Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles

This statement, formerly known as Teaching Composition: A Position Statement (1985), was revised in November 2018 with the new title Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles.



The statement is organized into three sections that outline, in broad strokes, what the research literature tells us about writing and the teaching of writing. Each section of this statement provides a brief definition of principles for understanding and teaching writing and provides resources for additional information. The statement concludes with implications for teachers of writing (and writers) based on the principles.


Part 1: What Is “Writing”?


“Writing” refers to the act of creating composed knowledge. Composition takes place across a range of contexts and for a variety of purposes. A writer might compose a blog entry to share news about an important event to an audience of readers whom she has never seen; alternatively, she might write about this event for herself in a private notebook that only she reads. A student might compose a series of equations to think through a difficult mathematical problem for herself as part of an exam; the same student might compose these equations in a lab notebook for others to understand a complex reaction. A community might collaboratively compose a document to convey their position on an issue, like this statement; other writers might use collaboratively composed documents to create their own compositions. As composed knowledge, writing thus serves multiple purposes: to help writers develop and document their ideas for a range of purposes and audiences in a variety of contexts; to distribute ideas to other audiences so that they can be revised or recirculated; to help an individual or a community to define, clarify, or even reify its ideas. As composed knowledge, “writing” ranges broadly from written language (such as that used in this statement), to graphics, to mathematical notation.

The focus of this statement is on teaching written language to students, largely in school, from pre-kindergarten through graduate school. This document outlines a set of principles for the teaching of writing—of composed knowledge. While teaching is conventionally associated with classroom or school settings, this statement acknowledges that teaching and learning happen across the range of a learner’s experience—in school and in the classroom, but also at home, in their communities, with colleagues and friends. As a document intended for use primarily (but not exclusively) by formal educators, the principles here may serve to guide courses, assignments, activities, and work with writers and writing (or composed knowledge) within and beyond the formalized curriculum.


Principle 1.1: Writing is social and rhetorical.


The first parts of this principle—writing is social and rhetorical—focus on external factors and writing (Roozen). Writing is produced by people, in specific situations and contexts, and often (but not always) circulates among people. Writing is thus social—it is intended to speak to audiences for particular purposes. Even when a writer writes “for themselves” (e.g., in a personal blog or diary), they are their own audience (Bawarshi). When it is effective, writing is rhetorical, i.e., it takes into account the values, ideologies, interests, needs, and commitments of the people, the audiences, for whom it is intended.

When writers produce writing, they take into consideration purposes, audiences, and contexts. This leads them to make intentional choices about the elements that go into writing:

When writing reflects the expectations that audiences have for each of these elements, it is considered good; when it does not, it is considered less than good—and often the writers who produce it are judged accordingly.


Principle 1.2: Writing serves a variety of purposes.


Writing can serve a wide variety of purposes, and it happens in and out of school, as well. Sometimes, writing can be utilitarian: it is produced to achieve a specific purpose that can be quite disassociated from the writers’ identity or ideas—for instance, a manual for how to operate a digital projector. At other times, writing can be enormously personal, as when a writer is composing a document—film, poem, rap—that reflects deeply held beliefs or ideas. In each of these instances and regardless of purpose, what writers produce reflects their own assessment of the purpose, audience, context, and value of the writing—for themselves and/or for others.


Importantly, writing happens far beyond the walls of a classroom or school—and for school-aged writers, lately more often out of school than in (Applebee and Langer; Lenhart et al). When writers compose—texts to friends, Instagram posts, fan fiction, blogs, or any one of a myriad of sites where they can create identities—they are writing. However, writers increasingly do not recognize these acts as writing, seeing them as distinct from what they are asked to do in school (Lenhart et al). There, analyses have shown that when writing is taught, it is often linked to standards or expectations that writers perceive to be slightly removed or even quite distinct from their experiences, identities, and interests.


Part 2: Who Are Writers?


In teaching writing, it is important to understand who writers are. Students must learn how writing works, and to help them achieve this, recognizing who writers are is essential. Four principles provide an overview of characteristics and concepts that contribute to the formation and development of writers.


Principle 2.1: Everyone is a writer. 


Everyone has the capacity to write. Writers are not static. They develop skills and enhance their writing skills throughout their writing lives; thus, writers grow continually. Becoming a better writer requires practice. The more writers write, the more familiar it becomes. As writers, sometimes they feel confident; at other times, they may feel afraid and insecure. Therefore, students learn to write by writing.

Writers can be beginning or advanced writers in different situations. Just because they may be advanced in one situation, it does not make them advanced in all situations. Writers are researchers too, and they should develop the critical ability to evaluate their own work. They may collaborate with each other in different stages of writing, from drafting to revision to publication. Thus, writers learn how writing is a social act when they consider audiences and contexts and when they work with other writers as they compose.

Writers have varied experiences. They employ different strategies when composing in different situations, for different purposes and audiences, and when using different technologies and tools. Writers also make ethical choices, and writers always have more to learn.


Principle 2.2: Writers bring multiliteracies, and they bring cultural and linguistic assets to whatever they do.  


