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Main Body

6. Approaches to Writing Instruction in Elementary Classrooms

Vicki McQuitty


This chapter focuses on the different approaches to writing instruction that teachers use in elementary classrooms. It includes an overview of each approach, a description of how each is implemented, an explanation of how each has been critiqued, and research evidence about each approach’s effectiveness. It also provides recommendations about how elementary teachers can incorporate the most promising components of each approach into their writing instruction.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. describe different approaches to writing instruction;
  2. explain the benefits of each approach to teaching writing;
  3. discuss how educators and researchers have critiqued different ways of teaching writing;
  4. analyze the research conducted on different approaches to writing instruction;
  5. integrate ideas about effective writing instruction in elementary classrooms.


Imagine you are a second grader at the beginning of the school year. During writing time your teacher tells you to write about your summer vacation. What do you do? To an observer, it looks like you sat down at your desk, took out pencil and paper, wrote your story, and then drew a picture to accompany it. Yet, was the process really so simple? What happened inside your mind to get from the blank paper to a story about your summer? What thought processes and skills did you use to write this “simple” composition?

Writing is an important skill that is used throughout a person’s life for academic, professional, and personal purposes. If you are a proficient writer, much of the process is automatic and requires little conscious effort. But consider it from a child’s point of view. For a novice writer, there are many things to think about: forming letters on the page, writing left to right in a horizontal line, leaving spaces between words, using letters to represent the sounds in words, capitalizing proper nouns and the beginning of sentences, and placing punctuation in appropriate places. At the same time, like adult writers, children must also devote attention to generating and organizing ideas, including elements appropriate for the genre, choosing vocabulary to communicate the ideas clearly, and monitoring the quality of the text. Thus, writing places substantial cognitive demands on young children because they must attend to many things simultaneously in order to produce an effective text.

Because writing is such a challenging task, children need high quality instruction to develop their writing skills. Over the years, teachers have taught writing in many different ways, and components of each approach are still found in classrooms today. To understand current writing instruction, it is helpful to understand how it has been taught in the past and why educators have introduced new ways of teaching it over time. This chapter describes the different approaches that have been used, shows how each has been critiqued, and includes research evidence about the effectiveness of each approach. Each section also includes recommendations for how teachers can best incorporate the components of each approach into their classroom practice.

Penmanship Approach

In the United States, the earliest approach to writing instruction with young children was teaching penmanship, a practice that dates back to the colonial era. Penmanship focused on transcription—the physical act of writing—and it involved producing legible, accurate, and even beautifully formed letters on the page. Children learned penmanship through imitation and practice, so they copied models over and over again from printed copybooks. Young children began by practicing single letters, followed by words, sentences, and eventually paragraphs. In some classrooms, the teacher led the entire class to write letters in unison as she gave verbal commands: “Up, down, left curve, quick” (Thornton, 1996). Sometimes children even practiced the motions of writing, such as pushing and pulling the pencil on the paper, without writing actual letters. Regardless of how penmanship was taught, though, “writing” instruction consisted of copying rather than writing original words.

The goal of penmanship instruction was to ensure children formed letters correctly so they could produce neat, readable writing. However, students, and even many teachers, disliked the boring and mechanical drills. By the 1930s, some educators began to critique penmanship as an overly narrow approach to writing instruction (Hawkins & Razali, 2012). They suggested penmanship was not an end in itself, but a tool for communication. This led some teachers to encourage children to write their own ideas for real purposes, such as making classroom signs or recording lunch orders. Teachers’ manuals began to separate penmanship and writing instruction, and penmanship was renamed “handwriting.”

Handwriting instruction continued in most classrooms throughout the 20th century, but it was given less priority as the curriculum began to focus on writing original compositions. At the same time, some educators began to view handwriting as unimportant because the use of technology (e.g., computers, tablets) has reduced the need for handwritten texts. Teachers devoted less and less time to formal handwriting drills, though many children still practiced copying the alphabet in workbooks. Today, handwriting is usually taught in kindergarten through third grade, but much less frequently in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades (Cutler & Graham, 2008; Gilbert & Graham, 2010; Puranik, Otaiba, Sidler, & Greulich, 2014).

