It's about time! Lengthen student writing.
Our goal was to engage fourth-grade writers to write longer and more meaningful pieces of writing given the time set aside for writing. Using a convenience sample with 17 fourth-grade students in two classes in a rural West Texas elementary school, we found that when given time as the constraint, children were better able to stay on task and, in fact, they wrote more than students that were constrained by length.
This work grew out of a developing partnership between one small, rural West Texas elementary school district and a university professor responding to a call by the Regional Educational Service Center serving the school to improve the writing performance in grades K-8. The school was searching for a way to improve writing across the entire school curriculum with a concentration in fourth-grade because the school was labeled low performing by the Texas Educational Agency based on the results of the prior year's Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) writing exam at the fourth-grade level. In my role as writing consultant to the school, I engaged in a larger study of the impact of reflection on teaching and learning. The larger study included students and teachers in grades 2 through 6 with a focus on writing pedagogy. This qualitative study is seeking to understand more about the role of reflection in professional development, especially as reflection impacts the teaching of writing in elementary school classrooms. This paper grew out of that collaborative relationship as participating teachers and I began to explore ways to increase the length of fourth grade writing. I will report the results of a study in fourth grade writing aimed at increasing the length of student writing.
The project goal was to find a way to encourage fourth-grade student writers to compose longer and more meaningful pieces. I am only concerned here with the quantity of writing and not the quality of that writing. Several factors influenced this decision. First, the writing model I followed strongly supported the notion that before students could develop the motivation to improve quality of writing they had to see themselves in the role of author Calkins, 1994). In addition, the underlying notion that as quantity of writing increased the quality of that writing would soon follow (Murray, 1997). I reasoned that length may be closely related to notions in reading such as rate and fluency, mechanical aspects of the reading process that helps build fluency (Adams, 1994).
I began by asking students to frequently write for authentic purposes and to write over extended periods of time. Strategies and skills were also being introduced as a part of a comprehensive strategic writing approach. In using the term authentic I follow Newmann and his colleagues (Newmann, Marks, & Gamoran, 1995; Newmann & Wehlage, 1993) when they argue that in order for an assignment to be authentic it must have two significant features: 1) value beyond school, and 2) an audience beyond the teacher. I believed that by engaging students in authentic writing while introducing both rhetorical strategies and mechanical skills, longer and more meaningful writing would emerge, unencumbered by false or imposed constraints such as length as a determining factor.
In the fourth grade classrooms participating in this inquiry, students wrote for an audience beyond their teacher. Through use of the author's chair (Calkins, 1994) students wrote primarily, although not exclusively, for an audience of their peers. Students, for example, wrote for parents and community residents by organizing and presenting an "Author's Tea" in March. In order to give assignments that had a value beyond school, I was careful to choose real-life issues, encourage students to engage in personal experience narratives, or to let students choose topics on which to write. In order to keep students engaged in writing during the teaching of rhetorical strategies, I never assigned writing topics based on length. Assignments, rather, were generally made where students were given a time frame in which they were to write. During strategic writing periods I began a writing exercise by telling students the time available for writing, the time to start, and told them when to stop.
In my teaching experience, among the first questions a student asks when assigned a piece of writing is, "How long does it have to be?" One of my goals was to break away from that model, the model of length, and create a model that was driven by the author's implicit responsibility for the completion of his or her thoughts. I suggested that by not assigning length as a predetermined variable, students would learn to understand the writing process as bordered by meaning rather than by length. Writing served as a strong connection to learning across the curriculum. I initiated the T-I-P Writing Project (Passman, 2001), a program in which students were expected to write every day in every subject. I taught students strategies for writing and the ability to pick the appropriate rhetorical strategy to use with any given writing problem that might arise. I then introduced skills allowing students the opportunity to communicate effectively through standard writing. Finally, I gave students frequent, sustained, and sufficient time to practice the craft of writing.
Emig (1977) argues that writing is a unique way of thinking. One consequence of this position is that writing is a responsible act of communication between author and audience (Bakhtin, 1993). Graves (1975) was among the first to notice that the act of writing is a process in which the author engages in order to discover what it is one has to say. In Graves' terms, authors cannot pay closer attention to the product of writing than is paid to the process of drafting, revising, and editing. Perl (1979) noted that learning to revise rather than merely edit is a process of the author coming to understand what he or she really intends to say. In short, we understood writing to be closer to a process model in which students develop the ability to think and communicate through written language.
