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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How to Teach Writing Fluency

January 10, 2022

Teacher question: What can you tell me about writing fluency in grades K-5? Our district is making a major effort to improve writing which is great, but our kids don’t write much. I don’t mean that the teachers don’t give writing assignments (they do), but the writing that the kids produce is very limited and it takes them a long time. I can’t see how we can improve their writing if they can’t write more.

 Shanahan's response:

Writing fluency is a slippery fish. Definitions of the term vary greatly within the profession (Latif, 2013). Not surprisingly, those differences in definition result in a wide variety of advice for teachers on how to facilitate fluent writing. Accordingly, researchers interested in the matter have spent most of their efforts towards figuring out what fluency is or its relation to writing quality.

Personally, I’m happy that anyone is paying attention to this at all. For a long time, the literature on children’s writing seemed to emphasize quality over fluency. This was done by promoting revision heavily, even in the primary grades. Revision is important, of course, but it only helps if you have gotten your ideas onto paper in the first place. Revising a blank page is an empty exercise.

National and state assessments don’t consider fluency issues directly either. They might get at it incidentally by marking a paper down if its ideas aren’t sufficiently developed. However, lack of development can be as evident in papers with lots of words/sentences as those with few.

I’ve long believed that writing fluency — as much as writing quality — should be a major goal in the early grades (my first publication in the field was about how I had successfully facilitated writing fluency in my classrooms). Over the past couple of decades there has been a growing body of research revealing the pivotal role that handwriting and spelling can play in writing fluency. Experience tells me that instruction in those can facilitate automaticity, but so can emphasis on invented or developmental spelling — reducing student anxiety about potential errors, while providing valuable practice with phonemic awareness and phonics at the same time. 

Researchers these days often divide writing into its components. For example, one popular model separates transcription (getting ideas onto paper) from the ability to generate or compose ideas in the first place (Berninger & Winn, 2006).

Sadly, studies that have tried to disassemble writing fluency have left us with a bit of a muddle. I think their expectation has been that fluent transcription includes “lower” skills like spelling and handwriting, while idea generation depends not on these mundane skills but on world knowledge and language proficiency. Things don’t divide up that neatly, however.

In that regard, writing fluency is a lot like reading fluency. For the youngest students and the poorest readers, reading fluency is largely the result of automatic decoding ability — but with development, some aspects of reading comprehension are implicated too (through prosody). Writing has a similar pattern of progression apparently, with printing and spelling sucking up much of the variance early on, but with executive function sand oral language increasingly insinuating themselves into the equation as writers progress.

That shouldn’t be too surprising. There are many reasons people have trouble getting ideas on paper.

Kids often tell me that they don’t have any ideas, they don’t know what to write about. That may be an accurate appraisal of their situation, or a convenient excuse for avoiding what for them is an unpleasant and potentially embarrassing task (yes, there are both cognitive and affective reasons for balking at a white page). When students at any level voice this problem, I talk with them. Their ideas flow easily in our conversations but vanish in the monologic situation required of writing (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Steinbach, 1984).

Another enemy of writing fluency is perfectionism. “If I can’t produce something perfect — that won’t embarrass me — I can’t possibly write.” Concerns about handwriting and spelling may limit fluency. Many kids hesitate when they come to a word that they think they can’t spell, or they engage in wasteful mental gymnastics trying to avoid expressing ideas that would require those words. That’s why taking the pressure off handwriting and spelling quality during drafting can support fluency.

Perfectionism raises its ugly head another way, as well. Writers often are impeded by premature and seemingly infinite revision and editing. They write a sentence, and then rewrite it. Young kids may manage to get a word on paper and then try to erase and improve it before they even get to a second word. This composing, decomposing, and recomposing prevents writing fluency and undermines writer confidence. Few things are more painful than watching a child tearfully laboring over his wordless paper, blotched and torn from such revision. Jacques Derrida referred to this as “interminable revision” and there are scads of electronic writing tools aimed at preventing the problem for adult writers (e.g., Write or Die, iA Writer, OmmWriter, Freewrite Smart Typewriter).