Even though handwriting has been taught in U.S. elementary schools for over two centuries, research on its effectiveness is relatively new. Recent studies show that handwriting is an important part of writing instruction, but for different reasons than educators believed in the past. The appearance of the writing, which was the focus of the penmanship approach, is no longer considered important for its own sake. Instead, researchers now know that proficient writers possess fluent handwriting skills, just as strong readers possess fluent decoding skills1. They form letters quickly and automatically, without much conscious thought, which allows them to devote attention to the higher level aspects of writing such as generating ideas and monitoring the quality of their text (Christensen, 2009). Consider a child who wants to write, “My dog is brown.” Because her mind can remember only a limited amount of information at once, if she directs all of her attention to producing the letters M, y, d, o, and g, she has no way to hold the idea “is brown” in her memory. As a result, she may forget what she intended to write at the end of the sentence. Thus, the benefit of handwriting instruction is to help children form letters effortlessly so they can think about their ideas rather than transcription.

Research shows that the most effective handwriting instruction occurs in short, frequent, and structured lessons (Christensen, 2009). Lessons should last 10-20 minutes each day and focus on writing fluently and automatically rather than on forming perfect letters or positioning the letters precisely between the lines. It is helpful if teachers demonstrate how to form each letter and then provide time for children to practice writing single letters, individual words, and longer texts. Programs exist for both manuscript and cursive writing, and they often teach the letters in a particular order that has been found to facilitate handwriting development. However, handwriting instruction should only occur until children can form letters fluently. As their handwriting becomes automatic, they should spend time writing for authentic audiences and purposes rather than practicing letter formation.

Rules-Based Approach

Teachers in the U.S. have taught children the rules of language and writing since colonial times. Initially, these lessons occurred in the subject of “grammar” and were considered separate from “writing” (penmanship) instruction. However, as children began composing original sentences, grammar and writing instruction began to merge. By the late 1800s, teachers viewed rules-based instruction as a way to improve students’ writing (Weaver, 1996).

Rules-based instruction involves teaching children to correctly write words and sentences. It includes activities like identifying parts of speech, locating sentence elements such as subjects and predicates, learning and applying rules for subject-verb agreement and pronoun use, and practicing punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. One common exercise is sentence correction. Teachers provide sentences with language errors and ask children to correct the mistakes. Students may also write original sentences for the purpose of practicing how to use language. For example, they may be asked to write a sentence that uses certain adjectives or homonyms appropriately. Other activities include adding prefixes or suffixes to lists of words, joining sentences by adding conjunctions, and changing fragments into complete sentences.

Many educators have critiqued the rules-based approach to teaching writing as being decontextualized and inauthentic. It is decontextualized because children mostly write isolated words or sentences rather than full texts. It is inauthentic because, in the world outside of school, people do not write in decontextualized ways. They write stories, blogs, emails, and reports, and those compositions serve meaningful purposes—to entertain, inform, or persuade their readers. Writers communicate meaning, not just correct sentences, so they must generate meaningful ideas and organize their thoughts logically. However, rules-based instruction does not address these higher level aspects of writing. Activities such as correcting sentences and adding prefixes to lists of words bear little resemblance to writing people use in their everyday lives.

Because rules-based instruction is decontextualized from writing authentic texts, it does not improve children’s writing skills. As early as 1926, elementary teachers reported that, “the study of grammar did not seem to affect pupils’ speech and writing” (Cotner, 1926, p. 525). Later research provided empirical evidence to support what teachers noticed in their classrooms. Many studies synthesized by Myhill and Watson (2013) have shown that teaching children rules apart from meaningful writing tasks makes no impact on how they write. Even when students perform accurately on decontextualized activities, they often do not apply that knowledge in their own writing. For example, a child who can add punctuation to a sentence written by the teacher often incorrectly punctuates sentences in his or her original composition.

