An Interview with Joan Sedita: Evidence-Based Writing Instruction, the Writing Rope, and Reading-Writing Reciprocity

As we look forward to the release of Being a Writer, Third Edition, we’re delighted to share this new interview with Joan Sedita, nationally recognized professional development author and K-12 reading and writing instruction expert. She is also the founder and CEO of Keys to Literacy, a professional development organization.

Joan has worked on numerous state-level literacy initiatives and authored multiple professional development books, online courses, and training modules, and is the creator of The Writing Rope framework for writing instruction. A collection of free resources to support K-12 literacy instruction, including videos, archived webinars, and teaching materials, is available at the Keys to Literacy resource website.

In this interview, Joan Sedita shares her insights about evidence-based writing instruction, including:

  • essential elements of a curriculum for teaching writing, 
  • the connection between awareness of the writing process and developing students’ critical thinking skills
  • practical strategies for K–5 educators who want to strengthen writing instruction in their literacy block
  • advice for creating a supportive classroom writing community 

Joan, thank you for speaking with us. What inspired you to develop The Writing Rope™ model? How did you envision it supporting teachers in their day-to-day practice?

I have felt for years that there was a need for a framework to help educators identify the components of writing to inform instructional 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 in recent years, I decided that a similar metaphor for identifying writing components would resonate better than the wagon wheel, so in 2018 I developed the first Writing Rope graphic. 

I envision teachers using the Writing Rope framework to assess if the writing instruction they are providing is complete.

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. 

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 they are writing based on text or content they are learning, students must apply critical thinking to comprehend the sources and then extract the essential information they want to incorporate in their writing. If they are creating a writing piece that is not based on sources, such as a creative story or personal narrative, they still 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. 

In your opinion, why is it crucial to prioritize writing instruction for K–5 students? How does writing instruction in the elementary grades contribute to students’ cognitive and critical thinking abilities?

After the National Reading Panel report was published in 2000 and the Reading First part of the No Child Left Behind legislation focused educators’ attention on reading instruction, writing instruction was neglected to a certain degree. In some cases, time for teaching writing was replaced with more time for reading instruction. 

That began to change with the introduction of ten writing standards in the Common Core ELA standards (and similar state versions of these standards) and several reading standards that required students to write about what they are reading. 

Also, as many states have added writing tasks on high-stakes state assessments that require students to answer prompts based on sources, it is becoming clear that many students are far below proficient in writing ability for their grade level. 

There is also extensive research showing that writing improves reading (see the Writing to Read report by Graham and Hebert, 2010), and writing about text enhances learning of content (see Writing Next by Graham & Perin, 2007). 

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. 

It is critical that schools recognize that writing must be added to the focus they have placed on reading instruction.

However, it is 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. 

Given the volume and weight of many competing priorities in the classroom, especially in the past few years, many elementary-grade teachers say they’ve felt unable to devote time to teaching writing. What advice might you have for K–5 teachers who want to add or reincorporate writing instruction into the literacy block?

The Institute of Education Sciences’ practice guide Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers recommends a minimum of one hour a day devoted to writing for students, beginning in first grade. 

The report notes that the hour should include at least 30 minutes dedicated to teaching a variety of writing strategies, techniques, and skills. The remaining 30 minutes should be spent on writing practice where students apply the skills they learned from the writing-skills instruction. How do teachers find this time?

Part of the answer is that more writing instruction needs to be integrated into the literacy block, and more writing tasks, with guided practice and feedback, need to be integrated into content teaching. 

What is often considered the reading instruction block needs to be described as the literacy instruction block where writing and reading are integrated whenever possible. Reading and writing are both built on the same foundation of oral language. They are like two buckets drawing water from a common well. 

Reading and writing are both built on the same foundation of oral language. They are like two buckets drawing water from a common well. 

Spelling and handwriting transcription skills in primary grades are best taught during a phonics lesson as students learn letters and the sound-symbol correspondences for graphemes. Activities that combine decoding and encoding (spelling words) should be integrated in phonics lessons. 

