How writing is conceptualized has consequences, especially in educational settings. Yet, despite decades of research and scholarship on writing, writing instruction, and writing assessment, misperceptions about writing and its purpose in schools persist. In 2008, NCTE’s James R. Squire Office of Policy Research, then directed by Anne Ruggles Gere, developed a policy research brief entitled Writing Now. This brief defined writing, particularly school-based writing, as it is understood in the 21st century, and offered recommendations for classroom teachers, school administrators, and policymakers to promote effective writing assessment and instruction. Since the publication of the Writing Now policy research brief, two NCTE position statements on writing instruction—Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing (2016) and Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles (2018)—have expanded on key aspects of the original brief as they relate to teachers and the teaching of writing. This position statement is directed primarily toward an external audience of school administrators and policymakers. It describes problems with how writing is often perceived and taught in schools, identifies challenges educational leaders and educators face in trying to address these problems, and offers recommendations for educational leaders committed to addressing these misperceptions about writing and improving student learning, using the lenses of culturally relevant pedagogy and antiracist writing assessment.
Writing is an important form of self-expression and communication as well as a tool for thinking, reflecting, and learning. Its use as a process, a practice, and a product is essential in the classroom and beyond. However, in school settings, writing is often perceived and enacted as a gatekeeping device, which contributes to achievement gaps and other inequities. This happens when writing instruction and assessments focus on the writing—the products that are ultimately assessed and evaluated—rather than on the writers themselves. Writing instruction and assessments also serve as gatekeeping devices when they are built around deficit notions surrounding students’ languages and literacies. Narrow definitions of and attitudes about writing and language too often perpetuate white, Eurocentric ideologies about what it means to write “well” or “effectively” (Chavez, 2021), upholding racist and linguistic barriers and inequities for students whose writing does not easily assimilate to dominant norms.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 1974) supports “students’ right to their own language—to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses their unique personal identity.” Moreover, NCTE advocates for writing instruction that builds on students’ strengths, that values their many ways of using language, that promotes a broad view of what constitutes “text,” and that promotes young people’s voices and purposes for writing within authentic contexts. The recommendations that follow aim to help administrators and policymakers support quality writing instruction and cultivate authentic and culturally sustaining conceptions of writing in schools and beyond.
Challenges to Authentic and Culturally Sustaining Writing Instruction
The aspects of classroom writing instruction described below can lead students to reject identifying as a writer, possess a limited ability to transfer writing processes and compositional decisions to new situations and contexts beyond those they learn in school, and conceive of writing as an exclusively school-based practice rather than a practice that can be personally meaningful and can transform and liberate individuals and communities.
Test-Driven Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
- The ubiquity of standardized assessments, including high-stakes standardized assessments, perpetuate a limited view of composition and continue to heavily influence curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions (Scott, 2008).
- Writing instruction often mirrors test preparation, with students filling in templates and following formulas rather than making important and intentional decisions about writing for authentic audiences and purposes. This kind of writing instruction focuses almost exclusively on “the production of first and final drafts with less scope for an elaborated writing process” (Applebee & Langer, 2009, p. 24).
- Standardized writing assessments inaccurately delineate between modes of writing listed in state standards—e.g., positioning “narrative” and “informational” writing as mutually exclusive (Newkirk, 2014).
- Many K–12 educators feel a lack of efficacy in regard to teaching student writers, which too often leads to the purchase and implementation of prepackaged writing programs, often perpetuating the issues inherent in most standardized assessments of writing and composition (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Stillman, 2011).
Consequences for Student Writers:
- Writing instruction focused on standardized tests fails to prepare a culturally diverse population of students for the college and career writing they’ll be asked to do and, more broadly, to cultivate diverse communities of capable, engaged writers who write for their own purposes.
- When students cannot envision authentic purposes for writing or are not invited to make choices about their own writing, they can become disengaged in school-based writing (Behizadeh, 2014).
Narrow Definitions of and Limited Practices for Writing
- Writing instruction in many English language arts classrooms rarely includes opportunities for children and youth to write often (Gallagher & Kittle, 2018), engage in a variety of writing processes exploring a wide range of forms and modes (Coppola, 2017), write for authentic audiences, or make complex decisions about composition.
- K–12 schools often promote limited and narrow notions of what “good” writing is. “Good” or “legitimate” writing is equated almost exclusively with so-called “academic” forms of writing (e.g., analytical essays, research papers), which perpetuates harmful ideas about what kinds of writing are useful and valued in the world (Coppola, 2019) and delegitimizes the writing that children and youth engage in outside of school spaces (Haddix, 2018; Skerrett & Bomer, 2013; Weinstein, 2006).
- Many professional development opportunities related to teaching writing focus more on the teaching of products and forms—i.e., the writing—than they do on building students’ decision-making processes as writers (Wahleithner, 2018).
Consequences for Student Writers:
- An overly narrow focus on products—and particular types of products—leaves young people underprepared to understand the rhetorical nature of writing, to make decisions about their own writing, and to transfer their writing knowledge to new contexts, especially contexts beyond the classroom.
- When students are offered infrequent opportunities to engage in multimodal composition, they experience a disconnect between school-based writing and the kinds of composition that most children and youth engage in outside of school spaces (Coppola, 2019).
Dominant Ideologies around Writing and Language
- So-called Standard American English continues to dominate academic institutions, despite the lack of a formally recognized national language (Baker-Bell, 2020; Davila, 2012; Inoue, 2015; CCCC, 2021).