One activity similar to rules-based instruction but that research does support as effective is sentence combining (Myhill & Watson, 2013). In sentence combining, children merge two or more short, choppy sentences into one longer, more effective sentence. For example, they may be asked to combine Tim has a dog. The dog is tall and black into Tim has a tall, black dog. Practice combining isolated sentences seems to positively impact students’ original writing. Children who become proficient at combining sentences provided by the teacher tend to write longer, more complex sentences in their own compositions. However, it is important to recognize that most of the research on sentence combining has been conducted with high school and university students. Some evidence exists (Saddler, Behforooz, & Asaro, 2008; Saddler & Graham, 2005) that it also positively impacts older elementary students’ writing, but more research is needed to determine how effective sentence combining is for younger students.

While decontextualized rules-based instruction does not improve students’ writing, there is some evidence that teaching grammar within the context of writing is beneficial (Jones, Myhill, & Bailey, 2013). A contextualized approach looks very different from traditional rules-based instruction. In a traditional approach, children might learn about adjectives by underlining them in sentences printed on a worksheet. In a contextualized approach, they add adjectives to their stories to describe the characters and the setting. The teacher might introduce adjectives as “describing words” and ask the children to give some examples. She then will show them how to use adjectives to create a vivid description of a story setting, and the students will use adjectives to create settings in their own stories. Using adjectives in context, rather than on a worksheet, provides a meaningful purpose for learning about them. In addition, because children apply their knowledge of adjectives directly to their writing, the quality of their writing improves.

Process Writing Approaches

Like the name suggests, process writing instruction focuses on the process of composing texts. In this approach, children learn to brainstorm ideas, write rough drafts, and revise and edit those drafts. Process writing emerged in the 1970s, sparked by teachers’ growing rejection of a rules-based approach. At the same time, professional authors, such as the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Donald Murray (Murray, 1968), began to advocate a “workshop” approach to writing instruction that engaged students in the same writing process that published authors used. Soon thereafter, researchers began to study writers as they composed original texts (Emig, 1971; Hayes & Flower, 1980). The findings of this research provided models of 1) what writers do as they compose and 2) the composing process that occurs in writers’ minds. Importantly, both this research and the instruction proposed by professional authors such as Murray were based on the writing processes used by adult writers rather than those used by children. However, despite this limitation, process writing became increasingly prevalent in elementary schools.

Because process writing began, in part, in response to criticisms of rules-based writing instruction, it emphasizes what rules-based approaches did not. Rather than teaching rules for creating sentences, it focuses on writing full texts and meaningful ideas, and it de-emphasizes spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Although educators and textbooks often talk about the process approach to writing instruction, in reality it is many varied approaches that all share a focus on the writing process. Consider the writing instruction in the following second grade classrooms. Mr. Johnson assigns a writing topic to his class every Monday morning. One Monday he asked them to write about this prompt: “If you could be any animal for one day, what would you be? What would you do all day?” The students brainstormed ideas by creating a list of different animals and what each of those animals would do on a typical day. On Tuesday, each child chose an animal and wrote a draft of his or her story. On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson asked the children to revise by reading over their first drafts and instructing them to add five more details. He showed them how to draw arrows to blank spaces on the paper to add words or sentences. On Thursday, Mr. Johnson returned the children’s stories for editing. Each child checked the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation in his or her draft and made corrections. On Friday, the children copied their final drafts neatly onto clean paper and turned them in to Mr. Johnson. He graded the stories over the weekend and returned the papers on Monday.