Because writing is linked to identity, writers represent different ideologies, values, and identities. Thus, writers’ cultures and languages influence their writing. Recognizing that students are language users with multiple literacies will help the writing instructor engage students in writing. Writers also bring their past writing and reading practices with them whenever they write or read. In short, everything they have experienced, who they are, where they have been, and what they have done impact their writing practices, literacies, and language attitudes.

Second-language, or multilingual, writers have become an integral part of writing courses and programs. They take part in these courses and programs at all grades (K–graduate level) and content areas. The language practices and linguistic backgrounds vary among these writers; thus, these writers should not be treated as one and the same. For example, some second-language writers may be native speakers of languages without ever having to learn and practice the written form of such languages. This may include their first language.

Because discourse, audience, and rhetorical appeals often differ across cultural, linguistic, and educational contexts, second-language writers may find it difficult to understand and/or apply the discursive strategies taught in a US writing classroom. Thus, second-language writers’ literacy and linguistic practices should be valued and recognized as assets in the writing classroom and not be viewed as weaknesses and as language interference problems. On the contrary, instructors should identify the strengths second-language writers bring to the classroom and seek opportunities to use these writers’ literacy and linguistic practices as a foundation.


Principle 2.3: Writers compose using different modes and technologies.


With 21st-century technologies, writers compose both print and digital texts. As technologies become more advanced and sophisticated, writers learn the possibilities afforded by these tools. They learn about the potential that various technologies have for the production, consumption, and distribution of forms of composed knowledge. This includes not only writing, but also the composition of other types of texts, such as videos and podcasts. Thus, writers may compose multimodal and digital texts.

With technology, writers are now engaged in multiple discourses, such as texting, blogging, posting on social media sites, and instant messaging, thus using language and writing on a daily basis. It is crucial for writers to be exposed to and gain access to a wide range of technologies and tools and learn about the possibilities of composing with them.


Principle 2.4: Writers compose in and outside the classroom. 


Because writing takes place in different contexts, writers compose for different readers, with varied purposes, and in diverse situations and places. Writers should develop the critical ability to evaluate their own work so that they can become effective, independent writers in the world beyond school. Writers grow by envisioning and learning to write for a variety of audiences. They reflect on the readers’ needs within particular social contexts, often including the readers’ values. As such, writers may engage with their communities and make their writing and composing public. Thus, writers may compose about, with, and for their communities.


Part 3: Essential Principles for Teaching Writing


As teachers of writers, our goal is for writers to emerge as better writers with each new writing experience. This means that as teachers we must consider how writers learn and how we can create conditions in our classroom so that learning can take place. The following four principles can help teachers as we lead classroom communities of writers, as we design curricula and instruction, as we assess learning and evaluate students’ performance, and as we inquire and talk with one another about what we are learning from our experience of leading individual writers and groups of writers. In the principles below, we use the metaphor of “grow” to remind us of our overarching goal of writers emerging from each writing experience with a better understanding of writing, with a clearer sense of who they are as writers, and with a refined and expanded repertoire of conceptual and practical tools that allows them to see possibilities and choices in their future writing experiences.


Principle 3.1: Writers grow within a context / culture / community of feedback.


To emerge as better writers from a writing experience, learners need feedback, and this feedback should fuel revision. In a community of feedback, teachers become learners too, because they inquire with learners about why writers make the choices they do. In a community of feedback, teachers and writers talk together about both products and processes, which means they share criteria, discuss challenges and choices, and offer feedback on how helpful feedback is in helping writers see new possibilities and options in steps they might take next.


Principle 3.2: Writers grow when they broaden their repertoire, and when they refine their judgment in making choices with their repertoire.


Writers need models and strategies—to find topics, issues, and questions to write about, to revise, to contextualize and connect their piece with others, to give and receive feedback. However, collecting those strategies is not enough; writers need practice not only in choosing a strategy to fit a particular purpose and context, but they also need practice in explaining why they made the choices they did.


Principle 3.3: Assessment should be transparent and contextual, and it should provide opportunities for writers to take risks and grow.


Writers need assessments that make audiences, purposes, and expectations clear, and they need multiple opportunities to practice meeting those criteria. When writers have multiple opportunities to practice, to try something new, to take risks or make mistakes, they know that not every writing experience is a high-stakes or evaluative one. For teachers of writers, this means that we can liken the practice of assessment to driving a car—we will see some fixed data (e.g., fuel tank, odometer, speedometer), and we will see some contextual data (what other cars are doing, road conditions, weather conditions). As drivers, we make decisions based on both kinds of data, and the same idea holds true for both writers and teachers of writers. The assessment tools and the way teachers use them create a set of values and purposes in which student writers respond to their experiences of trying to improve as writers. Thus, assessment provides opportunities and occasions for writers to know where they might be headed in a piece of writing.


Principle 3.4: Writers grow when they have a range of writing experiences and in-depth writing experiences.


