The Liberatory Impact of Evidence-Based Writing Instruction

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own


At a time when book banning and revisionist curriculum is at its most virulent, the literacy education of the next generation of students has become akin to an endangered species.

For more than two decades, nearly every diverse student population measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—racial, socio-economic, linguistic, and neurodiverse—has had a persistent literacy achievement disparity compared to their counterparts (NAEP, 2022).  

Skilled Literacy Is More Than Just Reading

Many states and localities have begun the shift toward science-of-reading-informed instruction. Improvements to writing instruction, however, have largely remained null.

Skilled literacy is more than just reading; it is the interdependent cognitive process for consuming information and creating new knowledge. This cannot develop in the absence of writing instruction. 

The Urgent Need for Evidence-Based Writing Instruction

Connecting the Lack of Writing Instruction and Persistent Reading Achievement Gaps

And yet not unlike the stagnant NAEP scores, the amount of time allotted to writing instruction is at an all time low. When it does occur, it has been relegated to responding to what students have read as a means to measure comprehension, or it is taught with exceeding rigidity for standardized testing purposes.

Might the dearth of writing instruction be a contributing factor to our nation’s persistent reading achievement gaps?

Evidence-Based Writing Instruction: A Liberatory Counterbalance to Inequitable Policies

With these current conditions, logic would dictate that students who are denied access to books and histories that accurately reflect and affirm their identities would spend their K–12 education being solely evaluated on their written comprehension of a dominant culture’s identities and values. This wouldn’t be an education; it would be a tragedy. 

Nonetheless, this is reality for far too many students.

“The truth always needs a resting place or it will lie down wherever it sees fit.”

—Tarana Burke, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience

While the fight against book bans and historically inaccurate curriculum tends to take place everywhere but inside the classroom, teaching evidence-based writing instruction can act as a counterbalance to these and other inequitable policies. 

Writing has been the quintessential tool of resistance and revolution from the very founding of our country. 

America’s forefathers understood deeply the liberatory impact of freedom of speech and of a free press—so much so, that both were enshrined in the Constitution for themselves and prohibited by law for those they wished to remain silent and powerless.

This century’s rise of blog culture is proof positive that writing’s liberatory power has not wavered, and today’s social media influencers can monetize the power of storytelling in posts that move hearts and minds. 

Undoubtedly, there is a way forward.

“We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans—because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.”

—Maya Angelou, from an interview with Vikas Shah in Thought Economics: Conversations with the Remarkable People Shaping Our Century

Making the Shift to Evidence-Based Writing Instruction

Insights from the Institute of Education Sciences

According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (Graham, et al., 2012), successful writing instruction must:

  • Provide daily time for writing explicit instruction and student practice
  • Teach the writing process and have students apply it for a variety of purposes and audiences
  • Develop students’ fluency with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing and word-processing
  • Create an engaged community of writers that includes teacher as writer and student autonomy

While this report’s research basis spans over the last 40 years and was published in 2012, our classrooms remain riddled with popular practices rather than best practices when it comes to teaching writing. 

Classrooms that are already making the shift to the science of reading are primed for making a unilateral shift to evidence-based writing instruction. For classrooms plagued with socially unjust policies, evidence-based writing instruction would serve as both the balm and liberation teachers and students desperately need. 

“Writing is a liberating medium, allowing one to move others in a multitude of directions.”

―Martika Shanel, from an interview with Tiffany Turner for The Indie Children Authors Connection blog

Liberation is defined as the opportunity to be one’s authentic self, free from oppression and harm.

The unique construct of evidence-based writing instruction leverages equitable practices more so than any other discipline. Its liberatory power to disrupt reproductive practices that negatively impact students is singular and only closely matched by its reciprocal literacy partner, reading. 

Teaching writing is the very opportunity to cultivate the gifts and talents of every student. It is the skilled implementation of the four components to successful writing instruction listed above that creates the conditions for what Dr. Gholdy Muhammad calls humanizing pedagogy. She asserts in her book Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning that a humanizing pedagogy “elevates genius, justice, joy, love and humanity for all students” (Muhammad, 2023, p. 21).