Handwriting issues are a big part of writing fluency early on, but its importance diminishes quickly (Juel, 1988). This may partly be due to the small or fine muscle demands of handwriting – though studies that replace handwriting with keyboarding have reported mixed results (Goldberg, Russell, & Cook, 2003; Spilling, et al, 2021). Sometimes keyboarding results in more fluent production of text and sometimes it doesn’t.

Given all that, what can you do to improve writing fluency?

1. Teach handwriting and spelling explicitly. Such instruction has been found to improve both fluency and quality of writing (Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012). In the early grades at least, I’m a big fan of combining phonics and spelling instruction. The idea is to teach these skills to the point of automaticity. The youngster agonizing over how to form the letter G is not thinking about the ideas that he/she wants to communicate to a reader.

2. Lower the emphasis on spelling and handwriting during drafting. This may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth – teach spelling but don’t require it – but that isn’t really the case. Handwriting and spelling facilitate communication. The more legible your handwriting and the more accurate your spelling, the more likely it is that readers will focus on your ideas.

However, when drafting, these skills don’t matter very much. Encourage (beseech, implore, beg) students not to worry about their spelling or handwriting while drafting. And don’t undermine this encouragement by spelling words for them or marking up their errors on an early draft.

Young kids benefit from trying to spell words because it requires them to analyze phonemic structure. Spelling instruction increases the body of knowledge that students use when they are trying to spell unknown words.  

3. Discussion and planning can play an important role in writing fluency. Research has long found that getting kids talking about what they want to write about improves and makes more efficient the flow of ideas. For the youngest children, drawing about their topic can have the same kind of payoff. As children move up the grades, getting them to list or chart their ideas can help.

4. Require a lot of writing. Students should be reading and writing throughout the day. They should be writing as part of reading, science, social studies, and math. As with any skilled activity, practice plays an important role — and given the learning benefits that writing about a topic can provide (Graham & Hebert, 2010) — writing should be a go-to-activity throughout the curriculum.

5. Engage students in non-stop writing (Datchuck, 2017). The linguist S.I Hayakawa required his college freshman comp students to write— without stopping, rereading, revising — for an entire class period. John Holt had his fifth graders doing the same for 15 minutes. As a primary grade teacher, my students wrote non-stop in multiple 1-2-minute intervals (Shanahan, 1977).

I’d provide a prompt and then have the students writing non-stop for 1 minute. Then I’d give their hands a rest and change the prompt and have them write for 90 seconds more. Finally, another break was followed by 2 more minutes of non-stop writing. Students who don’t know what to say next are to rewrite their last sentence until they have an idea (promoting the idea of thinking while writing as opposed to being a prelude to writing).

With the beginnings of three compositions in hand, students can begin to shape and improve their ideas. Sometimes I would have them pick the one they liked best for polishing. Or perhaps I would ask them to combine all three into a single paper. Over time, the students gained facility: they could generate a lot of sentences about an idea quickly, they could write and think simultaneously, and because of the limitations of such writing, they came to see the value of revision and editing.   

References

Berninger, V. W., & Winn, W. D. (2006). Implications of Advancements in Brain Research and Technology for Writing Development, Writing Instruction, and Educational Evolution. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 96–114). The Guilford Press.

Datchuk, S.M. (2017). A direct instruction and precision teaching intervention to improve sentence construction of middle school students with writing difficulties. Journal of Special Education 51, pp. 62–71. https://doi:10.1177/0022466916665588

Feng, L., Lindner, A., Ji, X.R., & Joshi, R.M. (2019). The roles of handwriting and keyboarding in writing: A meta-analytic review. Reading & Writing 32, pp. 33–63.

Goldberg, A., Russell, M., & Cook, A. (2003). The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment 2(1), pp. 3–50.

Graham, S. (2009-2010). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. American Educator 20–27, pp. 40.

Graham, S., McKeown D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K.R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology 104, pp. 879pp.896.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology 80, pp. 437–447.

Kent, S., Wanzek, J., Petscher, Y., Al Otaiba, S., & Kim, Y. (2014). Writing fluency and quality in kindergarten and first grade: The role of attention, reading transcription, and oral language. Reading & Writing 27(7), pp. 1163–1188.

