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Literacy Matters

Four Reasons Writing Instruction Needs a Makeover—and Evidence-Based Solutions

June 13, 2024

by: Dr. Karen Harris

7 mins


Oh, the irony: The large majority of our students are not proficient in writing, a crisis that goes back more than 30 years, and yet we know a good deal about how to teach our students to write. Our failure to use evidence-based practices (EBPs) for writing instruction is undercutting our students’ futures. We are stuck in a perfect storm of neglecting to prepare teachers to teach writing, curriculum issues, and paradigm wars.

In this blog, I explore why writing matters at least as much as reading, the stark statistics on our students’ writing development, the reasons for our epic fail—and then, finally, get to the good news about what we know about effective, engaging writing instruction. I have been an educator for 50 years, first as a teacher and then since the 1980’s working with teachers and students on writing development, so I feel I’ve earned the right to reckon with the scope of our crisis head on. And none of this is to knock classroom teachers—they are doing their best. If we could just come together as educators, we could do so much better. 

Why Writing Matters 

During the elementary school years, writing becomes an essential tool both for learning and for showing what you know. Research is clear that writing is a foundational skill that can boost comprehension and achievement across all subject areas. Writing allows us to learn; gather, explore, develop, organize, and share our understandings; make ideas available for discourse; demonstrate our knowledge; and function in today’s world. Writing increases comprehension of what is read, heard, or discussed, and boosts achievement. It is a critical cornerstone on which content learning is built. Yet, it is so much more. Writing is also vital for self-expression, communication, self-advocacy, identity development, and social and political engagement across our lifespans. Lack of competence in writing impedes learning and puts our students at-risk for failure in school.  

Writing well is essential, however, far beyond the school years. Today, the majority of jobs that pay a living wage require strong literacy skills, including clear and effective writing. Writing is, therefore, critical for addressing the issues we face in social justice and equity. For at least a decade, businesses and universities have sounded alarms about how poorly prepared our young adults are to write. Failure to help all our students thrive as writers denies them a crucial ability needed in today’s world. 

The Stark Reality About Student Writers 

The latest data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing test is clear: from the elementary through secondary grades, instruction has not been effective. The latest (2011) NAEP report on writing for grades 8 and 12 is deeply concerning. NAEP defines proficient writers as “those who clearly demonstrate the ability to accomplish the communicative purpose of their writing; they demonstrate solid academic performance for their grade level.”

Evidence of trouble: 

  • At both grades 8 and 12, only 24% of students performed at the proficient level.  
  • 54% of eighth-graders and 52% of twelfth-graders had not mastered the prerequisite knowledge and skills for writing needed at their grade level.  
  • 20% and 21% of eight- and twelfth-graders, respectively, were unable to perform at even the minimum standards for their grade level.   
  • Only 10% of Black students and 13% of Hispanic students scored at the proficient level; even fewer students with disabilities and those learning to speak English scored at the proficient level.  

Four Reasons for Our Epic Fail 

My colleagues and I can rattle off numerous reasons for our failure in writing instruction based on working with schools, teachers, and kids for decades. But, I’d say there are four core truths: 

1. We Don’t Invest in Writing—in Fact, It Comes in Last

Students can’t thrive as writers when powerful decision-makers don’t see it as worth investing in, for example: 

  • NAEP assessments in writing (and in mathematics, reading, science) are designed to be given every four years.  
  • NAEP writing assessment data has not been reported for grade 4, however, since 2002—22 years ago.  
  • NAEP writing data for grades 8 & 12 was last collected in 2011, 13 years ago, when students took the writing test on laptops.   
  • In 2017, grades 4 and 8 were assessed in writing, but the data was not reported because of problems created by administering the NAEP writing test using tablets with keyboards.  
  • While reading and math assessments are scheduled for 2026, 2028, and 2030, the next writing tests are not scheduled until 2032. ( If writing is assessed then, it will be 30 years since we have assessed 4th graders and 21 years since we have assessed 8th and 12th graders. This is unconscionable 

While many states give their own tests, we have lost the momentum possible when a national problem is identified. Further, compared to the investment in reading assessment, high-quality norm-referenced and formative writing measures across grades and writing genres are sorely lacking, hampering attention to writing, research, and teaching. 

2. Favoring Reading Instruction – Unintended Consequences

For decades, reading has been seen as the most important of the 3Rs, and by many as the single most important aspect of education. Chester Finn referred, for example, to reading as “the most basic of all academic skills, the first of the three R’s” ( 

In prioritizing “reading first” for several decades now, I believe we have made a huge mistake and perpetuated one of many harmful false dichotomies in education (Harris, 2018). Literacy is as much writing as it is reading. Learning to read does NOT a writer make. Writing development, curriculum, and instruction has not received nearly the attention reading has. 

The truth is, learning to write is hard! Good writing is a complex, problem-solving process that develops over many years and must be taught, not caught. Our students must learn to: evaluate the writing task (e.g., do I need to inform, persuade, and/ or provide a narrative?); determine multiple goals (e.g., consider readers, text characteristics, desired effects); orchestrate skills and strategies needed; identify environmental conditions and supports for writing; identify when and why to engage in components of the writing process; and self-regulate the writing process—which includes managing: working and long-term memory, affective responses to writing, peer interactions, attention, and time. See this video for a fun explanation of more our students face as writers. 