In the classroom next door, Ms. Turner began writing time on Monday by telling the children they would be writing memoirs. Because the class had read and discussed many memoirs in the previous two weeks, the children understood that they should write a personal story about an interesting or important experience in their lives. They brainstormed ideas by listing memories about fun things they had done, scary times they remembered, and moments they felt very happy or very sad. Once the children made their lists, Ms. Turner asked them to tell some of their stories to a partner. After 15 minutes of storytelling, she said, “Some of you told a story that your partner liked very much. If you think others would enjoy hearing your story, write it down so you can share it with the class.” Some children began writing and others continued telling their stories to different friends in the class.

On Tuesday, Ms. Turner encouraged the children to choose another memory from their list and write about it. Some children wrote new stories, others read their drafts to a friend, and some began revising. While the children worked, Ms. Turner talked to individual students, reading their drafts and showing them how to make changes. She showed Marissa how to add describing words and showed Paul how to write dialogue. She also taught a short “mini-lesson” to the whole class about how to add details that would help readers visualize the story’s action. At the end of writing time, two or three children volunteered to read their stories aloud to the class. The audience asked questions and offered suggestions for revising the stories.

Writing time continued this way for ten days. Children wrote, revised, and shared their work, and they received feedback from friends and from Ms. Turner. Some children wrote and revised several stories, while some wrote only one or two. Each day Ms. Turner taught a mini-lesson about how to write a good memoir and met with children for writing conferences. After two weeks, she invited students to choose one story that they wanted to publish. Using speech-to-text software, the children entered their stories into a word processing document and began to edit. Ms. Turner taught them to use spellcheck, and they edited their own and others’ work. During writing conferences, she taught some to capitalize the beginning of sentences and showed others how to use quotation marks. After editing was complete, Ms. Turner printed the stories and bound them together into a class book. Each child read his or her published story to the class, and the school librarian put the book in the library so other students could read it.

Down the hall, in Ms. Harrison’s classroom, writing time on Monday began with the teacher announcing, “It’s time to write.” The children enthusiastically scattered around the room, grabbing pencils and notebooks. For the next 25 minutes, they wrote in their journals and talked to one another. Ms. Harrison allowed them to choose their own topics and write any type of text, but most children wrote stories about characters from their favorite movies and television programs. Some wrote an entire story, others wrote a sentence or two, and a few drew pictures without writing any words. Ms. Harrison sat at her desk while the children worked and read anything that a child brought to her. “Great job!” she said to each one. Once a month, she collected the children’s journals and put a smiley face at the top of each page.

Although each of these teachers used a “process writing” approach, many differences existed in their instruction. In Mr. Johnson’s room, the teacher assigned the writing topic, and everyone moved through the writing process together: brainstorming on Monday, drafting on Tuesday, revising on Wednesday, and editing on Thursday. Students wrote alone and only the teacher read their work. In Ms. Turner’s class, children chose their own topics, moved through the process at their own pace, got feedback from peers and the teacher, and shared their writing with classmates. They also received both individual and group instruction from the teacher. In Ms. Harrison’s class, the students chose their own topics and moved through the writing process at their own pace, but they received no direct instruction from the teacher.

People sometimes wonder why these different ways of teaching are all called “process writing instruction.” This happens because teachers, and sometimes researchers, tend to label any approach in which children draft, revise, and/or edit as “process writing.” Research shows that teachers who use process writing instruction implement it in different ways (Troia, Lin, Cohen, & Monroe, 2011). As a result, the term “process writing” means many different things.

Evaluating the benefits of process writing instruction is challenging for two reasons. First, few high quality experimental studies2 have directly examined this approach (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2006). As a result, causal evidence about its effectiveness is limited. Second, because teachers implement process writing differently, it is difficult to judge this approach holistically. Consider the three classrooms described above. If a researcher set out to study process writing, which of the classes would he or she include? The instruction in one classroom might be much more effective than the instruction in the others, yet each is considered to be “process writing.” Perhaps a more important question than “Is process writing effective?” is the question, “What specific activities within process writing instruction lead to the best learning outcomes for children? However, much more research is needed to answer this question (McQuitty, 2014).

