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Writing strategy instruction

Writing strategy instruction involves teaching developing writers strategies (i.e., schemas) for carrying out one or more aspects of the writing process. According to Alexander, Graham, and Harris (1998), a strategy can be understood as procedural or “how to” knowledge. They can take the form of a heuristic (e.g., general rules for writing a summary) or more step-by-step procedures (i.e., construct an outline of main points and details). Strategies are purposeful (goal-directed or intentional), willful (must be applied), effortful (cognitively demanding), and facilitative (designed to enhance performance). They vary in terms of their generality, as some writing strategies have broad utility (e.g., brainstorming, semantic webs), whereas others are designed for a specific domain (e.g., the science writing heuristic; Hand & Prain, 2002) or task (TREE for writing an opinion essay, see below). Strategies can facilitate metacognition, as when a strategy prompts writers to reflect on their performance and use any acquired awareness to guide subsequent thoughts and actions. Strategies can further be paired together in a variety of ways to help writers initiate, orchestrate, maintain, and evaluate mental operations used to regulate the writing task, behaviors, processes, and environment as well as writers’ motivations.

As children learn and grow as writers, the writing strategies they use and the ways they use these strategies change (Alexander, Graham, & Harris, 1998). With experience and schooling, children’s strategic behavior becomes more efficient, effective, flexible, and inventive (old writing strategies are modified and new strategies created).

While these shifts in strategic behavior provide a general picture of the course of strategy development, development patterns are truly individualistic, as developing writers with a similar level of writing experience and schooling may use different strategies to solve the same writing task. As the WWC model illustrates (Graham, 2018b, 2018c), strategic behavior and strategy use not only varies from one person to the next but from one writing community to another.

Strategy development does not occur in isolation but happens in conjunction with other aspects of cognitive development, including advances in a writers knowledge, motivation, and foundational writing skills (Alexander, Graham, & Harris, 1998; Graham & Harris, 2000). Because writing strategies must be intentionally evoked, their use is directly tied to a writer’s beliefs, goal, and sense of agency. As developing writers gain a deeper and richer knowledge base about writing, they can use writing strategies more efficiently and effectively. As foundational writing skills such as handwriting and spelling become more automatic, they are less likely to interfere or impede strategy use.

There are multiple ways that developing writers can acquire new writing strategies (Graham, 2018c). They can acquire new writing strategies by participating in a specific writing community, adopting the sanctioned actions the community uses to carry out writing tasks. They can also learn new strategies or adapt old ones through observation (e.g., watching a teacher write), collaborative writing (e.g., adopting a strategy a collaborator uses), as a consequence of action (e.g., deciding to adapt a strategy to make it effective in a new situation), or deliberate agency (e.g., designing a new strategy). To date, the most scientifically tested means for acquiring new writing strategies involves directly teaching them (Graham & Harris, 2017).

Teaching Writing Strategies

Before the cognitive revolution in writing was fully underway, scholars such as Young, Becker, and Pike (1970) promoted the use of heuristics as a mechanism for college students to understand writing topics and audience. With the publication of Hayes and Flowers (1980) cognitive model of writing, researchers began designing intervention studies to determine the effectiveness of explicitly teaching writing strategies to school-aged students. The very first writing strategy instructional studies involved students with special needs (Harris & Graham, 1985; Moran, Schumaker, & Vetter, 1981), but by the 1990s researchers were studying the effects of such instruction on typically developing writers as well (Englert et al., 1991).

Over the course of four decades, writing strategy instruction has become the most empirically investigated teaching approach in writing (Graham, Harris, & McKeown, 2013). Most of the writing strategy studies conducted to date focus on teaching one or more genre specific strategies (starting with Harris and Graham in 1985), but many studies also teach such strategies in conjunction with more general writing strategies and self-regulation procedures (e.g., Harris & Graham, 2008).

There are many similarities in the instructional approaches used to teach writing strategies to grade 1 to 12 students. Most approaches (Deshler & Schumaker, 1986; Englert et al., 1991; Harris & Graham, 2009; Olson & Land, 2007) apply a gradual release model where strategies are first modeled and writers are supported until they can apply the strategies successfully and independently. Dialogue between teacher and students is also commonly used in these approaches as a way of strengthening students’ knowledge and control over the writing strategies taught. There are differences, however, as some approaches specifically include instructional procedures for enhancing maintenance and generalization (Deshler & Schumaker, 1986; Harris & Graham, 2009), others teach writing and reading strategies conjointly (Olson & Land, 2007), and still others stress criterion-based learning principles, teaching the knowledge and self-regulation procedures needed to use the target writing strategies successfully, and using procedures to enhance students’ beliefs about writing (Harris & Graham, 2009).

The writing strategy instructional approach that has been researched the most often is the SRSD model developed by Karen Harris. Over 100 studies from around the world have tested the effectiveness of this approach to writing strategy instruction (Graham, Harris, & McKeown, 2013). In addition, when compared to other approaches to teaching writing strategies (effect sizes = 0.56), SRSD is more effective in enhancing the quality of writing for school-aged students (effect size = 1.59; Graham & Harris, 2017). Consequently, to illustrate writing strategy instruction, we provide an example involving SRSD. To demonstrate the global reach of this approach, our example involves a case study of SRSD conducted in Chile.

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