The Writing Rope: Author Q and A
Since the publication of my book The Writing Rope: A Framework for Explicit Writing Instruction in All Subjects in August, 2022, I have been asked to do several interviews for podcasts, webinars, and articles about the book. The book has also led to inquiries about how Keys to Literacy’s professional development courses are aligned with The Writing Rope. For this month’s blog post, I have collected questions and answers from these interviews.
What inspired you to develop The Writing Rope? How did you envision it supporting teachers?
I have long thought that there was a need for a framework to help educators identify the components of writing to inform instruction and curriculum decisions, as this quote from the start of The Writing Rope book notes:
“Much has been written about the multiplicity of skills involved in reading, beginning with the ‘five components’ necessary for skilled, fluent reading that became popular after the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). On the other hand, when attention is paid to writing instruction, teachers are not sure what to include. Many educators who are knowledgeable about effective reading instruction are not able to identify the components of skilled writing or essential elements of a curriculum for teaching writing.”
For years I used a wagon wheel metaphor to help teachers recognize that, like spokes in a wheel, there are many skills and strategies that must be combined for proficient writing. If any spoke is missing, it affects the integrity of the wheel. However, with the renewed interest in Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001) in recent years, I decided that a similar metaphor for identifying writing components would resonate better than a wagon wheel, so in 2018 I developed The Writing Rope infographic. A summary of The Writing Rope is available at the Keys to Literacy free resources website.
I envision teachers using The Writing Rope framework to assess if the writing instruction they are providing is complete—that is, are they teaching skills, strategies, and techniques that are associated with all strands in the rope? Administrators can use The Writing Rope framework to develop a writing curriculum and make decisions about potential writing instruction programs they might purchase.
Are the Keys to Literacy professional development courses aligned with The Writing Rope?
Yes! Many of the evidence-based instructional practices identified in The Writing Rope are addressed in two Keys to Literacy courses: Keys to Early Writing for grades K-2 and Keys to Content Writing for grades 3-12. These courses provide more detailed teaching suggestions and classroom examples for topics such as drawing and oral language in the primary grades as a precursor to composing (Keys to Early Writing), sentence, paragraph, and overall text structure for the three types of writing across all grade levels, and how to use a WAG (Writing Assignment Guide) to plan classroom writing tasks. Keys to Content Writing extends the suggestions for writing responses to prompts with suggestions for teaching students the ANSWER Routine (Analyze, Notes, Select, Write, Edit and Revise). The Keys to Beginning Reading course provides detailed suggestions for teaching spelling that are identified in The Writing Rope transcription strand.
Why has research evidence about the “what” and “how” of writing instruction been so slow to reach teachers?
Most educators agree that we need to teach writing. However, too many teachers are not sure of “what” needs to be taught and “how” to effectively provide that instruction. Over the past two decades, the literature and discourse related to literacy instruction has focused on reading, even though writing is just as important for student literacy achievement. The focus on making sure teachers understand evidence-based practices for teaching reading is essential given the high numbers of students not reading on grade level, but these numbers are equally high, if not higher, of students not writing on grade level.
While the research base for writing is not as extensive and developed as reading research, there is a significant body of research to draw from. Unfortunately, most educators are not aware of that research. One reason is that college teacher preparation programs do not provide enough coursework focused on how to effectively teach writing. And once teachers enter the workforce, professional development for evidence-based writing instruction is scarce.
The “What” to Teach
One of the reasons I developed The Writing Rope was to give educators a framework for identifying the skills, strategies, and techniques that require instruction for students to become proficient writers. Similar to reading research, there is not enough bridging of what we learn from research to what and how to teach writing. This is why The Writing Rope book and the professional development writing courses and training books I developed for Keys to Literacy include links to research and provide practical instructional suggestions for teaching writing.
The strands in The Writing Rope organize the many skills, strategies, and techniques that should be taught. It is important to keep in mind that, like the components of reading, instruction should address all of the strands. Teachers should not wait for young students to be able to spell and write sentences before they teach them paragraph structure and the differences between composing opinion, informational, and narrative text. Except for transcription skills, all the skills and strategies identified in The Writing Rope strands need to be revisited and taught in all grades. As students move through the grades, they need to continue to write more increasingly complex sentences, to learn more advanced strategies for following the stages of the writing process, and to learn more advanced application of skills for text structure, writing craft, and critical thinking.
The “How” to Teach
The Writing Rope book includes Connect to the Classroom reflections and instructional resources that teachers can use to teach writing to their students. Educators can find more extensive instructional suggestions in Keys to Early Writing and Keys to Content Writing.
In addition to specific instructional suggestions, I identified seven teaching principles in The Writing Rope and the Keys to Literacy courses. These principles should be incorporated when assigning writing tasks and teaching writing.