In practice, writers need to write for multiple purposes, audiences, and contexts. When learners have a range of writing experiences, it offers opportunities for them to make choices, to self-assess, and to reflect on the wisdom of those choices they make as the write for those different purposes, audiences, and contexts. When learners have in-depth writing experiences, they have opportunities to spend time, work from multiple drafts, and see how their writing and thinking have changed over time. In both broad and deep writing experiences, writers grow when they have opportunities to expand upon—and not merely transmit—content knowledge.



Suggested Resources and Readings


Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies. Utah State UP, 2015.

Anson, Ian G., and Chris M. Anson. “Assessing Peer and Instructor Response to Writing: A Corpus Analysis from an Expert Survey.” Assessing Writing, vol. 33, 2017, pp. 12–24.

Applebee, Arthur, and Judith Langer. The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools: What Existing Data Tell Us. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning and Achievement, 2006.

Baca, Isabel, Yndalecio Isaac Hinojosa, and Susan Wolff-Murphy. Bordered Writers: Latinx Identities and Literacy Practices at Hispanic-Serving Institutions. SUNY Press, forthcoming 2019.

Bawarshi, Anis. Genre and the Invention of the Writer. Utah State UP, 2003.

Bruce, Shanti, and Ben Rafoth, editors. ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed., Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2009.

CCCC Position Statement on Community-Engaged Projects in Rhetoric and Composition. Conference on College Composition and Communication, April 2016, [1].

CCCC Position Statement on Students’ Right to Their Own Language. Conference on College Composition and Communication, November 2014, [2].

Cox, Michelle, Jay Jordan, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, and Gwen Gray Schwartz, editors. Reinventing Identities in Second Language Writing. NCTE, 2010.

Deans, Thomas, Barbara Roswell, and Adrian J. Wurr, editors. Writing and Community Engagement: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Drew, Sally Valentino, Natalie G. Olinghouse, Michael Faggella-Luby, and Megan E. Welsh. “Framework for Disciplinary Writing in Science Grades 6–12: A National Survey.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 109, no. 7, 2017, pp. 935–955.

Fidalgo, Raquel, Mark Torrance, Gert Rijlaarsdam, Huub van den Bergh, and M. Lourdes Alvarez. “Strategy-Focused Writing Instruction: Just Observing and Reflecting on a Model Benefits 6th Grade Students.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, vol. 41, 2015, pp. 37–50.

Foltz, P. W., K. E. Lochbaum, and M. B. Rosenstein. “Analysis of Student ELA Writing Performance for a Large Scale Implementation of Formative Assessment.” In Annual Meeting of the National Council for Measurement in Education, New Orleans, LA. 2011.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. Writing Community Change: Designing Technologies for Citizen Action. Hampton Press, 2007.

Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no. 1, 2007, pp. 81–112.

Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Kei Matsuda, editors. Cross-Language Relations in Composition. Southern Illinois UP, 2010.

Jeffery, Jill V., and Kristen Wilcox. “‘How Do I Do It if I Don’t Like Writing?’: Adolescents’ Stances toward Writing across Disciplines.” Reading and Writing, vol. 27, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1095–1117.

Kellogg, Ronald T., and Alison P. Whiteford. “Training Advanced Writing Skills: The Case for Deliberate Practice.” Educational Psychologist, vol. 44, no. 4, 2009, pp. 250–266.

Kirklighter, Cristina, Diana Cardenas, and Susan Wolff-Murphy, editors. Teaching Writing with Latino/a Students: Lessons Learned at Hispanic Serving Institutions. SUNY Press, 2007.

Koster, Monica, Elena Tribushinina, Peter F. de Jong, and Huub van den Bergh. (2015). “Teaching Children to Write: A Meta-analysis of Writing Intervention Research.” Journal of Writing Research, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 299–324.

Lenhart, Amanda, et al. Writing, Technology, and Teens. Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2008.

Moore, Jessie L., et al. “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies.” Computers and Composition, vol. 39, 2016, pp. 1–13.

NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies. National Council of Teachers of English, February 2013, [3].

NCTE Position Statement on Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing. National Council of Teachers of English, February 2016, [4].

Parks, Steve. Writing Communities: A Handbook with Readings. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

Philippakos, Zoi A., and Charles A. MacArthur. “The Effects of Giving Feedback on the Persuasive Writing of Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Students.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 4, 2016, pp. 419–433.

Ray, Amber B., Steve Graham, Julia D. Houston, and Karen R. Harris. “Teachers’ Use of Writing to Support Students’ Learning in Middle School: A National Survey in the United States.” Reading and Writing, vol. 29, no. 5, 2016, pp. 1039–1068.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State UP, 2015, pp. 17–19.

Ryan, Mary E. “Reflexive Writers: Re-thinking Writing Development and Assessment in Schools.” Assessing Writing, vol. 22, 2014, pp. 60–74.

Stock, Patricia L., editor. Composition’s Roots in English Education. Heinemann, 2011.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liana Robertson, and Kara Taczak, editors. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State UP, 2014.



Statement Authors


This document was revised by an NCTE working committee comprising the following:

Linda Adler-Kassner, University of California Santa Barbara

Isabel Baca, University of Texas–El Paso

Jim Fredricksen, Boise State University

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.