To Improve Students' Writing, Teach Them to Construct Sentences and Outline Paragraphs
Even students at the secondary level can benefit greatly from that kind of instruction--which is all too rare.
Recent research suggests that secondary students can benefit significantly from learning how to construct sentences and use linear outlines to plan paragraphs—two skills that are rarely taught.
By the time kids reach middle or high school, you might assume they’ve already learned to write sentences and outline paragraphs. But elementary teachers rarely get good training in writing instruction, and many literacy curricula assume kids just pick up basic writing skills if they read and write enough. For many, that doesn’t happen.
Secondary teachers are even less likely to have been trained in writing instruction—especially skills like how to construct sentences. They’re expected to assign essays and research papers, but their students often haven’t learned how to express themselves coherently in writing.
“It was a constant struggle,” one high school social studies teacher told a researcher, “because how am I supposed to teach them an essay if I don’t know how to, if they can’t even write a paragraph.”
“I would get to the end of a school year,” said another, “and papers still didn’t make sense. It wasn’t even like there [were] good papers and bad papers, or like an A-level paper and a C-level paper. It was like, I can’t even read this paper.”
It’s not surprising that many secondary teachers in this situation simply give up on teaching writing or, in some cases, even assigning it beyond the bare minimum. Nor is it surprising that only 27% of eighth- and twelfth-graders are proficient in writing, as measured by national tests. Perhaps least surprising of all is that many high school and college students are expected to start turning to artificial intelligence to do their writing assignments for them.
What is surprising is that there’s so little good research on writing instruction. Few researchers have studied whether students’ writing improves after they’ve been taught to construct sentences or create a linear outline.
Two Recent Studies
Now two studies have started to address that research gap. The authors, Toni-Ann Vroom and Dina Zoleo, are co-chief executive officers of an organization called The Writing Revolution, which trains teachers in a method of writing instruction that includes the strategies whose effects they studied. Each conducted her study as the basis for a PhD dissertation, and both received doctorates in 2021. Although the dissertations haven’t been published, they’re freely available here and here.
As both Vroom and Zoleo would acknowledge, they’re not entirely objective. But it’s not unusual for researchers to have connections to the interventions they’re studying, and both dissertations were approved by academics who reviewed them for signs of bias. There’s also been some research done by others that supports components of The Writing Revolution method, which you can find summarized here.
I also have a connection to The Writing Revolution. I’m the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman—who created the method—of a book by that name, and I serve on the organization’s advisory board. So I’m not entirely objective either, although I derive no financial benefit from the book or the organization. But given the dearth of good research, I felt it was important to report these studies’ findings.
The Writing Revolution’s method, sometimes called the Hochman Method, begins explicit, step-by-step instruction at the sentence level and continues through paragraphs and essays. It can be adapted to any grade level and embeds writing activities in the content of the curriculum in any subject, a practice that has been found to boost learning.
The Effects of Sentence-Level Instruction
In Vroom’s study—which examined the effects of sentence-level instruction at a high-poverty high school—students had to finish this sentence when they were studying the short story “The Cask of Amontillado”:
Even though Fortunato was drunk on his way down to the catacombs, ______________________________________ .
That activity teaches students how to use a subordinating conjunction like “even though” while simultaneously reinforcing their knowledge and understanding of the story.
After the 79 ninth-graders in the study got four months of instruction in the method’s sentence-level strategies, Vroom found their writing had improved significantly. Specifically, there was an “effect size” of 0.84, which is considered large. Mistakes in spelling and punctuation often persisted, but students were shifting from writing the way they spoke to employing structures commonly found only in written language.
For example, here’s the first sentence in one student’s “before” writing sample, when the prompt was to write a paragraph about how a character changes in a novel, story, or play:
In Star Wars Theres a character named Anakin skywalker who changed OVerTime in a very Dark way.
Four months later, the same student was asked to write a paragraph about “a person you have learned about and their impact.” The student wrote:
Mike Tyson, A Former heavyweight champion of The world, was a Force to be reckoned with.
That sentence uses an appositive, which is a phrase describing a noun: “a former heavyweight champion of the world.” The construction is explicitly taught as part of the method.