Workshop models of writing (e.g., Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1994) are based on and actively support the process view of writing. Implicit within process models of writing is the idea that frequent and sustained practice at the craft of writing is a significant factor in developing the sense of authorship in students. Proponents of the workshop model argue that students engaged in frequent and sustained opportunities to write may develop a stronger sense of authorship by virtue of their long-term engagement with writing (Daniels & Zemelman, 1985). With acknowledged authorship comes the sense of developing a responsibility to an audience (Bakhtin, 1993). In an important recta-analysis of effective writing strategies Hillocks (1986) suggests that much of what is considered the mainstay of writing instruction do not have much of an influence on the teaching of writing when taught as separate and isolated skills. Hillocks suggests that the direct teaching of grammar at one extreme and free writing on the other do not significantly impact writing outcomes. What appears to be effective in teaching writing is a multi-tasking approach including teaching of rhetorical strategies and making skills and mechanics visible to students within the context of reflective writing practice.
Writing theory led to some specific questions about teaching writing to 4th grade students. I became interested in differences between assignments based on time to write and assignments based on length. Is there a difference in student production in terms of words written if assignments, especially those designed to teach rhetorical strategies to students, are made in terms of time or length? In short, I was interested in the impact on students when strategies are taught, when skills are introduced, and when students are given frequent and sustained time to practice writing as a part of a formal curricular approach to teaching writing.
This study was conducted in a small rural school in West Texas. There are two fourth-grade classrooms in the school comprising a total of 18 students, six girls and twelve boys. One student was excluded from this study due to his severe difficulties with writing. The total number of participants in this study is 17. Students are evenly divided between the two classrooms. The sample used in this study is a convenience sample, based on access to classrooms in the school. No attempt was made to control for other variables. Students were assigned the same writing topic and given similar instructions for prewriting activities. In both classrooms students were asked to address concerns that could be solved through implementation of a physical change in the building to improve access to the school building. In both classrooms I modeled the idea that an elevator to assist people with temporary or permanent disabilities to reach the second floor would be a way to improve physical access to the school for all people.
Students in both rooms were divided into groups of three or four on a self-selecting basis to brainstorm lists of ideas that they could suggest to the district superintendent in order to improve school access. The whole group then came together to share ideas formulated in their small groups. One class was then asked to write individually for ten minutes (TIME) while the other was instructed to individually write between a half and three-quarters of a page at minimum (LENGTH). It is important to emphasize that the minimum nature of the length requirement was emphasized with the LENGTH group. Students were explicitly granted permission to write more than the minimum half to three-quarters of a page. Both groups were given ten minutes to write. Papers were collected and words were counted for each paper. In order to insure accuracy of the count each paper was counted twice by independent counters. Both counters needed to agree on the word count in order for that count to he included. There was one paper produced by a student labeled learning disabled that no one was able to count and was, therefore, discarded. A total of 17 papers were included in the sample for this report.
The TIME group produced a mean of 99.88 words per piece while the LENGTH group produced a mean of 84.67 words per piece. A student's t-Test was performed to determine if there was a significant difference between means. The t-Test was chosen since the size of the sample was fewer than 30. The t-Test is designed to compensate for bias in the normal distribution curve due to small sample size. The results of the t-Test indicate that at the 95% confidence level there was a significant difference between the means of TIME and LENGTH.
When calculated comparing gender, no significant difference was found between male and female writers. It was interesting to note, however, that the boys in both conditions wrote more than the girls. This may be due to the fact that there were twice as many boys than girls in this particular sample group. No practical significance is attached to this finding. It was also interesting to note that in anecdotal observations of the TIME group I found that students appeared engaged in writing from the time they were told to start to the time they were told to stop. In the LENGTH group anecdotal observations found that three students drew lines or made other delimiting marks at half or three-quarters of the page and wrote to those marks and no more. It is also interesting to note that in the TIME group all but one student was writing when the direction to stop came. In the LENGTH group, all students but one had finished writing before the instruction to stop was given.
Implications for Teaching and Learning
Findings indicate that students writing first drafts in strategic writing situations may improve their time on task by being given instructions to write for a set amount of time rather that to set a length parameter for writing assignments. It was not surprising to us that students continued to ask how long a given paper must be, even those in the TIME group. Our experience is that writing is often assigned by establishing a minimum length. Students that understand how to "play school" clearly understand the length question to be appropriate.
There are some important limitations to this study. The sample size is small. The sample is also a convenience sample. Due to both size and makeup of the sample, no generalizability should be assumed to other situations or classrooms. No attempt was made to look at the quality of the writing in this study, only the potential impact on the quantity of writing produced. No claims can be made that by making assignments as time rather than as length controlled will contribute to an improvement in quality of student writing. In spite of the limitations of the study, however, we believe that assigning writing "time" may be a significant motivator to engage students in the act of writing and to increase their time on task writing behavior. Certainly these questions are fertile ground for future research.
There is, of course, additional room for further study. Getting a clearer handle on the impact of time on the quantity of writing produced is an important line of inquiry that we may pursue. Additionally, looking at how time impacts the quality of writing is also an important avenue for further inquiry.
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Roger Passman, Northeastern Illinois University
Dr. Passman is an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches secondary education methods and literacy courses.