Evidence-based writing instruction has the capacity to invoke all of these things in our students as it creates the conditions and gives them permission to share with the world who and what they say they are. 

Correlating the Research with Culturally Responsive Premises

In this section, we will explicitly correlate the evidence-based writing instruction body of research with supporting culturally responsive premises.

To further illustrate the liberatory impact of these writing instruction components, we provide model instructional examples evident in the third edition of Collaborative Classroom’s Being a Writer program.

Provide daily time for student writing

“Who cares if you have a writing program if the kids don’t write?”

—Dr. Steve Graham, from  “Research-Based Writing Instruction: Five Essential Features,” a Collaborative Classroom webinar

Effective writing instruction demands that students have a balance of opportunities to both write freely to get their ideas on paper and employ the conventions of writing. Being a Writer institutes a predictable three-part lesson structure that includes daily writing time. 

The daily practice of writing, whether process oriented or free writing, engages students in all three stages of what neuroscientists call information processing, and it leverages oral cultural learning traditions of storytelling, song, chants, poetry, and dialogic talk. Time for writing builds students’ intellectual capacity through the engagement of processing input, making meaning of said input, and the immediate application of new knowledge through directed and relevant tasks (Hammond, 2014). 

Completing this three-part cognitive loop within the boundaries of culturally connected learning is the essential power of evidence-based writing instruction. Ensuring it happens daily is the moral imperative for teachers and leaders who determine how instructional schedules are designed.

Teach the writing process

“Writing is like any other sort of sport. In order for you to get better at it, you have to exercise the muscle.”

—Jason Reynolds, from an interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning

During the Getting Ready to Write portion of the Being a Writer curriculum, students are immersed in lessons that help them learn about the writing process as well as strategies that can help them develop their writing for different stages of the process. Students learn to flexibly navigate a process that is not always linear; different pieces require different steps in the process. 

In Getting Ready to Write, instruction explicitly demonstrates writing as a recursive process across stages. The teacher gradually releases responsibility to the students with sufficient scaffolding in place, including cooperative learning strategies, partner work, and conferencing. 

The ability to communicate through writing has long held a dual pursuit for marginalized communities. Writing is the elevation of both intellectual and moral enrichment. The ability to communicate effectively has long been a conduit for liberation (Muhammad, 2019). 

From Phyllis Wheatley pronouncing an entire people’s humanity in poetry to Frederick Douglass persuading a president into bending the arc of justice toward freedom for an entire nation, possessing the skills to write for a variety of audiences and purposes has the extraordinary power to create liberation in the most oppressive circumstances. 

In our schools, it has the power to dismantle the predictability of success and failure across diverse student populations. 

Write for a variety of purposes and authentic audiences

“Much of learning to write comes from learning how one’s writing is experienced by an audience of readers.”

—Marisa Ramirez Stukey and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Writing for Life: The Evidence Base for Powerful Writing Instruction,” a Collaborative Classroom white paper

Being a Writer provides learners with mentor texts which include diverse trade books, author interviews, articles, poems, podcasts, and videos. This wealth of resources provides a rich repository of ideas for writers to learn from and draw upon when time is provided for them to write. 

In addition, students learn the importance of knowing why they are writing and who they are writing for before they start the writing task. They discuss how they might write differently based on their intended audience. Together as a writing community, they discuss differences between formal and informal language and which audience each is best suited for. 

The use of mentor texts is widely respected by researchers as one of the most impactful writing instructional practices. In addition to reinforcing the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing, it has the potential to expand the constraints of traditional print media and allow students to see themselves in the work of contemporary authors who reflect their identities, cultures, and values (Muhammad, 2019).

Moreover, emulating mentor texts across other academic literacies provides students with the opportunity to consider how scientists, historians, and mathematicians think differently within their disciplines (Muhammad, 2019). 

Develop students’ fluency with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing and word-processing

“Young children in the primary grades need explicit instruction for transcription and foundational writing skills (spelling, handwriting, sentence writing).”

