] the power of their ideas or the structuring of them within a larger conversation, never get[ting] the chance to use writing to think, feel, and wonder” (18).  The article is well researched and offers more evidence that students need to be offered structured environments that allow them to safely explore the ways that writing can be manipulated to suit their needs and ideas, rather than making students work to fit their needs and ideas to a structured form.

Brockman, Elizabeth, et al. “Helping Students Cross the Threshold: Implications from a University Writing Assessment.” English Journal 99.3 (2010): 42-49. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

  • In this study, the authors analyzed the writing needs of different colleges within their university and used those findings to evaluate the efficacy of their composition program.  The authors determined that:  “‘good’ writing is a complex concept that varies by discipline; the writing/reading connection is crucial; and professors recognize that writing competency develops over time” (42).  The authors offer strategies for secondary teachers to address each area of concern.

Butler, John F. “The Teacher’s Job as Corrector of Papers.” College Composition and Communication 31.3 (1980): 270-277. Jstor. Web. 19 July 2010.

  • Butler offers a theory of assessment that is both troubling and refreshing.  In his essay, Butler describes why he has given up putting grades on papers and marking errors in favor of having students write more, interconnected assignments and requiring the students with the most pervasive errors to conference extensively with him, “once or twice a week, after the third week of the course” (276).  Butler asserts that by eliminating the comments he makes regarding student error, particularly for remedial students, he keeps students engaged in class and writing.

Callahan, M. Kate, and Donalda Chumney. “‘Write Like College’:  How Remedial Writing Courses at a Community College and a Research University Position ‘At-Risk’ Students in the Field of Higher Education.” Teachers College Record 111.7 (2009): 1619-64. Print.

  • The authors of this article completed a comparative study of two institutions of higher learning, one a community college and one a four-year university.  Both offer remedial writing courses, and both profess to collaborate on the instruction of the courses as the community college feeds the university.
  • The study finds that the methods of the university are superior to those of the community college, as the methods used at the university result in higher pass rates and implied higher retention rates.
  • The university uses several strategies including: multi-layered tutoring, an emphasis on content over grammar, structured discussions that serve to engage the student in academic discourse, and meaningful assignments tailored to lead the student to success in other academic areas.  The focus on the remediation done at the university is on synthesis and clarity of thought.

Coker, David, and William E. Lewis. “Beyond writing next: a discussion of writing research and instructional uncertainty.” Harvard Educational Review 78.1 (2008): 231-251. Print.

  • The article outlines the findings of the research in Writing Next, including the eleven most effective strategies for teaching writing:  explicit instruction in writing strategies, explicit instruction in how to summarize a reading, group work focusing on the writing process, specification of concrete goals, use of a word-processor, explicit instruction in sentence combining, participation in prewriting activities, development of content knowledge before writing, engagement in the process writing approach, exposure to good writing models, engagement in activities geared to content-area knowledge.
  • Additionally the authors identify three areas in composition that are in need of further research: instructional strategies, teacher preparation, and assessment.

De La Paz, Susan.  “Managing Cognitive Demands for Writing:  Comparing the Effects of Instructional Components in Strategy Instruction.” Reading and Writing Quarterly 23 (2007): 249-266. Ebsco. Web. 30 July 2010.

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’.” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552-584. Print.

  • In brief, Downs and Wardle have responded to the lack of research indicating that instruction in writing skills in first-year composition courses transfers to other disciplines; “more than twenty years of research and theory have repeatedly demonstrated that such a unified academic discourse does not exist and have seriously questioned that students can and do transfer from one context to the next” (552).  Downs and Wardle have developed an “Introduction to Writing Studies” course that serves to teach students about writing, rather than approaching writing as a set of skills to be mastered.
  • Students in such a course study, read, and write about the facets of writing, learning that all disciplines have inherent writing modes and styles, and that success in other disciplines requires students to be aware of those differences and shift their writing accordingly.

Duncan, Mike. “Whatever Happened to the Paragraph?” College English 69.5 (2007): 470-95.