3. We Don’t Prepare Our Teachers to Thrive as Writing Teachers  

Substantial harm in seeing reading as preceding, and more important than, writing has played out in teacher preparation. We have shortchanged our teachers. Today’s teachers report little attention to how to teach writing in their teacher preparation classes (often one session in a reading instruction course; a course in teaching writing is rare) and in professional development. Further, many teachers report low self-efficacy for both teaching writing and as writers – many were let down in their K-12 years. It is no surprise that teachers tell us when something in the school day, week, or year has to go, it is almost always writing – again, it comes in last (Harris, 20021). Further, careful study of what we expect students to learn in and across grade levels in writing is needed to guide our curriculums and time for writing instruction in our classrooms.

4. Last But NOT Least: Paradigm Wars

Paradigm wars are as real and devastating in writing as they are in reading – and in science, history, and other areas (Harris, 2018). In writing, one of the most distressing paradigm wars relates to the many powerful theories of learning and teaching from which we have learned so much (e.g., ecological theory, socio-cultural theory, cognitive science, motivation theory). Rather than integrate EBPs arising from differing theories, many teachers, educational leaders, scholars, and influencers are fighting over what one theory should inform teaching and can best address social justice and equity in this country. In the view of those fighting for their favored theory, if you aren’t with them, you are necessarily uncaring or even racist (Harris & McKeown, 2022). Many of us believe, however, that no single theory adequately addresses the monumental challenges we face regarding education, equity and social justice, nor does allegiance to any single theory provide moral superiority (Harris, 2018).  

False dichotomies and paradigm wars have led us to lose sight of how learning reading, writing, math, science, engineering, technology, civics, history, and more interact with and benefit from each other. They have also led to rejection of EBPs for writing and reading among far too many educators. Can we stop these false dichotomies and paradigm wars? When we can see reading, writing, content areas, socio-emotional areas, and more (e.g., health, community) as all vitally important to our student’s futures, much will change. Research is clear that learning to write improves reading, learning to read improves writing – and both improve content learning – which further feeds reading and writing – which better prepares students to succeed in our world.

We Can Create Thriving Writers Together

Now, the happy part: we have powerful EBPs and best practices in writing that have proven their ability to make a meaningful difference. Using the EBPS means adjusting curriculum to allow the time needed for writing instruction and development across the grades and content areas. It means acknowledging that the writers’ workshop is one evidence-based practice, but alone it is not sufficient to meet all of our teachers’ and students’ needs. And, many best practices or EBPs are already part of the workshop approach, and teachers and others can integrate others within the workshop approach. 

In an interview with R. Routman, published in Language Arts in 1995, Donald Graves, seen as the father of the writers workshop/process approach to writing, addressed concerns he had was seeing in workshop classrooms. He stated that “there was more writing going on in classrooms, but that writing wasn’t getting any better.” He concluded that teaching writing can’t all be done in conferences, that skills and conventions weren’t being adequately developed, and that “orthodoxies” about the process approach were harmful (e.g., the need to give writing assignments at times rather than always provide choice). 

We have a body of EBPs for writing instruction and development that can make a difference to our students’ futures. The Institute for Education Sciences Practice Guide: Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers ( ) summarizes EBPs and best practices across the elementary grades and the identifies instruction in skills and strategies elementary teachers need to know about and embrace. 

If we refuse to engage in paradigm wars, these can be integrated meaningfully within readers/writers workshop approaches, creating a more powerful approach to writing instruction. The Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) approach to the writing process, which is not based on any single theory but rather on so much of what we know, has been proven to integrate well with writers workshop – but only if teachers and leaders allow this to happen. SRSD for writing has also been deemed an EBP in the Practice Guide above. A significant number of teachers, scholars, and leaders contend that strategies instruction, such as SRSD and other EBPs, are the antithesis of the writers’ workshop/process approach, arguing against them heatedly. 

Researched from grades K-12, however, SRSD instruction in inclusive classrooms has had the largest impact on writing improvement across elementary and secondary grades of any studied approach in writing (Graham et al., 2016). Integrating EBPs for skills, vocabulary, conventions, and more with SRSD has allowed even 1st and 2nd graders to show impressive growth in reading to learn and writing to inform (Harris et al., 2023). Our younger students have told us that with SRSD, writing is fun and makes sense. As one older boy told us, “Of course I can write not, someone taught me how.” 

Many of us have focused our SRSD work in underserved schools in marginalized communities, but research indicates SRSD is effective across SES, race, gender, and more. We must strive for all of our students to become proficient, thriving writers as one element of social justice, and that will not happen unless writing instruction changes. We are stronger together. 

Want to know more about SRSD? See the Supplemental Materials for an overview and free resources—you can also watch the full Literacy Matters episode with Dr. Karen Harris.


Graham, S., & Harris, K.R., & Chambers, A. (2016). Evidence-based practice and writing instruction: A review of reviews.  In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd Ed., pp. 211-226). NY: Guilford.

Harris, K. R. (2018). Educational psychology: A future retrospective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110 (2), 163–173. 

Harris, K. R.  (2021/Oct/Nov/Dec). Evidence-based writing practices: A close look at obstacles in today’s writing instruction. Literacy Today, 39 (2), 26-27. 

Harris, K. R., Kim, Y-S., Yim, S., Camping, A., & Graham, S. (2023). Yes, they can: Developing transcription skills and oral language in tandem with SRSD instruction on close reading of science text to write informative essays at grades 1 and 2. Contemporary Educational Psychology, (73), 1-14. 

Harris, K.R., & McKeown, D. (2022). Overcoming barriers and paradigm wars: Powerful evidence-based writing instruction. Theory Into Practice, 61 (4), 429-442. 


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