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Writing strategies interventions

When describing how they write, many professional writers indicate they are very strategic. They apply strategic processes to help them manage the writing task, their writing behavior, and the writing environment (Zimmerman & Risemberg, 1997). For instance, John Irving indicated that before writing Cider House Rules, he invested a considerable amount of time and effort in planning, gathering information, making notes, observing, witnessing, and studying (Plimpton, 1958). Similarly, when writing The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer created an extensive dossier and charts on each character, outlining their actions and interactions (Plimpton, 1967). Truman Capote reported that he was constantly monitoring and evaluating what he wrote, repeatedly reworking his papers, creating and revising a first draft by hand, revising again at the typewriter, and revising once again after letting the paper sit for a week or more (Cowley, 1958).

While strategic writing is a trademark of professional writers (Graham & Harris, 2000), it is also evident in the writing of children. Consider below the description from a fifth-grade student of what good writers do when they write. It is reflective of the sophisticated strategies described by more skilled writers above.

They brainstorm ideas ... then think about it and then write about it... look it over to see how to make it all fit in right ... then they do a final copy and go over that. And then if it is still not right, they do it again.

(Graham & Harris, 1996, p. 347)

These examples illustrate some of the strategic processes that skilled and developing writers apply: planning, seeking information, record keeping, organizing, monitoring, evaluating, and revising. They are only the tip of the iceberg though (Zimmerman & Risemberg, 1997), as writers also set goals (rhetorical and content goals as well as tactics for achieving them), self-instruct (e.g., telling themselves what needs to be done), rehearse (e.g., try out a scene in their head before writing it), structure the environment (e.g., find a quiet place to write), self-reinforce (e.g., provide themselves with a reward for completing one or more aspects of a writing task), seek help (e.g., ask another person to provide feedback on the text produced so far), emulate models of good writing (e.g., use another piece of writing as a guide), and manage time (e.g., estimate how much time to spend on each aspect of the writing task).

Young children, in contrast, commonly use an approach to writing that minimizes the use of highly demanding strategic behaviors. They convert writing into tasks of telling what one knows (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). They draw information from memory that seems topic appropriate and write it down, with each new phrase or sentence serving as the stimulus for the next idea. They devote little attention to the constraints imposed by the topic, the development of rhetorical goals, the needs of the audience, or the organization of text. The role of planning, revising, and other strategic processes are minimized, as this retrieve-and-write process acts almost like an encapsulated and automated program, operating with little metacognitive control (McCutchen, 1988). This knowledge telling approach is not necessarily thoughtless though, rather it is forward moving, with little to no recursive interplay among writing processes.

While the knowledge telling approach remains a useful and viable option for some types of writing throughout life, an important goal of schooling is to help develop writers to become more strategic writers (Harris, Graham, MacArthur, Reid, & Mason, 2011). The adaptability of the knowledge telling approach is one barrier to this process. Even though it is basically a one-trick pony involving content generation, it serves an adaptive function. It allows children to produce text while minimizing or eliminating other cognitively demanding processes like planning. For beginning writers this is useful, as other aspects of writing like spelling and handwriting, which cannot be eliminated when writing by hand, are also cognitively demanding (Graham & Harris, 2000). Further complicating the situation, the knowledge telling approach works quite well for many of the types of writing assigned to young children in school, such as writing a personal narrative (Cutler & Graham, 2008). Consequently, it can be challenging to get young writers to take up a more demanding and sophisticated approach to composing when they already have a method that is relatively successful and requires less effort.

Another complication in helping developing writers become more strategic is that writing is not a single thing (Bazerman et al., 2018). Stories, arguments, poems, and informative text differ in important ways. They have different purposes, traditions, and organizing elements (Rijlaarsdam et al., 2012). Moreover, how well one writes in one genre is not a good predictor of how well one writes in another genre (Graham, Harris, & Hebert, 2011). Thus, teaching students to be a more strategic story writer does not mean they will automatically become a more strategic informative writer. Making this situation even more challenging is that the same writing task can vary depending on how it is conceptualized within different communities. For example, a biology and social studies teacher may emphasize the same structural elements for building a written argument (claim, grounds, warrant, support, rebuttal, qualifications; Smagorinsky & Mayer, 2014), but these elements may not appear in the same form or even to the same degree in these two classes (e.g., what counts as legitimate support can differ from one discipline to the next). This means that context must also be taken into account when teaching students to be more strategic writers.

This chapter examines how teachers and schools can help writers become more strategic. We first examine the theoretical role of strategies and strategic processing in writing as well as evidence that supports fostering these skills with developing writers. We then examine approaches for teaching developing writers how to become more strategic writers, providing an example using the Self-regulated Strategy Development model (SRSD; Harris & Graham, 2018). Finally, we consider issues that need to be addressed in future research.

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