  • Mike Duncan analyzes the research done in paragraph theory beginning with Lindley Murray’s work in 1795 and ending with Eden and Mitchell’s “Paragraphing for the Reader” and D’Angelo’s “The Topic Sentence Revisited,” both published in 1986.  Since that time, there has been very little research done on the writing and teaching of paragraphs.  Duncan notes that three different modes of thought about the paragraph have emerged: the “‘prescriptive’ . . . [idea] of explicit structure and first-position topic sentences,” the “‘descriptive’ . . . [idea] that [shows] high use of nontextbook structures and low topic-sentence usage as support for looser, inductive approach to instruction,” and the “‘cognitive’ [idea that] stems chiefly from studies in psychology and computational linguistics, where the paragraph is examined solely as a cognitive artifact or in the context of readablitiy” (471).
  • Duncan argues that there needs to be a renewed effort in paragraph research and outlines four ideas for scholars to consider.  The first is the need for new terminology; “for example, there should be a reasonable standard name for the macrostructure between the paragraph and the essay” (489). Second, he notes that “the concept of ‘motive,’ ‘flow,’ or ‘rhythm’ . . . should receive more attention in the context of the paragraph, especially from the reader’s perspective” (489).  Duncan also observes that textbooks still favor one theory of paragraph construction over the others and rarely offer effective descriptions of all three approaches.  Finally, “no consistent prescriptive approach, or descriptive approach—or any approach, for that matter—to instruction has been empirically shown to be more effective in producing better paragraphs than any other;” more research needs to be done on secondary and college instruction to determine how best students learn to write paragraphs (490).

Fanetti, Susan, Kathy M. Bushrow, and David L. DeWeese. “Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations.” English Journal 99.4 (2010): 77-83. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

  • The authors of this article describe disparities in the philosophy surrounding the writing process.  The authors note that when teachers “incorporate drafting, workshopping, and conferencing” with the purpose of telling students “what they’ve done wrong, what they should do better . . . undermines the essence of the writing process because [the teacher] focuse[s] not on helping the writer develop but instead on correcting and directing the writer toward a predetermined goal” (79-80).  The primary challenge for college freshmen is to unlearn that writing is product oriented, and to instead learn to develop the “student’s relation with him- or herself as a learner, with instructors serving not so much as authorities but rather as facilitators, colearners with the students” (82).

Fearn, Leif and Nancy Farnan.  “When is a Verb?  Using Functional Grammar to Teach Writing.” Journal of Basic Writing 26.1 (2007): 63-87. Web. 30 July 2010.

  • The authors conducted experiments on two groups of high school students, which showed that, at the end of a semester, the first group of students, who were taught the functions of grammar and then wrote sentences using the forms, showed greater quality in their own writing samples than the second group, who had experienced “grammar instruction and ‘process’ writing” taught as two separate and distinct activities, even though the second group did these activities in the same class.

Gere, Anne R. “Writing Now: A Policy Research Brief.” National Council of Teachers of English, 2008. Web. 30 July 2010.

  • National Council of Teachers of English through the James R. Squire Office of Policy Research “offers updates on research with implications for policy decisions that affect teaching and learning” (1).  The findings of NCTE are consistent with the research we have seen elsewhere, and are offered in a concise, user-friendly format.  The authors identify writing as holistic, authentic and varied, and also provide recommendations for teachers on effective writing instruction and assessment.
  • The policy calls for writing to be authentic, varied, collaborative, and informative; calls for teaching grammar in context and using a “holistic,” “multi-faceted” approach to instruction and assessment.  Recommendations for teacher: page counts of longer essays, 5 pages for high school, 10 for college; multi-genre; functional grammar approaches—grammar in writing; collaboration; new media; strategies of formative assessment; multiple measures, including portfolios.

Graham, Steve and Delores Perin. “Writing Next:  Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools.” Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2007. Web. 30 July 2010.

Hillocks Jr., George. “Some Practices and Approaches Are Clearly Better Than Others and We Had Better Not Ignore the Differences.” English Journal 98.6 (2009): 23-29. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 May 2010.

  • George Hillocks responds to an article by his former student, and now colleague, Peter Smagorinsky.  Hillocks asserts that there are better ways than others to teach students to write, but they all require that teachers engage students in the learning process and have a general level of competency to use those strategies.  Hillocks defends his philosophy of reflective practice in writing instruction, saying that all teachers, regardless of the strategy they use to teach students to write, must “construct clear objectives and their criteria, evaluate outcomes in terms of the criteria, identify reasons for failures, and invent better approaches to reach the objectives” (29).  Hillocks’ argument asserts that no matter what strategy is used, if the teacher does not commit to using it correctly, learning will not take place.  Essentially, Hillocks supports more than refutes the assertions made by Smagorinsky.