- Gradual release of responsibility when teaching a skill, using an I do it, we do it, you do it approach
- Explicit instruction of writing strategies, using a think-aloud approach
- Differentiated instruction to meet individual student needs
- Scaffolding to support learning of new skills
- Opportunities for collaboration with peers
- Use of mentor text as models for writing
- Increasing the amount students write in all subject areas
One part of The Writing Rope that intrigues me is your inclusion of the writing process as part of the critical thinking strand. How does awareness of the writing process foster critical thinking?
All stages of the writing process (thinking, planning, writing, revising) require significant critical thinking. For the reasons given below, this critical thinking strand of the rope seemed like the logical place to put the writing process.
At the thinking stage, when students are writing based on text or content they are learning, they must apply critical thinking to comprehend the sources and then extract the essential information they want to incorporate in their writing. If they are generating a writing piece that is not based on sources, such as a creative story or personal narrative, they need critical thinking skills to brainstorm the ideas. This includes generating notes.
At the planning stage, critical thinking is needed to think through how students want to organize and structure their writing pieces. This includes using graphic organizers.
The writing stage requires the application and integration of many skills, strategies, and techniques from multiple strands in The Writing Rope. Critical thinking is needed to determine which type of text structure (informational, opinion, or narrative) and which pattern of organization (description/explanation, sequence, cause and effect, compare and contrast, or problem and solution) will best communicate the students’ ideas. Critical thinking is needed to apply linguistic and language knowledge to write sentences and determine how to organize ideas into paragraphs.
Finally, at the revision stage, critical thinking is used to determine if students have adequately conveyed the message and meaning they want readers to take away from their writing. Important decisions are made about whether a student needs to go back to the thinking and planning stages to gather more information or adjust the organization of the writing piece. Decisions for adding better, more precise vocabulary and improved sentences also require critical thinking.
Why is it so important to write across subject areas?
First, English language arts teachers can’t do the job of teaching students how to write alone. While they play a key role in introducing various skills and strategies from all strands of The Writing Rope, the time spent in just one class is not sufficient for students to do enough writing and receive feedback to increase their writing ability.
Students should receive writing instruction and guided practice from teachers of all subjects so they can use learning to support content learning. Writing is an effective tool for enhancing students’ learning of content material for all subject areas (Graham et. al., 2016; Graham & Perin, 2007). The Writing to Read research report (Graham & Hebert, 2010) points out that writing about text students are reading supports reading comprehension, including summarizing, taking notes, analyzing text in writing, answering and generating questions in writing about text, and writing personal reactions to text. Simple quick-write tasks (where students write for less than ten minutes) assigned a few times a week in every subject provides significant writing practice.
Does explicit instruction have a place in the writing block?
Absolutely! One of the seven teaching principles identified in The Writing Rope is explicit instruction of writing strategies. Explicit instruction involves using structured and sequenced steps to teach a specific skill or strategy. It includes explaining the skill or strategy and modeling how it is applied using think-aloud, and providing guided practice with feedback. Teaching students strategies for planning, revising and editing their writing has shown a dramatic effect on the quality of students’ writing (Graham & Perin, 2007).
The Gradual Release of Responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) is a hallmark of explicit instruction. It is sometimes referred to as an I do it, you do it, we do it approach to teaching.
The use of mentor text as a writing model is also part of explicit writing instruction. Part of learning to write for different purposes is to emulate how others write. Examples of how others have incorporated a writing skill, strategy or technique that is the target of instruction should be shown so students can explicitly emulate the style, language, or structure of that sample text.
What foundation skills are essential for being a skilled writer?
The skills related to the transcription strand are often described as “foundational” much in the same way that phonemic awareness and phonics are considered foundational reading skills. This includes spelling and handwriting or keyboarding. They are the skills needed to literally transcribe the words on the page. There are many connections between reading and writing – they draw from the same well of oral language and involve many of the same language processes, with transcription as a good example. Phonics instruction supports reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) of words. Syntactic awareness and sentence writing is also sometimes considered a foundational writing skill. One of the strands in The Writing Rope is devoted to sentences, and instructional practices such as sentence combining support both the writing and comprehension of sentences.
The best time to teach spelling in the elementary grades is during phonics lessons, following a systematic scope and sequence of phonics concepts. During the same phonics lesson, students should be practicing decoding and spelling words with the phonics pattern that is the focus of the lesson. For older students who still need spelling instruction, this instruction will need to take place in an intervention setting. While we should strive to teach them to spell, these older students also benefit from assistive technology such as speech-to-print and spell-check to support spelling while they write.
Our school district’s focus for writing instruction is on creative writing based on the assumption that students will come to enjoy writing if they are encouraged to write about topics related to their personal lives and topics of interest to them. What are a few things we could do to make an immediate difference in the writing ability of our students?
First, it is important to accept that learning to write, like learning to read, does not come naturally the way we learn to speak. Similar to learning to read music or the skills for a sport, students need explicit instruction and guided practice to learn to write. Teachers should not assume students have the skills and strategies identified in The Writing Rope.