Despite some of the difficulties of studying process writing, some general conclusions about the effectiveness of this approach can be drawn from selected studies that have been done. A meta-analysis3 of 29 individual studies indicates that process writing is moderately effective at teaching children to write, though it is less effective with students who have writing disabilities than with students who are average or high achieving writers (Graham & Sandmel, 2011). The meta-analysis included only studies that occurred in classrooms with similar types of process writing instruction. The instruction in each classroom had these features: 1) extended opportunities for writing; 2) writing for real audiences and purposes; 3) emphasis on the cyclical nature of writing, including planning, translating, and revising; 4) student ownership of written compositions; 5) interactions around writing between peers as well as teacher and students; 6) a supportive writing environment; and 7) students’ self-reflection and evaluation of their writing and the writing process. So, we can conclude that process writing instruction with these seven features is moderately effective for average and high achieving writers but only minimally effective for struggling writers. However, if teachers implement process writing instruction with other features, those approaches might be more or less effective for these groups of children.

While more research is needed about the specific features that make process writing instruction effective, some educators have critiqued the approach. For example, Lisa Delpit (2006) has argued that in some classrooms (like Mr. Johnson’s and Ms. Harrison’s), the focus on process means there is no instruction about the writing product. This creates difficulties for students who do not already know the characteristics of good writing. For instance, stories usually progress in chronological order, while informational reports are organized around topics and subtopics. Children who have read many stories and informational books will know these organizational structures, but those with few reading opportunities may not. Because some students may not have access to as many books as their classmates, they may lack knowledge of how stories and reports are organized. If their teacher only teaches the writing process and ignores instruction about how the text should be organized, certain children will be at a disadvantage.

Process writing approaches are relatively popular in elementary classrooms and probably offer some benefits. Writing, by its very nature, is a process, so teaching children how to engage in that process makes sense; however, teachers must carefully consider the specific practices they include in their process writing instruction. Research evidence does support several particular practices that teachers should implement as part of a process approach (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). First, they must show students specific ways to improve their writing. For example, they can demonstrate how to add details to a story and provide time for children to add details to their own stories. This explicit instruction about how to create a quality text helps students more than simply telling them to draft, revise, and edit. It also answers Delpit’s (2006) concern that some children will not know the features of good writing or how to produce it.

Second, children can benefit from interacting with peers during the writing process. They can learn from one another and help each other improve their writing. However, students do not automatically know how to help their peers, so teachers must show them how to give meaningful feedback. One effective practice is to give children criteria for responding to peers’ writing (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). Some teachers give students a protocol that outlines how to engage in peer response (see Figure 1). When children receive specific instruction about how to give feedback, they are better able to help one another.

Ch 6 Figure 1

Figure 1. How to engage in peer response (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007).

Finally, there is some evidence that children should engage in the writing process flexibly rather than rigidly (see McQuitty, 2014 for a review). Some children may need more time to write their first drafts, while others may need more time for revision. Writing conferences, in which teachers read over children’s drafts with them and provide feedback, also allow for flexibility. The teacher can provide individualized instruction in writing conferences, such as showing one child how to organize a paragraph logically and showing another how write topic sentences. Maintaining a flexible approach to process writing allows teachers to meet each child’s specific instructional needs.

Genre Approaches

Although process writing provided a much needed response to ineffective, decontextualized language activities, the focus on process sometimes meant teachers ignored the quality of the writing itself (Baines, Baines, Stanley, & Kunkel, 1999). In some classrooms, children drafted, revised, edited, and shared their work, but their writing never improved. Particularly troubling was the fact that some children—usually white, middle class English speakers—seemed to excel in process writing classrooms while others—usually those from historically marginalized groups—did not. This fact led genre theorists to critique process writing and offer genre approaches as an alternative.