A number of writing skills can be taught and practiced together with comprehension instruction. For example, identifying main ideas and summarizing have been identified as effective strategies for supporting reading comprehension, but main idea instruction is also part of teaching students to write quality paragraphs, and summarizing has been shown to improve student writing. Another example would be teaching students to take notes, which supports both comprehension and gathering information when writing from sources. 

Explicit instruction for skills and strategies for sentence writing and writing craft also need to be taught within the literacy block. However, the guided practice and opportunities for students to collaborate to apply these skills to writing tasks is best done during the whole school day across all subjects. 

Writing about text and what students are learning accomplishes two important objectives: they grow their writing skills and they learn their content more deeply. Reminders to apply all stages of the writing process, to write high-quality sentences, and to use graphic organizers to take notes and plan before writing should be given when writing about math, science, social studies, and other subjects. 

Finally, students learn skills for using text structure in their own writing by analyzing and emulating text they are reading. When they do this across subjects, they learn structures that are unique to certain subjects. 

What are some of the best ways for teachers to 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: 

  1. Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers and 
  2. Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively 

They are both excellent resources about the what and how of writing instruction. 

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 professional development training courses, online courses, and companion books that I authored which 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. 

Pam Kastner has developed an excellent collection of writing resources into her Wakelet, titled The Kastner Collection: Effective Writing Practices

What practical strategies or techniques can teachers employ to create a supportive and engaging writing environment for K–5 students?

One of the four recommendations in the Institute of Education Sciences’ research guide is: Create an engaged community of writers. This includes several components: 

  1. Teachers participating as members of the community by writing and sharing their writing. 
  2. Giving students writing choices. 
  3. Encouraging students to collaborate at all stages of the writing process. 
  4. Providing students with opportunities to give and receive feedback throughout the writing process. 
  5. Publishing students’ writing and extending the community beyond the classroom. The Institute of Education Sciences offers a 4-minute video about a community of writers that can be accessed by searching for this title: Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers – Part 2.  

Teachers can also do the following to create a supportive and engaging writing environment: show students that they enjoy writing and teaching writing, and create a classroom environment where students are encouraged to try hard, to accept that as they learn skills they will make mistakes—and that mistakes are OK—and to be kind to their peers when giving feedback about how to improve writing pieces. 

Classroom routines that encourage students to follow all stages of the writing process and writing tasks that are appropriate to students’ interests and abilities are also important.

Finally, many students are afraid to write, so providing scaffolded, explicit instruction for writing skills, strategies, and techniques with sufficient guided practice ensures that they have what’s needed to successfully write and share their pieces with peers.

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In your view, how does writing instruction in the elementary years contribute to students’ social and emotional development?

Writing plays an important role in social development. Because writing is used to communicate, it is by nature a social activity. When students are taught skills and strategies for all the strands in the Writing Rope, they have the tools needed to effectively communicate what they think and want to share with others. 

Reading and writing are essential for success in school. Given how much time students spend in school—over 12 to 13 years—there are significant impacts on their emotional development if they struggle to learn and experience failure in the classroom. 

Educators must ensure that students are given sufficient, evidence-based writing instruction so they develop the skills needed to access content and learn in all subjects. Teachers of all content areas play a crucial role in developing reading and writing skills that in many ways are pillars that support social and emotional learning in school. 

As I noted earlier, writing has been neglected for far too long. The growing recognition that writing is as essential to school success as reading and the growing interest in how to teach writing effectively among educators of all grades suggests that writing will soon finally receive the attention it deserves. 

Over the last two years, I have seen a significant increase in interest in writing professional development in my work with school districts and state departments of education. I have also seen a growing focus on writing on the part of literacy organizations, including the content of workshops and keynote addresses at literacy conferences. 

Hopefully, this interest will translate into high-quality professional development and more attention to writing instruction at the pre-service level in teacher preparation programs. If teachers develop the knowledge of how to teach writing, they will be able to effectively teach their students how to write. 


On-Demand Webinar: The Writing Rope: A Conversation with Joan Sedita

Blog: Reading and Writing: Reciprocal Opportunities to Become Both Brilliant and Infinite

Blog: Best Practices for Equity in Writing Instruction

Blog: Our Approach to Evidence-Based Writing Instruction

Author’s Chair Interview: Watercress Author Andrea Wang and Illustrator Jason Chin