The concerns about the value of teaching lore raised above raises the question: How should the structure and details of writing instruction be determined? The solution that we recommend is to take an evidence-based practice approach to both enhance teachers’ knowledge and develop writing instruction. Starting with medicine in the 1990s, and spreading quickly to psychology, informational science, business, education, and a host of other disciplines, this movement promoted the idea that practitioners in a field should apply the best scientific evidence available to make informed and judicious decisions for their clients (Sackett et al., 1996). The basic assumption underlying this approach is that the findings from research can positively impact practice. The evidence-based practice movement was a reaction to practitioners basing what they did almost strictly on tradition and lore, without scientific evidence to validate it.
One reason why this represents a positive step forward in education and the teaching of writing is that instructional practices based on high quality intervention research addresses the three issues of concern we raised about teaching lore. First, high quality intervention studies address the issue of validity. They are designed specifically to isolate the effects of a specific instructional practice or set of instructional practices. They provide systematically gathered evidence on whether the instructional practices tested produced the desired impact. They further apply methodological procedures to rule out alternative explanations for observed effects. Second, high quality intervention studies address issues of generalizability by describing the participants and the context in which the practice was applied, and by using statistical procedures to determine the confidence that can be placed in specific findings. Three, they address the issue of replicability, as the replication of effects across multiple situations is the hall mark of scientific testing (Graham & Harris, 2014).
Another reason why the evidence-based approach represents a positive step forward in terms of teaching writing is that the evidence gathered from high quality intervention studies can provide a general set of guidelines for designing an effective writing program. Graham et al. (2016) created such a roadmap by drawing on three sources of scientific evidence: true-and quasi- experimental writing intervention studies, single-case design studies, and qualitative studies of how exceptional literacy teachers taught writing (see also Graham & Harris, 2018). They indicated that the scientific evidence from these three sources supports the development of writing programs that include the following. Students write frequently. They are supported by teachers and peers as they write. Essential writing skills, strategies, and knowledge are taught. Students use word processors and other twenty-first century tools to write. Writing occurs in a positive and motivating environment. Writing is used to support learning. Based on several recent meta-analyses of high quality intervention studies (Graham, et al., 2018a, b; Graham, et al., 2018a, b), Graham now recommends that the evidence also supports connecting writing and reading instruction (Graham, 2019, 2020).
A third reason why the evidence-based approach is a positive development is that it provides teachers with a variety of techniques for teaching writing that have been shown to be effective in other teachers’ classes and in multiple situations. While this does not guarantee that a specific evidence-based practices is effective in all situations, a highly unlikely proposition for any writing practice, it does provide teachers with instructional procedures with a proven track record. This includes, but is not limited to (Graham & Harris, 2018; Graham et al., 2016):
Setting goals for writing.
Teaching general as well as genre-specific strategies for planning, revising, editing, and regulating the writing process.
Engaging students in prewriting practices for gathering, organizing, and evaluation possible writing contents and plans.
Teaching sentence construction skills with sentence-combining procedures.
Providing students with feedback about their writing and their progress learning new writing skills.
Teaching handwriting, spelling, and typing.
Increasing how much students write; analyzing and emulating model texts.
Teaching vocabulary for writing.
Creating routines for students to help each other as they write.
Putting into place procedures for enhancing motivation.
Teaching paragraph writing skills.
Employing technology such as word processing that makes it easier to write.
It is also important to realize that an evidence-based approach to writing does not mean that teachers should abandon the hard-earned knowledge they have acquired through their experiences as teachers or learners. The evidence-based movement emphasizes that teachers contextualize knowledge about teaching writing acquired through research with their own knowledge about their students, the context in which they work, and what they know about writing and teaching it (Graham et al., 2016). When applying instructional practices acquired through research as well as teaching lore, we recommend that teachers weigh the benefits, limitations, and possible harm that might ensue as a consequence of applying any teaching procedure. Once a decision is made to apply a specific practice, it is advisable to monitor its effectiveness and make adjustments as needed.
Finally, while the scientific testing of writing practices has provided considerable insight into how writing can be taught effectively, it is not broad, deep, or rich enough to tell us all we need to know about teaching writing. It is highly unlikely that this will ever be the case. We operate on the principle that there is no single best method for teaching writing to all students, nor is it likely that science will provide us with formulas to prescribe exactly how writing should be taught to each student individually. Writing, learning, children, and the contexts in which they operate are just too complex to make this a likely consequence of the evidence-based movement. As a result, we believe that the best writing instruction will be provided by teachers who apply evidence-based practices in conjunction with the best knowledge they have acquired as teachers and learners, using each of these forms of knowledge in an intelligent, judicious, and critical manner.
Over time, we anticipate that evidence-based practices will play an ever increasing role in the process described above. This is inevitable as our knowledge about evidence-based writing practices expands. This brings us to the purpose of this special issue of Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal. This special issue presents 11 writing intervention studies focusing almost exclusively with students in the elementary grades. These studies were conducted in Europe and the United States, and they replicate and extend prior research conducted with young developing writers.