Hillocks Jr., George.  Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.

  • In his book, Hillocks lays out his research on teaching writing.  Hillocks begins by exploring the philosophy behind writing, including Aristotle and Derrida, and illustrates the connection between how we think and have thought about writing and the way writing is learned.  The book also includes practical examples for teachers looking to improve the writing instruction in their classrooms, but not necessarily engage in philosophical debate on the nature of writing.

Langer, Judith A. “Beating the Odds:  Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well.” American Educational Research Journal 4:38 (2001): 837-880. Web. 3 Aug. 2010.

  • In her article, Langer details research done on schools in Florida, New York, California and Texas that are out-performing other schools on national ELA measures.  Langer and her team did a two-year long study looking at the teaching practices of individual teachers and found that teachers who achieved better-than-average results, what she describes as “high literacy”—a students ability to “use language, content, and reasoning in ways that are appropriate for particular situations and disciplines” (838)—were all using the same practices.  Those include:
  • Approaches to skill instruction that evolves from “separated” instruction that is a “direct instruction of isolated skills and knowledge,” after which teachers move students to “simulated” instruction involving “application of those concepts and rules within a targeted unit of reading, writing, or oral language” that allows the student to practice using the skills presented in separated instruction under controlled conditions (856).  Finally, “beating the odds” (845) teachers move their students to “integrated” instruction, at which time students are “expected to use their skills and knowledge within the embedded context of a large and purposeful activity . . . (not merely to practice the skill) [such as] planning, researching, writing, and editing . . . Here, the focus is on completing a project or activity well, with primary focus on the effectiveness of the work in light of its purpose” (857).
  • Approaches to connecting learnings “among concepts and experiences within lessons; across lessons, classes, and even grades; and connections between in-school and out-of-school knowledge and experiences” (864).
  • Approaches to enabling strategies that are overtly taught and that “provid[e] students with ways to work through the task themselves, helping th em to understand and meet the task demands” (868).  Such strategies change due to the varied demands of a task, but include organization strategies, models, and rubrics.
  • Classroom organization that provides “students with a variety of opportunities to learn through substantive interaction with one another as well as with the teacher” (872).
  • “The most successful educational programs are those that emphasize high expectations coupled with effective support systems; individuals learn best from each other in collaborative groupings” (873).

Mason, Linda H., Elizabeth Benedek-Wood, and Lauren Valasa. “Teaching Low-Achieving Students to Self-Regulate Persuasive Quick Write Responses.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 53.4 (2010): 303-12. Ebsco. Web. 30 Jul. 2010.

  • This article provides specific examples of how teachers can use Self-Regulated Strategy Development instruction to not only help students organize their writing, but to also reinforce content level instruction.  Students are asked to monitor their own writing in order to effectively communicate ideas on topics being taught in the classroom: a work of fiction, science concepts, etc.

Mayer, Melanie.  “On the Ground:  Applying Current Research in a High School Classroom.” English Journal 2(2009): 91. eLibrary. Web. 19 Jul. 2010.

  • A veteran English teacher, after going back to school, learns that applying current research in composition is essential to improving composition instruction in her classroom.
  • In her article, she describes and evaluates the current theories in composition including: the reading-writing connection, writing as a social act, and assessment.

“Peter Elbow on Writing.” YouTube. Web. 15 Jul 2010.

  • In this short video, Elbow discusses his personal experiences with learning to write.  From his own experiences, he has developed theories about how students learn to write.
  • Elbow embraces the idea of students free-writing first, without an expectation for what the writing is to become.  He encourages students to write for two and five minute spurts initially, perhaps only writing ideas or a sentence or two.  Perhaps four or five times before writing in earnest.
  • Then he encourages students to write from those first bits, even if the writing is garbage.  In doing so, Elbow argues, students are freer to explore the ideas that they hope to eventually express without the fear and pressure of having to be perfect.
  • The instructional task then becomes to help students refine that initial writing through revision.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert:  Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (2004): 124-149. Jstor. Web. 21 Jul. 2010.