Kim, Y.G., Gatlin, B., Al Otaiba, S., & Wanzek, J. (2018). Theorization and an empirical investigation of the component-based and developmental text writing fluency construct. Journal of Learning Disabilities 51(4), pp. 320–335.

Latif, M. (2013). What do we mean by writing fluency and how can it be validly measured? Applied Linguistics 34(1), pp. 99–105. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/ams073

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in Grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology 53(1), pp. 77–88. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

Scardamalia, M., Bereiter, C. and Steinbach, R. (1984), Teachability of Reflective Processes in Written Composition. Cognitive Science 8, pp.173–190. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog0802_4

Shanahan, T. (1977). Writing marathons and concept development. Language Arts, 54, pp. 403–405.

Spilling, E.F., Rønneberg, V., Rogne, W.M. et al. (2021). Handwriting versus keyboarding: Does writing modality affect quality of narratives written by beginning writers? Reading & Writing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-021-10169-y

Selected comments

Comment from Catherine Walsh

What is a good source for writing prompts for the continuous writing exercise (60 sec, 90 sec, 2 min) that you describe. Are they writing to three different prompts?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Catherine —
I often had the children writing three related pieces. For example, in our curriculum, the children were studying various cultures and continents. I might have "writing marathons" on the life of a child in Kenya, Brazil, and U.S. Then we'd combine them. Or, if I had $100, a $1000, or a $1,000,000. You can have sets of non-stop writing that focuses on any differences in quantity, degree, sequence, role, perspective, etc. Perhaps have them write in one paper about how a particular character felt about the events in the book (perhaps, Wilbur from Charlotte's web), another on Charlotte's take, and a third on what Fern thought was going on. Those kinds of writing can then be compared, combined, selected from for further work.

Comment from Jennifer Newman

I think its important to differentiate between how we instruct our youngest writers (e.g. Kindergarten and grade 1) and how we teach older students who are already gaining proficiency with handwriting and spelling (assuming these are being taught in the earliest grades, which they often aren't). So much emphasis has been placed on getting Kindergarten and first grade students to write whole narratives using invented spelling. Wouldn't our time be better spent on providing explicit instruction and sufficient practice in letter formation and sound-spelling correspondences, both of which are necessary for achieving writing fluency? With stronger early instuction, I suspect students would present with fewer handwriting and spelling issues impeding their writing down the road.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Jennifer —
No, I don't agree with you on that. I think that it is very reasonable to encourage K-1 students to write without regard for spelling. First, kids get a lot of benefit from invention — it requires much more analysis of the phonological aspects of the language than reading usually does. Second, it provides teachers with valuable diagnostic information— revealing what they know about written language and how it works. Third, it keeps spelling limitations from limiting vocabulary choices. Fourth, it can free kids up to write fluently — not being derailed by trying to make their transcriptions "perfect." That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be teaching handwriting and spelling at those grade levels, just that there are benefits to not overemphasizing that during writing.

Thanks.

Followup comment from Joan Sedita

I agree with what Tim just wrote about the importance for K-2 students to be encouraged to compose even before they have learned to spell. In K they can begin to learn the stages of the writing process and start composing even if it's simply through their drawings with added labels or word lists, and then orally explaining the ideas they are trying to convey. Asking them to add more to their drawings teaches them to elaborate on what they want to say in their writing. Also, there is benefit to explicitly teaching students how to express what they want to say in the drawing. For first and second graders, explicit instruction and guided practice for generating and expanding sentences (first orally, then written) sets the stage for better writing later. Same for introducing paragraph structure. And state writing standards expect students as early as these primary grades to learn the difference between the structure of informational, narrative, and opinion writing, including generating simple introductions, conclusions, and body development that is appropriate for the 3 genres. This can be accomplished in just a few written sentences starting in grade 1. All this can be done allowing them to use invented spelling so they focus on expressing themselves through writing. I'm a big fan of explicit instruction in phonics and word study to develop solid early decoding and encoding skills, but in some respects teaching spelling is best done during the reading instruction block than the writing block.

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