Genre approaches to writing instruction focus on how to write different types of texts. The notion of genre is grounded in the idea that writing is situational, so what counts as “good” writing depends on the context, purpose, and audience. For example, texting a friend and composing an essay are two very different writing situations. A “good” text message communicates ideas informally and efficiently, and background information is not needed because the author and reader share common knowledge and experiences. A text which states, “Ok meet you at 10” suffices. A good essay, however, has very different characteristics than a text message. An essay author must use a formal tone, fully explain all ideas, provide examples, and use complete sentences. Thus, the form of the writing is tied to the situation in which it occurs.

Teachers who use genre approaches teach about different writing situations and the forms required in each one. Instruction usually begins with children reading and analyzing a genre (Dean, 2008). In a unit about informational texts, the teacher will read many informational books aloud to the class and ask the children to read informational books on their own or in small groups. After reading, they discuss questions such as, “What’s the purpose of informational texts? When do authors write them? When do readers read them? What do readers expect when reading this genre? What are the features common to informational writing?” Once children understand the purposes and features of the genre of informational books, they would then begin to write their own.

Genre approaches answer critiques of process writing by emphasizing the text and explicitly teaching the features of different text types. However, because teachers often integrate genre instruction with process writing or strategy approaches (described below), it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of genre instruction by itself. Research does show that children need repeated exposure to a variety of genres (Donovan & Smolkin, 2006), so it seems plausible that genre instruction would benefit students. However, we currently have no confirmation that genre instruction alone improves children’s writing.

Genre approaches may become more common in elementary schools because the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA& CCSSO], 2010) for grades kindergarten through five are organized around three types of texts children should learn: narrative, informational, and persuasive. Therefore, the CCSS support a genre approach to teaching writing. As genre instruction becomes more popular, though, there is concern that teachers will focus too much on the forms and features of the different genres rather than how genres are situational (Dean, 2008). For example, a teacher might only teach that persuasive texts must state an opinion, give reasons for the opinion, and group the ideas logically (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). While it is important children know these features, it is equally important that they understand why people write persuasive texts, how the text features help authors create an effective argument, and how authors might need to vary the form of their argument to persuade different audiences. Thus, while genre approaches hold potential as effective ways to teach writing, it is currently unclear the best way to implement them. More research is needed to provide further evidence about how teachers should use genre instruction in their classrooms.

Strategy Approaches

Strategy approaches to writing instruction teach children the planning, drafting, and revision strategies used by skilled writers. These strategies are specific steps that guide students through each part of the writing process. For example, children might learn the planning strategy POW (Harris, Graham, & Mason, 2006): Pick my ideas (decide what to write about), Organize my notes (organize ideas into a writing plan), and Write and say more (continue to modify the plan while writing). The teacher would teach this strategy through a series of steps: 1) develop the background knowledge students need to apply the strategy; 2) discuss the strategy and how it will improve students’ writing; 3) demonstrate the thinking processes used while implementing the strategy; 4) provide support as students use the strategy, such as working together with a partner; and 5) have students use the strategy independently.

Strategy instruction typically incorporates elements of both process writing and genre instruction. After learning the POW strategy, children learn other, genre-specific strategies for planning and drafting. When learning about persuasive writing, they learn TREE: Tell what you believe (state topic sentence), provide three or more Reasons (Why do I believe this?), End it (wrap it up right), and Examine (Do I have all the parts?). This strategy teaches the features of persuasive writing and guides students through planning, drafting, and evaluating their texts. After completing their drafts, they might learn the SCAN revision strategy (Harris & Graham, 1996): Scan each sentence. Does it make Sense? Is it Connected to your belief? Can you Add more? Note errors. Using POW, TREE, and SCAN together guides students through the process of writing a persuasive piece and directs them to include features of the persuasive genre.