- The dominant language and literacy of school is rooted in an uncritical and almost universal acceptance of white, Eurocentric norms1 embedded in notions around what makes writing “good” or what constitutes writing “quality” (Chavez, 2021)—what composition scholar Asao B. Inoue (2019) calls “habits of white language.” These habits include the privileging of Western logics and a focus on individual production, reason, order and control, and directness of language.
Consequences for Student Writers:
- When educators exclusively define “good” or “effective” writing and language use as that which matches white, Eurocentric norms, students are more likely to be perceived as possessing inherent deficits when their writing and language use does not match those norms (Paris, 2012).
- Student writers’ voices, literacies, and compositional practices may not be valued in school settings, inhibiting their confidence and growth as writers, or, worse, students, families, and communities may be penalized, punished, excluded, and oppressed based on their language use.
Recommendations for Administrators and Policymakers
Despite the aforementioned challenges, there are ways to support writing instruction that can mitigate the potential consequences outlined earlier in this statement and, more important, actively cultivate young writers’ efficacy and engagement. This kind of instruction builds on students’ racial, cultural, social, and linguistic resources, provides opportunities for students to engage in complex writing processes within communities of other writers, and offers frequent opportunities for students to make decisions about composing for authentic purposes and audiences. This more inclusive, authentic view of writing instruction is outlined in NCTE’s Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles and in the position statement on Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing.
In attempting to disrupt the ways in which narrow definitions of writing and dominant instructional practices around the teaching of student writers perpetuate harm for both students and educators, this position statement offers educational leaders and policymakers a variety of concrete ways to use policies, practices, and funding to counter these ideologies:
Foster a Culture of Authentic and Culturally Sustaining Writing Instruction
- Promote curriculum and instruction that broaden definitions of writing to include visual, aural, and multimodal compositions and to include a wider variety of purposes for writing (e.g., writing to discover, writing for change, writing to learn, writing to reflect).
- Advocate for writing instruction that is process- (rather than product-) oriented and that invites students to become writers who (1) write for authentic purposes and (2) make authentic choices about processes and products.
- Make writing a collective responsibility and a collaborative activity across faculty and academic departments by fostering writing-across-the-curriculum and writing support programs, such as writing centers, writing groups, and peer coaching, for student writers and writing teachers.
- Recognize and value the cultural and linguistic assets that writers bring to their texts by highlighting published writing and student writing that reflect diverse perspectives, voices, experiences, and linguistic practices.
- Adopt approaches to writing assessment that provide qualitative data about students’ processes and growth as writers, include students in assessment decisions, and create more equitable assessment experiences for developing writers. See NCTE’s position statement on writing assessment.
Support Faculty/Instructional Staff
- Hire professionalized literacy and writing teachers who will recognize and build on students’ strengths and their cultural and linguistic resources.
- Support faculty engagement with professional organizations, especially those centered on literacy and writing, such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project.
- Provide professional learning opportunities for all instructional staff centered on culturally responsive pedagogy, universal design for learning, and antiracist writing instruction and assessment.
- Respect and value teachers’ professional expertise and knowledge of student-writers and classroom practice. Invite teachers to contribute their knowledge and expertise to decisions about writing curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
- Invest in professional learning opportunities that allow teachers to learn together, share practices, and build knowledge collaboratively with one another. While professional development workshops may be useful, teachers benefit from spending time in ongoing inquiry communities.
- For example, a hyperfocus on developing independence as writers, notions around developing a “neutral” or “objective” voice/stance, particularly when composing informational texts, etc.
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Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2009, May). What is happening in the teaching of writing. English Journal, 98(5), 18–28.
Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge and NCTE.
Behizadeh, N. (2014). Adolescent perspectives on authentic writing instruction. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 10(1), 27–44.
Chavez, F. R. (2021). The anti-racist writing workshop: How to decolonize the creative classroom. Haymarket Books.
Conference on College Composition and Communication. (2021). CCCC Statement on White Language Supremacy.
Coppola, S. (2019). Writing, redefined: Broadening our ideas of what it means to compose. Stenhouse Publishers.
Coppola, S. (2017). Renew! Become a better—and more authentic—writing teacher. Stenhouse Publishers.
Davila, B. (2012). Indexicality and “standard” Edited American English: Examining the link between conceptions of standardness and perceived authorial identity. Written Communication, 29, 180–207.
Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Heinemann.
Haddix, M. (2018). “What’s radical about youth writing?” Seeing and honoring youth writers and their literacies. Voices from the Middle, 23(3), 8–12.
Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.
Inoue, A.B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.
National Council of Teachers of English. (1974, November 30). Resolution on the students’ right to their own language.
Newkirk, T. (2014). Minds made for stories: How we really read and write informational and persuasive texts. Heinemann.
Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97.
Scott, T. (2008). “Happy to comply”: Writing assessment, fast-capitalism, and the cultural logic of control. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 30(2), 140–161.
Skerrett, A., & Bomer, R. (2013). Recruiting languages and lifeworlds for border-crossing compositions. Research in the Teaching of English, 47, 313–337.
Stillman, J. (2011). Teacher learning in an era of high-stakes accountability: Productive tension and critical professional practice. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 133–180.
Wahleithner, J. M. (2018). Five portraits of teachers’ experiences teaching writing: Negotiating knowledge, student need, and policy. Teachers College Record, 120(1), 1–60.
Weinstein, S. (2006). A love for the thing: The pleasures of rap as a literate practice. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50, 270–281.
Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt, Chair, Yakima Valley College, WA
Shawna Coppola, The Educator Collaborative
Amber Warrington, Boise State University, ID
Robert P. Yagelski, University at Albany, SUNY