  • This article presents the findings of a study done on writing development in the Harvard freshman class of 2001.  Students were asked to volunteer to answer questions about the writing they do in college throughout their years at Harvard.  Those responses, along with sample papers and further interviews, were used to consider how undergraduates view writing as part of their academic life.
  • The authors were surprised to find how positively students responded to academic writing, even when they were not considered to be “good” writers.  Students repeatedly felt that courses with a writing requirement allowed them to see themselves as part of the larger academic landscape, rather than as “academic ‘tourists’” (130).
  • However, despite the largely positive feelings students expressed toward writing, many of the students came to Harvard with the same formulaic, repetitive writing habits developed so often in high schools.  The authors state that the students who go on to become the most successful academic writers, the ones who maintain an interest in exploring and contributing to the conversations in their field, are those who “see themselves as novices in a world that demands ‘something more and deeper’ from their writing than high school,” and who also “build authority not by writing from a position of expertise but by writing into expertise” (133-4).  The authors assert that first-year students need to repeat the ideas of others, and engage in imitative writing before they can achieve more serious academic writing; “it will be two years and dozens of papers before most students are able to . . . [find] a genuine question in a source, a gap in the scholarship, the way experts do” (emphasis added, 135).

Smagorinsky, Peter. “Is It Time to Abandon the Idea of “Best Practices” in the Teaching of English?.” English Journal 98.6 (2009): 15-22. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 May 2010.

  • Smagorinsky responds to teachers’ search for the one key element that will make them great teachers of writing, “the teaching method that always works.”  He asserts that there is really no such thing.  In order for a teacher to be effective at anything, he or she must teach according to what works for his or her personality and respond authentically to the needs of his or her students.
  • Three methods for teaching writing include, listed in order of effectiveness: the environmental approach, the process approach, and the presentational approach.

Further Reading

Bazerman, Charles, Joseph Little, Lisa Bethel, Teri Chavkin, Danielle Fouquette, and Janet Garufis. Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2005. The WAC Clearinghouse. Web. 15 July 2010.

  • This online text outlines the myriad ways that teachers may effectively have students write in many different academic settings.
  • The text also offers a comprehensive list of resources for guiding instruction in writing across the curriculum.

Flower, Linda.  “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing.” College English 41.1 (1979): 19-37. Jstor. Web. 22 July 2010.

Kutney, Joshua P. “Will Writing Awareness Transfer to Writing Performance? Response to Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions’.” College Composition and Communication. 59.2 (2007): 276-9. Print

  • Kutney offers reservations about the claims made by Downs and Wardle in their essay, questioning the claims made by Downs and Wardle based on the evidence they offer.

Powell, Pegeen Reichert. “Retention and Writing Instruction:  Implications for Access and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication. 60.4 (2009): 664-682. Print.

VanDeweghe, Rick. “Writing Next and the Power to Teach.” English Journal 97.5 (2008): 88-92. eLibrary. Web. 19 July 2010.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words:  Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 297-328. Jstor. Web. 20 July 2010.


Building an Effective Writing Program

Boquet, Elizabeth H., and Neal Lerner. “Reconsiderations:  After ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’.” College English 71.2 (2008): 170-89.

  • In this article the authors address the hallmark article by Stephen North, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” published in September 1984 in College English.  They begin by providing a close reading of the article and analyzing how it has affected scholarship in the field of writing center studies.
  • Most interestingly, the authors note that though North published his essay for an audience not working in writing centers, and though he intended for his essay to impact attitudes of English professors toward writing centers, his essay is most prominently cited by those in the closed circle of writing center directors.  Boquet and Lerner note that in order for North’s vision of the writing center as an integral component of a University’s composition program, writing centers must step into the research arena.  The authors conclude that because North’s essay has been so influential in the scholarship of writing centers, it has caused an “imbalance in the scholarship of the field” (185), and that in our new climate of increased assessment at all levels and the subsequent call for accountability requires that “all of us who are invested in literacy education, in all of our settings, [must] maximize the potential of these exciting new opportunities.  Our field can no longer afford, if it ever could, to have forged a separate peace between classroom and nonclassroom teaching.  There is no separate but equal” (186).

Parks, Steve and Eli Goldblatt. “Writing Beyond the Curriculum:  Fostering New Collaborations in Literacy.” College English 62.5 (2000): 584-606. Jstor. Web. 22 Jul. 2010.

  • The authors describe the changing landscape of composition instruction and make a strong case for diversification in literacy instruction.  The authors emphasize the importance of collaborating with education departments, local schools, and communities to broaden and enrich the scope of writing instruction.