March 2014: Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olsen, C., D’Aost, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

Summary by Dr. Eleanor H. Hanlon


The importance of writing, both as a tool for learning and a means of communication, has been well documented. Research has shown that explicit writing instruction can improve students’ writing performance, especially when students are given adequate time to practice the newly acquired skills. A strong, early foundation provides students with the necessary skills to develop as writers—skills that are crucial to success in later grades, higher education, and careers.

A recent practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse, Teaching Elementary Students to be Effective Writers, provides a review of recent research and research-based recommendations for educators from expert panel members. The four recommendations for how classroom teachers can improve students’ writing performance are detailed below.

The recommendations are designed for students in elementary grades with the understanding that these grades represent a large developmental period. Students in kindergarten and first grade are learning how to form letters and create basic sentences, and the activities in these grades differ from those in later grades. However, the recommendations are broad and can be adapted for a range of grades. Teachers are encouraged to adjust the practices based on the needs of their students. Additionally, the research evidence indicates that the recommended practices can be modified for students with special needs.

Use of Research

The recommendations in the report are based on a review of 34 studies that met the standards of evidence for all What Works Clearinghouse practice guides. These standards are more fully detailed on page 3 of the practice guide. All recommendations in the practice guides are equally important. The following three levels of evidence simply illustrate the extent to which we know that the recommended practice causes improved outcomes:

  1. Strong evidence, from which we can infer that the recommended practice will improve outcomes for a varied population of students
  2. Moderate evidence, from which we can infer positive effects but with (a) limited generalizability in terms of participants and settings or (b) strong generalizability to different participants and settings but limited causal inferences that can be made from the design. In some cases, there is moderate evidence for a recommendation that is supported by multiple studies that focus on a related (but not the same) outcome as the one of interest in the practice guide.
  3. Minimal evidence, for which there is not a large body of evidence. There are many reasons for this rating, including the recommended practice not lending itself to being studied in a large-scale or rigorous way, or the existing evidence being sparse, unclear, or from less rigorous designs.

Remember, a recommendation with a minimal evidence rating is equally as important as one with moderate or strong evidence to support its implementation.


Recommendation 1: Provide daily time for students to write.

The recommended time for students to write is 1 hour per day, beginning in first grade. For kindergarten students, the recommended time is at least 30 minutes per day. The panel suggests dividing up the recommended daily hour in the following way:

  • 30 minutes devoted to explicit teaching of a variety of writing strategies
  • 30 minutes devoted to practicing the skills learned from explicit instruction

It is important to note that simply providing time for students to write is insufficient; the time must include explicit instruction aligned with the recommendations listed below.

Writing instruction should be integrated throughout the content areas as a means to help students think more critically about the content area material. Examples include teaching students how to apply procedural writing strategies in the context of science lab reports, historical narrative strategies in social studies, and reading journals to record thoughts before, during, and after reading.

Recommendation 2: Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes.

The practice guide includes the following components of the writing process: planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising, and editing. Publishing can also be included as a component as students develop and share a final product.

    2a. Explicitly teach students the writing process.

The writing process is not linear; writers often come back to earlier phases, edit as they write, and evaluate ideas during the planning phase. Teaching students how to set writing goals and to evaluate them during the process encourages students to take additional responsibility for the writing tasks.

  • Teach students strategies for the various components of the writing process.
  • Gradually release writing responsibility from the teacher to the student.
  • Guide students to select and use appropriate writing strategies.
  • Encourage students to be flexible in their use of the components of the writing process.

    2b. Teach students to write for a variety of purposes.

Students should be taught the purposes of different genres, so they can select the genre most suited to their specific writing purpose. For example, in science class, students could be asked to write a description of different materials and use vivid details.

  • Help students understand the different purposes of writing.
  • Expand students’ concept of audience.
  • Teach students to emulate the features of good writing.
  • Teach students techniques for writing effectively for different purposes.

Recommendation 3: Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing, and word processing.

When students have mastered the physical and foundational aspects of writing, more cognitive resources are available for developing ideas, planning, drafting, and revising. Spelling and grammatical errors can hinder the reader’s understanding of a written piece, thereby decreasing the writer’s ability to communicate effectively.

  • Teach very young writers how to hold a pencil correctly and form letters efficiently and fluently.
  • Teach students to spell words correctly.
  • Teach students to construct sentences for fluency, meaning, and style.
  • Teach students to type fluently and to use a word processor to compose.

Recommendation 4: Create an engaged community of writers.

Student motivation is a key factor in developing writing skills. Teachers should cultivate a supportive classroom environment that includes sharing teacher-created writing, providing students with opportunities to choose their own writing topics, and teaching students how to engage with peers around the writing process.

  • Participate as members of the community by writing and sharing writing.
  • Give students writing choices.
  • Encourage students to collaborate as writers.
  • Provide students with opportunities to give and receive feedback throughout the writing process.
  • Publish students’ writing and extend the writing community beyond the classroom.