Strategy instruction is a structured, systematic, explicit approach to teach writing. Teachers thoroughly explain the steps of the writing process and directly demonstrate both the thinking and the actions required to implement each step. Children practice each strategy, first with teacher and peer support and then on their own, until they have mastered it. Thus, while strategy instruction teaches the writing process and genre features, it is more systematic, explicit, and mastery-oriented than either process writing or other genre approaches. These features also seem to make it more effective. Numerous experimental studies have shown strategy instruction to be more effective than other types of writing instruction (Graham, 2006). However, strategy instruction is easily broken down into steps, which means that it is easier to research than other approaches. This may be one reason why more experimental studies about strategy instruction have accumulated compared to research on other ways of teaching writing.

Despite the strong evidence that strategy instruction helps children learn to write well, it is not widely used in elementary classrooms. This reality may be because teachers view it as formulaic or because it is more teacher-centered (rather than student-centered) than other approaches. Of course, teachers who use strategy instruction implement it in different ways. For instance, some teachers use IMSCI (Read, Landon-Hays, & Martin-Rivas, 2014), a somewhat less directed method of teaching strategies. This approach begins with Inquiry in which the teacher and children read various examples of a genre together and create a chart of the genre’s characteristics. This inquiry is more consistent with other genre approaches than with models of strategy instruction in which the teacher directly describes and explains the genre features. However, the next step of IMSCI, Model, involves explicit instruction. The teacher directly demonstrates the thinking and actions required to plan, draft, and revise. The final steps—Shared writing, Collaborative writing, and Independent writing—are also similar to other strategy approaches in which students first work closely with peers and the teacher before writing independently. However, IMSCI is less mastery-oriented and somewhat less teacher-directed than other strategy instruction approaches.

Because the level of explicitness and teacher direction can vary depending on how strategy instruction is implemented, the question for teachers is, Just how direct and explicit must strategy instruction be in order to be effective? Researchers currently have no clear answer to this question. Studies do indicate that more explicit instruction particularly benefits struggling writers (Graham, 2006), but some educators think that teacher-directed approaches lead to shallower learning than approaches in which students take a more active role. Perhaps the best advice for teachers is to integrate strategy instruction with less explicit process writing methods (Danoff, Harris, & Graham, 1993). Such integration might offer the benefits of both explicit instruction and student-centered approaches to learning.

Multimodal Writing Approaches

Multimodal approaches to writing instruction acknowledge that people in the 21st century write differently than in the past. In addition to composing traditional, linear, paper-based texts, we also—perhaps more often—compose digitally. Writing digitally is not just a matter of typing on the computer rather than writing on paper. Digital texts use many different modes to communicate, and authors can develop proficiency in composing each one. Consider a typical webpage. In addition to written words, it may also contain photographs, artwork, audio, video, and text boxes that allow readers to post their own ideas. Designing and coordinating these various elements requires different skills than writing a words-only story.

Digital writing also links texts differently than traditional writing. Many traditional stories are linear; the author expects readers to proceed from the beginning to the end rather than jump forward and backward through the pages. In contrast, think about how people read digital texts. A typical sequence might be: Read half of the home page, click on a video link, watch half the video, click back to the home page, click on a hyperlink, read the first two sentences of the new page, then click on another hyperlink to yet another page. The options for reading a website are endless compared to the options for reading a bound book. As a result, authors of digital texts that include hyperlinks create a set of pages that can be read in almost any order.

The word “design” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009) is often used to describe digital composing because many elements must be considered beyond the written words. Unlike traditional books, there are many options for page size and orientation, font style and size, layout of elements on the page, use of white space, and modes of communication (music, video, pictures, written words). The author of a digital text employs writing, graphic design, and possibly even musical, movie making, and visual art skills to design the text. Furthermore, because digital texts can be interactive, authors must also consider if and how they will provide opportunities for readers to make comments, participate in polls or surveys, or otherwise add to the text.

