Student Choice, Engagement Keys to Higher Quality Writing

Let’s not tell them what to write. (p. 301)

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

As a teacher of writing, I immediately connected Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions with George Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. Not to oversimplify, but Hillocks’s work emphasizes several key points about effective writing instruction, captured well in a chart at the end of the volume:


Hillocks revealed that many so-called traditional approaches to writing instruction were far less effective than many of the practices at the core of writing workshop—notably that direct, isolated grammar instruction has a negative impact on student writing while free writing (without direct instruction) improves student writing.

At all grade levels, then, if our goals of instruction include improving students as writers, we must acknowledge and then implement practices that honor first student choice and engagement.

There exists a historical research base as well as a more complex research base that all elements of student writing are improved (grammar/mechanics, content, organization, claims/evidence) if students choose the topics they write about and the forms/genres their writing takes—especially when that choice is grounded in classroom activities that engage them in the topics before they compose (see Hillocks).

Assigning students a literary analysis essay on The Scarlet Letter after weeks in which the students are guided through the novel has two potential outcomes that are both problematic: (1) students write horrible essays or (2) students produce clone essays.

The problem with (1) is that we typically place the blame for the horrible essays in the students although the source of those horrible essays is mostly the assignment.

The problem with (2) is that these clone essays probably reflect compliance, not high quality writing abilities.

Our students need and deserve the time and space to become writers through choice and engagement—not by parroting what we tell them text is about, not by filling in the templates we provide.

Our students need and deserve rich reading experiences in which they begin to gather mentor texts that inform the choices they make, how they engage in forming words about the topics that matter to them.

As writing teachers, then, we must design classroom discussions that put students at the center through choice and engagement as a powerful way to increase the quality of student writing.


12 thoughts on “Student Choice, Engagement Keys to Higher Quality Writing

  1. Yup.I love writing workshop and the products that are developed by students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade that are so creative and of high quality!

  2. Thanks for sharing! After almost fifteen years teaching HS English, four years ago I changed my approach to writing workshop with almost complete student choice as to mode and topic. It’s been richly rewarding and I’d love to see the impact it would have if students had this opportunity in earlier grades. Student enthusiasm,quality of work, volume of work, and the overall attitude and culture of students in 10-12 (the grades I teach, we are a very small rural school) — all have improved as a result. Students feel ownership of their work. They love sharing with one another and with me (we share work via google docs). They are open to feedback from anyone who will give it. They praise the work of their peers. They ask when we will have the next poetry slam. They suggest ideas to me such as “let’s publish a collection of the short stories we’ve written.” My biggest regret is that I did not do this from my first year teaching. I always have an ongoing list of improvements to the program that I’d like to integrate, and workshop is flexible enough for teachers to modify in response to ongoing research and assessment, yet once workshop routines are in place, stable enough for students to engage with a sense of confidence. Any teacher constantly questions if we are doing our best for our students, and your post helps encourage me to stay the course!

  3. Thank you for the post. I want to frame it.

    Several months ago, a retired colleague and fellow Writing Project cohort piped up (exasperated) at a gathering, “Why are we still having these same conversations with one another?!” The research about writing (and the direct instruction of grammar) remains clear. Many educators write about the evidence in their classrooms. Studies such as the Carnegie Foundation’s Writing Next (2008) continue to affirm Hillocks, et al…so, I ask for my friend, why ARE we still having these same conversations?

    Is it the money? the policy? old habits die hard?

  4. I am glad that someone has called attention to George Hillocks’ important meta-analysis. Toward the end of his life, George expressed some discouragement that his research seemed to have little impact on practice in the schools. Perhaps it is common that most teachers laboring from day to day in schools pay little heed to educational research, even work as ground-breaking as George’s meta-analysis. George reported his meta-analysis at the NCTE Convention in 1983 and published the report in 1984. That is a lifetime ago, and it would be easy to ignore research from so long ago. But the other problem is the misreading of the research, or the selective reading of it.

    I judge that Paul Thomas has read into the summary of Hillocks’ meta-analysis some conclusions that would actually be in contradiction with what George reports. See especially Thomas’s fourth paragraph in which he concludes that a workshop approach and free writing are the way to go. He concludes that students’ development and achievement in writing depend greatly on their having choice of subject and genre. That is not exactly what George concluded, although he would encourage choice within the preparation for a specific kind of writing.

    In In the Middle, Nancie Atwell (1988) dismissed George’s “findings” (those are Atwell’s quotation marks) because the writing assessment in Maine demonstrated to her that her workshop approach was powerful. While Atwell dismisses George’s 1984/1986 report, she does not share the basis for her critical judgment. At the same time, other free writing and workshop advocates cite George’s research as validation for what they prefer to do. It is curious that Paul Thomas links the summary of the meta-analysis to an article about classroom discussion. For George, that would make sense, because discussion prepares students to write and helps students to refine their writing in process. As revealed in Nystrand’s Opening Dialogue, Juzwik, Borsheim-Black, Caughlan, and Heintz’s Inspiring Dialogue, and McCann’s Transforming Talk into Text, when students grapple together with substantive issues that resonate with the learners, they immerse themselves in the thinking processes and procedures that are necessary for producing elaborated, logical, and coherent texts. But that is a much different kind of talk than Thomas refers to when he cites free writing and workshops, which rely on conferences and feedback after a learner has already produced some writing. So looking at articles for guidance for initiating, facilitating, extending, and scaffolding discussions can seems to be a reasonable thing to do to plan a line of inquiry that will position students to write thoughtful compositions, but such guidance seems disconnected from the moves necessary to manage workshops and engage in one-on-one conferences.

    I am afraid we will never see anything quite like George Hillocks’ meta-analysis again, even with the Graham and Perin study. I am glad that someone still cites George’s landmark study. I wish more teachers would take a look at Hillocks’ research from 1984 and 1986, and read those reports and George’s later work carefully and accurately in order to draw from the findings to guide practice.

    • You make some leaps that aren’t accurate here. But yes Hillocks is very important. I am not conflating elements about teaching writing that you suggest. It is possible to embrace much of what Hillocks shows and practices such as workshop.

      • Could you clarify about the inaccuracies that you see in Tom’s comment (the “leaps”)?

      • My endorsing a variety of strategies in a piece that includes Hillocks never intended to suggest I think Hillocks supported all of them. Some conflating in that.

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