The Common Core State Standards require considerable writing across many subjects, but the standards themselves won't be enough to guide teachers to best practices in writing instruction, according to a new analysis.
In a study in the current issue of School Psyhology Review, researchers Gary A. Troia of Michigan State University and Natalie G. Olinghouse of the University of Connecticut used a set of 36 writing-instruction and testing practices that have been shown in prior studies to improve students' writing skills across different areas, including the writing process, context, purposes, and motivation. The authors analyzed the common core's writing standards as well as the standards that states had previously or continue to have, in the case of states like Texas and Virginia which have not adopted common standards.
"Standards don't specify the how to, they specify the what to teach," Troia said, "but they are supposed to 'sign-post' or signal to teachers what they might teach."
For example, if a standard requires students to plan, edit, and revise their own work, "that naturally leads a teacher to say, I need to teach planning, editing, and revising. There's a transparent connection between the content of the standards and the teaching practices."
How Standards Stack Up
State standards varied widely in how well they highlighted writing instructional practices, with some, such as Texas, pointing to about 75 percent of the best practices in a given grade, and other states containing little mention of evidence-based practices.
The common core "strongly" signals half of the 36 evidence-based writing instructional practices identified in any given grade, with some practices—teaching students the structure of different kinds of texts, peer collaboration, and analyzing data from experiments or other sources, for example—highlighted in all grades. Moreover, Troia noted, "The common core tends to be concise and not very repetitive. You're not having to sift through a lot of repetitious content. We had some states where the content was repeated up to five times in a grade."
However, the researchers found some holes in the common-core standards, such as methods of teaching grammar skills, writing motivation, and genres of narrative writing, including differences between historical fiction and memoirs. Also, some types of writing typically taught in older grades, such as writing research papers, have been started in lower grades in the common core, and, in some cases, there are fewer evidence-based practices for teaching the same topics to younger children.
"The implication is if teachers are going to do [for example] strategy instruction—which research has shown is a very powerful method—teachers are not going to be able to support that from what's embedded within the common core, so they will have to look elsewhere," Troia said. "The standards alone are not likely to improve greatly the instruction that takes place in the classroom."
Building Professional Development
The authors argue that teachers need substantially more professional development around the common core, not just in understanding what the new standards include and how they differ from states' old standards, but also to fill the gaps in instructional strategies that will be needed for students to write well.