We must also accept that writing is not an easy task, for adults or students. Teachers need to create a supportive environment where students feel comfortable composing. This includes providing scaffolds such as writing templates, graphic organizers, and word lists that enable all students to be able to share what they have to say in writing.
What are a few things teachers can do to make a difference in students’ writing? First, because the sentence is a basic building block for all writing, teachers should provide explicit instruction for how to construct a complete sentence and how to expand and elaborate a basic sentence. Second, students need to know the stages of the writing process: think, plan, write, revise. This includes learning that the time spent at the thinking stage (to gather information and ideas before writing) and the planning stage (determining how to organize what you want to say) is key to writing a quality draft, as is revising a draft for content in addition to proofreading for conventions. The stages of the writing process should be followed for any formal writing task.
What should a writing curriculum cover in a week or a term?
Instruction for all the skills and strategies identified in The Writing Rope needs to continue throughout the school year, across every grade. It is not a linear scope and sequence the way phonics instruction is where once you teach a phonics concept you move on to the next concept. A curriculum can “chunk” instruction for some of the strands across the school year. For example, a focus on the structure for writing informational pieces might be the focus for the first part of the school year, followed by the structure for writing an opinion/argument piece for the next part of the year. Similarly, different writing craft techniques can be organized across the school year. For example, using dialogue between characters in narrative writing tasks might be the focus one week, and using a metaphor the next week. But other strategies such as taking notes, writing summaries, or writing elaborated sentences should be practiced throughout the school year.
In your opinion, why is it crucial to prioritize writing instruction across all grades? How does writing instruction contribute to students’ cognitive and critical thinking abilities?
Young children in the primary grades need explicit instruction for transcription and foundational writing skills (spelling, handwriting, sentence writing) as well as an introduction to skills and strategies for the other strands of The Writing Rope, including text structure, critical thinking, and writing craft.
In grades 4 and 5, students need opportunities to integrate the skills they are learning and apply the skills from the critical thinking strand to write about what they are learning in all subjects. In grades 6 to 12, instruction and guided practice needs to continue for more advanced sentence and paragraph writing and text structure for types of writing. Older students need continued instruction and feedback to apply more challenging techniques related to writing craft, such as the use of metaphorical language and more precise vocabulary, and the use of literary devices such as imagery, hyperbole, and narrative point of view. They also need continued instruction and guided practice for writing-to-learn tasks, such as summarizing and research writing about increasingly complex concepts and text.
Research shows that writing improves reading (Graham and Hebert, 2010), and writing about text enhances learning of content (Graham & Perin, 2007). It is critical for schools to recognize that writing must be added to the focus they have placed on reading instruction. It is also important to note that if students leave elementary school with grade-level writing ability, this is no guarantee that their writing skills will continue to grow to meet the challenges that increase as they move through middle and high school grades. This is why writing instruction must continue through the secondary grades.
Assessment – how should writing be assessed? What is best practice here?
Unfortunately, there are no simple curriculum-based measurements that can be given to quickly and easily assess student writing the way there is for measuring skills such as phonics knowledge or oral reading fluency. There are some assessments that have been around for a while that measure things such as how many words students write within a given time frame, but this type of assessment only gives a measure of stamina and how much students can write. It does not provide information about the quality of student writing or guidance about the writing instruction needs of a particular student.
Analyzing a student writing sample is the best type of formative assessment. Drawing from the components of The Writing Rope, teachers should look for the quality of the following as they analyze a student writing piece: sentence structure, paragraph structure, overall structure (introduction, body development, conclusion), use of transitions, use of appropriate and precise vocabulary, and clarity of the message or content being conveyed. A pattern of spelling or punctuation errors can also be noted. The prompt for the writing sample should be one that does not require background knowledge about a topic the student might not have, enabling them to focus on composing.
What are some ways teachers can build their knowledge of both the content and pedagogy of teaching writing?
There are two Institute of Education Science research reports that provide recommendations for evidence-based writing instruction and include details and examples of what this looks like in the classroom: Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers and Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively. The Writing Next and Writing to Read research guides are also good resources.
The Keys to Literacy Free Resources website has an extensive collection of videos, archived webinars, articles, and templates/printables that can be accessed for free.
Much of the content and instructional suggestions in The Writing Rope book draw from two Keys to Literacy professional development training courses, online courses, and companion books that are available through Keys to Literacy. Keys to Early Writing is designed for K–2 educators, and Keys to Content Writing is designed for grades 3–12.
- Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve the writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
- Graham, S.. and Hebert, M.A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
- Graham, S., Bruch, J., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L., Furgeson, J., Greene, K., Kim, J., Lyskawa, J., Olson, C.B., & Smither Wulsin, C. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively (NCEE 2017-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Pearson, P.E., & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.
- Scarborough, H. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.