Although digital, multimodal writing is prevalent in our everyday lives, many elementary students continue to compose traditional pencil-and-paper texts in school. This may occur because the technology needed to write digital texts is too expensive or because the curriculum focuses on traditional paper-based writing. Still, some teachers are providing opportunities for children to combine traditional and digital writing. For example, Ms. Bogard’s third graders composed digital stories (Bogard & McMackin, 2012). They created graphic organizers on paper that depicted the story events and used the organizers to tell their stories aloud and audio record them. Then, with a partner, they listened to the recordings and received feedback and suggestions. Based on the feedback, each child created a storyboard on paper by drawing the pictures that would appear in the story and the narration that would accompany each image. They also planned how to create the images: take photographs, draw and scan to the computer, create video clips, or create still images using software. Finally, they put all of the elements together—images and audio recorded narration—and used software to create their digital stories.

While digital texts are the most likely types of multimodal writing, some teachers have encouraged children to create multimodal texts that are paper-based. For example, while writing memoir stories, children in a fourth grade class (Bomer, Zoch, David, & Ok, 2010) created books that contained pop-ups, glued-in photographs, and objects such as ribbons and stickers. Some students made their books interactive by concealing some of the content with sticky notes and instructing readers to “lift here.” Others attached notecards to the book so readers could write back. All the children incorporated three-dimensional elements such as handmade cardboard boxes filled with confetti, fold out maps, or a packet of sequentially numbered cards that told part of the story. Thus, multimodal writing does not require digital tools.

Because schools have only recently begun to include digital and multimodal writing in their curricula, only a few studies have examined this approach. Qualitative research, such as that conducted in the classrooms described above, shows that elementary children are capable of producing multimodal texts. However, because multimodal writing requires writers to create and coordinate different media, teachers may need to provide a high level of support to ensure children’s success. For example, Ms. Bogard (described above) engaged her students in two cycles of planning and revision for their digital stories. First, they created a graphic organizer of the story events, told the story orally and listened to their recording of it, and received feedback from peers. This allowed them to compose and revise the content, which ensured that the story made sense, contained important details, and followed a logical sequence. They then created storyboards that allowed them to plan every image and write the words that would accompany each image. Each step of the process was needed to ensure the children could coordinate the multiple visual and audio elements of their digital stories. Simply asking children to write multimodally, without providing a process to support their writing, would likely be unsuccessful.


Many different approaches to writing instruction have been used in elementary classrooms. Some approaches, such as short, structured handwriting lessons and strategy instruction, have a strong research base to support them. Other approaches, like penmanship and rules-based instruction are ineffective in improving children’s writing skills. Many approaches, including teaching grammar in context, process writing, teaching genre, and multimodal writing, are promising practices that need more research to determine the best ways to implement them. Teachers commonly do, and probably should, combine the best elements of each approach in order to provide the most effective instruction for their students. They must also seek out newly published research on writing instruction so they can continue to make informed decisions about the best ways to teach.

Questions and Activities

  1. What are the different approaches to writing instruction? Describe each approach and explain what the research says about its effectiveness.
  2. Based on the research evidence, how would you design effective writing instruction for elementary children? Describe the elements you would include and explain why you would include them.
  3. Describe the approaches to writing instruction you experienced as a student. How helpful did you find each approach in supporting and developing your writing skills? Given what you now know about writing instruction, what would suggest that your teachers do differently? Explain your proposed changes and why you suggested them.
  4. Observe writing instruction in an elementary classroom or view one of the videos of writing instruction available at http://www.insidewritingworkshop.org/classroom. Analyze the approaches the teacher incorporates into his or her instruction. How did the children respond to the different parts of the instruction? Explain how effective the instruction seemed and why you evaluated that way.

Web Resources


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1: For more detailed information about the role of fluency in proficient reading, see Chapter 3 by Murray in this textbook.

2: For information about using research to determine the effectiveness of an instructional approach, see Chapter 2 by Munger in this textbook.

3: For more information about meta-analysis, see Chapter 2 by Munger in this textbook.


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6. Approaches to Writing Instruction in Elementary Classrooms by Vicki McQuitty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.