The Effects of Using a Linear Outline
Zoleo’s study focused on the effects of having seventh- and eighth-graders use a linear outline to plan a paragraph. While other studies have looked at whether doing any kind of planning before writing helps—and found that it does—few have compared the effects of different kinds of planning. Zoleo’s study compared students in three “conditions”:
no planning “tool”—just scratch paper if students wanted to use it;
a concept or “bubble” map, with the main idea in a circle in the center and lines radiating out to other circles where students write ideas for details; and
a linear outline with spaces for a topic sentence at the top, notes for detail sentences in the middle, and a concluding sentence at the bottom.
After analyzing data from 331 students, Zoleo found that those who used the linear outline got higher writing scores than those in the other two groups. The effect size, 0.34, is considered small but statistically significant.
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Based on questionnaires and interviews, Zoleo also found that students who used the outline were far more likely to say it was helpful than those who used the bubble map. When asked whether planning helped them organize their ideas, 84% of the outline-users said it did, while only 58% of the bubble map-users said so. Similarly, 85% of those using an outline said it made writing a paragraph easier, compared to 50% of those using the bubble map.
Some students who used the bubble map said it helped them come up with ideas before writing, but most found it difficult to use for planning. Zoleo recommends that students who use a bubble map for brainstorming should convert it to a linear outline before writing.
We Need More Research—But We Also Need to Act Now
These studies, of course, aren’t definitive. Neither of them was a randomized controlled trial, which is the kind of study that enables researchers to conclude that a particular intervention caused the effects they observed. And both Vroom and Zoleo had to modify their research plans because of the pandemic.
Beyond that, neither study could replicate what actually happens in a school using The Writing Revolution’s method as intended. Experimental studies often isolate and try to assess the effects of teaching one particular skill. But the method, when implemented faithfully, combines instruction in various strategies that interact with and support each other. In real life, students would be taught to construct both sentences and outlines, and their sentence-level skills would enable them to construct topic and concluding sentences on their outlines and convert their notes to detail sentences in a finished paragraph.
Not to mention that students wouldn’t just be given a blank outline to fill in; they would get explicit, step-by-step instruction in how to create the outline. Not surprisingly, in Zoleo’s study the students who got the highest writing scores not only used the outline but had teachers who had explicitly taught them how to use it.
More research is clearly needed, and a more holistic study of The Writing Revolution’s method is in the works. But in the meantime, these findings—along with the clear failure of standard approaches to writing instruction—should encourage educators to try explicitly teaching sentence-construction and outlining skills now, or better yet, to adopt the entire method.
When Vroom interviewed teachers who participated in her study, they said—in addition to the “before” observations quoted at the beginning of this post—that the method had been “transformative” and something that “changed the game.” One English teacher said she saw “a huge turnaround,” with students’ writing showing more complexity and detail. And teachers observed that when students moved on to outlining and writing paragraphs, they used their recently acquired sentence-level skills to make their writing clearer and more coherent. (These comments may have referred to a longer period than the four months of the study.)
It's time we stopped expecting both teachers and students to flounder—or resort to artificial intelligence—when confronted with writing assignments. Writing is more than a skill that can be subcontracted out to a computer. Teaching students to write is tantamount to teaching them how to think clearly, logically, and analytically, and it moves their reading comprehension to a higher level. No bot-created paragraph or essay can do that.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.
I was a high school English teacher before becoming an elementary school reading specialist fifteen years ago, and my experience confirms what you say: high school students are often just assigned writing rather than taught it. I did a master's in writing instruction in the mid-nineties--Teaching the "F" Word: Getting Form without a Formula Using Procedural Facilitation--and relied heavily on the research by Flower and Hayes, Scardamalia and Bereiter, George Hillocks, and Steve Graham--all of whom emphasized the importance of actually teaching elements of writing and revising based on those elements. Steve Grahams 2010 Carnegie Report "Writing to Read" discusses how writing improves reading comprehension.
You might want to look at the work of a PhD whom I supervised (Milou de Smet). She studied the use of the outline tool in MS Word and how it affected both learning and writing.