A recent New York Times article titled Why Kids Can’t Write explores the reasons behind U.S. students’ poor writing skills.  The article asserts that the root of writing problems lies with teachers, most of whom have not been trained in how to teach writing, and who are not confident writers themselves. The article goes on to cite specific efforts, such as the National Writing Project and The Writing Revolution, that are focused on training educators how to teach writing skills, as well as the research on effective writing instruction, which suggests a few concrete strategies. For example, students should learn to transcribe by hand and using a computer. Instruction should teach students to write strong sentences before introducing paragraphs. Students benefit when writing instruction integrates grammar, includes models of good writing, and provides frequent feedback about the students’ own writing.

At Learning List, we believe that high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials, including writing materials, are critical to teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. In our work this summer, we have reviewed several supplemental products that focus on teaching writing skills and preparing Texas students for the grade 4 STAAR Writing test. These products use different approaches, but each strives to improve students’ writing skills: [Read more…]

  • WriteSteps is a stand-alone writing program for grades K-5. Resources address the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and state standards (i.e., Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for writing and grammar. Instruction focuses on developing writing skills using the “6 Traits of Quality Writing” framework (i.e., ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions) and include a 7th trait, presentation. Across grade levels, WriteSteps focuses on developing writing skills characterized by “text types” that include opinion, informative/explanatory, narrative, research, and, at grades 3-5, response to literature and informational texts. Content is organized in multi-day units that integrate grammar instruction and focus on a specific text type.
  • Empowering Writers’ Editing, Revising, and More structures writing instruction for students in grades K-8 using predictable routines. Learning List has reviewed resources for grade 4. Each lesson begins with a “Think and Discuss” activity that introduces learning objectives and the skills students will practice. Teachers provide explicit instruction in key concepts (e.g., simple sentences) and model new skills. Activities include opportunities for whole group, small group, student pairs, and individual student work. “Student Resource Books” contain simple activities that accompany teacher-led instruction and allow students to practice what they are learning.
  • Edmentum’s Study Island is an online test-preparation program that helps students in grade 4 master the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for writing and prepare for STAAR exams. Instruction begins with a pretest and a diagnostic test that assess students’ writing skills (e.g., punctuation, use of transitions). Content is broken into topics organized in terms of the Writing Process (e.g., revising, editing), Expository and Procedural Texts (e.g., topic sentences), Oral and Written Conventions (e.g., transitions, subject-verb agreement), and Research (e.g., citing sources). Instruction emphasizes preparation for standardized tests and questions are generally multiple choice and/or drop down menu selections.

In addition to these newly reviewed products, Learning List’s library includes a variety of writing products for a range of grade levels that we have reviewed in previous years. Such products include: Heinemann’s Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing and Istation Reading & Writing. For each product on Learning List, subscribers have access to three different professional reviews:

  • Spec Sheet, a two-page overview of the material’s key academic features and technology interoperability. As part of this review, Learning List tests each online material to determine which devices, browsers and operating system it works on and does not work on. The goal of this review is to help curriculum and technology teams quickly narrow the number of products they will need to review.
  • Editorial Review, a deep dive into the material’s content and design. This review addresses the material’s instructional model and organization, coherence, focus and rigor, the grade-appropriateness of the text, whether the content would be engaging for students, the adaptions available for each special student population, the ease of use, assessments, resources available to support teachers and much more. The goal of this review is to help educators identify the materials that will meet their students’ (and teachers’) needs best.
  • Alignment Report, a detailed review of the citations listed in the publisher’s correlation for alignment to the content, context and cognitive rigor of each state standard. The alignment report shows which standards the material is/is not aligned to, and even more importantly which reviewed citations are aligned to each standard and which are not. Each “non-aligned” citation is accompanied by a Reviewer’s Comment that explains which part of the standard the citation failed to address. This review helps educators choose and then use the material most effectively for instruction