 —Joan Sedita, in “Evidence-based Writing Instruction, the Writing Rope, and Reading-Writing Reciprocity,” an interview for the Collaborative Classroom blog

Writing fluency refers to the writer’s ability to quickly and easily express themselves in a way that is also easy for their audience to comprehend. Handwriting, spelling, typing, and sentence construction are all entry-point writing skills students must draw upon to translate their thoughts and ideas into writing. Automaticity or fluency with these skills creates cognitive space for the composition to occur. When these basic skills are automatic, the student can compose their message.

Authentic writing experiences are crucial; these skills shouldn’t be learned in isolation. Teachers can create sentence construction exercises from mentor texts, students’ lives, school events, or students’ own writing (Graham, et al., 2012).

The emulation of mentor writing supports the needs of all students, including those who are emerging readers and second language learners. Its ability to support discreet entry point skill development while seated in a text that provides cultural relevance heightens a student’s cognition and ability to retain the skills into working memory (Hammond, 2014).

Create an engaged community of writers

“All learning is social and writing is no different.”

—Marisa Ramirez Stukey and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Writing for Life: The Evidence Base for Powerful Writing Instruction,” a Collaborative Classroom white paper

Being a Writer includes intentional community building right from the start, which lays the groundwork for the rest of the year’s writing endeavors.

Students learn to gather as a community. They are introduced to procedures and routines in ways that suit their developmental stage. These lessons build relationships between peer writers that nurture mutual respect and a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives within the community. 

Over time, this community evolves into a place where students generate ideas together, build on one another’s thinking, and learn to agree and disagree respectfully. Writing partnerships are randomly generated and students learn to work together across an entire unit.

In turn, students develop relationships with peers they may or may not know well through built-in lesson supports for helping them get to know one another and solve problems that may arise through the process. Reflection questions help them generate ways to make partner work go more smoothly. 

Creating community for students through writing partnership practices enhances students’ cultural awareness and identity. Students not only become more responsive and reflective with their peers and their own learner mindsets, they develop the criticality to think and write more deeply about social concepts like power, justice and equality that impact their daily lives (Muhammad, 2023). 

Students’ increased capacity with self- and peer reflection, dialogue, and collaboration throughout the writing process all contribute to their learner clarity, dispositions, and engagement. Furthermore such development leads students to a level of self-empowerment that transcends the writing block and contributes to their success across all aspects of their school and home lives (Bloomberg, et al., 2022).

Actively include the teacher in the writing community

“Without community, there is no liberation.”

—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Being a Writer includes a Teacher as Writer feature, which provides a supportive way for teachers to participate as members of the writing community. Each week begins with a prompt for teachers to respond to in their own writing notebook. This dual role as member of the writing community as well as teacher promotes a sense of belonging and safety. In addition, the teacher’s writing can provide material to draw upon and use in place of writing models included in the lessons. 

Evidence-based writing instruction coupled with culturally responsive pedagogy asks students to be at their most vulnerable than any other content area. How can students openly share the fragility of their identity or academic struggles in writing with a teacher they feel no connection or kinship with? 

They can’t and they won’t. 

Teachers need to have a different kind of relationship with their students that is beyond kindness; they need rapport in order to build trusting relationships.

Rapport happens when students see their humanity reflected back by their teacher. There is no better way to do this than teachers modeling their own writing experiences for and with their students. From rapport, an alliance as a bonafide learning partner, not leader, will emerge between teachers and students (Hammond, 2014). 

This is the cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching that will solidify the liberatory impact of evidence-based writing instruction for students. 

Looking Inward, Moving Toward Liberation

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”

—Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles

Unlearning Old Practices to Change Our Impact

This way of thinking about writing instruction may be atypical, but it is our responsibility as educators to look inward first when moving toward change. This includes thinking about writing in atypical, liberatory ways.

Changing the impact of our instruction will require unlearning many antiquated albeit popular practices and reimagining what could be possible for each and every student. Of course, teaching students to be their most brilliant selves is not, and never could be, easy work. 

We are called to do it nonetheless.

For the Culture and the Commas: Toward a Future of Liberatory Writing Instruction

If we are truly determined to eliminate achievement disparities, liberating our students to find the genius in their voices and the joy in their learning has to be the ultimate goal. 

Evidence-based writing instruction is the way forward.



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