How to Teach Writing Fluency

  • 08 January, 2022
  • 12 Comments

Teacher question: What can you tell me about writing fluency in grades K-5? Our district is making a major effort to improve writing which is great, but our kids don’t’ write much. I don’t mean that the teachers don’t give writing assignments (they do), but the writing that the kids produce is very limited and it takes them a long time. I can’t see how we can improve their writing if they can’t write more.

Shanahan response:

Writing fluency is a slippery fish. Definitions of the term vary greatly within the profession (Latif, 2013). Not surprisingly, those differences in definition result in a wide variety of advice for teachers on how to facilitate fluent writing. Accordingly, researchers interested in the matter have spent most of their efforts towards figuring out what fluency is or its relation to writing quality.

Personally, I’m happy that anyone is paying attention to this at all. For a long time, the literature on children’s writing seemed to emphasize quality over fluency. This was done by promoting revision heavily, even in the primary grades. Revision is important, of course, but it only helps if you have gotten your ideas onto paper in the first place. Revising a blank page is an empty exercise.

National and state assessments don’t consider fluency issues directly either. They might get at it incidentally by marking a paper down if its ideas aren’t sufficiently developed. However, lack of development can be as evident in papers with lots of words/sentences as those with few.

I’ve long believed that writing fluency – as much as writing quality – should be a major goal in the early grades (my first publication in the field was about how I had successfully facilitated writing fluency in my classrooms). Over the past couple of decades there has been a growing body of research revealing the pivotal role that handwriting and spelling can play in writing fluency. Experience tells me that instruction in those can facilitate automaticity, but so can emphasis on invented or developmental spelling – reducing student anxiety about potential errors, while providing valuable practice with phonemic awareness and phonics at the same time. 

Researchers these days often divide writing into its components. For example, one popular model separates transcription (getting ideas onto paper) from the ability to generate or compose ideas in the first place (Berninger & Winn, 2006).

Sadly, studies that have tried to disassemble writing fluency have left us with a bit of a muddle. I think their expectation has been that fluent transcription includes “lower” skills like spelling and handwriting, while idea generation depends not on these mundane skills but on world knowledge and language proficiency. Things don’t divide up that neatly, however.

In that regard, writing fluency is a lot like reading fluency. For the youngest students and the poorest readers, reading fluency is largely the result of automatic decoding ability – but with development, some aspects of reading comprehension are implicated too (through prosody). Writing has a similar pattern of progression apparently, with printing and spelling sucking up much of the variance early on, but with executive function and oral language increasingly insinuating themselves into the equation as writers progress.

That shouldn’t be too surprising. There are many reasons people have trouble getting ideas on paper.

Kids often tell me that they don’t have any ideas, they don’t know what to write about. That may be an accurate appraisal of their situation, or a convenient excuse for avoiding what for them is an unpleasant and potentially embarrassing task (yes, there are both cognitive and affective reasons for balking at a white page). When students at any level voice this problem, I talk with them. Their ideas flow easily in our conversations but vanish in the monologic situation required of writing (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Steinbach, 1984).

Another enemy of writing fluency is perfectionism. “If I can’t produce something perfect – that won’t embarrass me – I can’t possibly write.” Concerns about handwriting and spelling may limit fluency. Many kids hesitate when they come to a word that they think they can’t spell, or they engage in wasteful mental gymnastics trying to avoid expressing ideas that would require those words. That’s why taking the pressure off handwriting and spelling quality during drafting can support fluency.

Perfectionism raises its ugly head another way, as well. Writers often are impeded by premature and seemingly infinite revision and editing. They write a sentence, and then rewrite it. Young kids may manage to get a word on paper and then try to erase and improve it before they even get to a second word. This composing, decomposing, and recomposing prevents writing fluency and undermines writer confidence. Few things are more painful than watching a child tearfully laboring over his wordless paper, blotched and torn from such revision. Jacques Derrida referred to this as “interminable revision” and there are scads of electronic writing tools aimed at preventing the problem for adult writers (e.g., Write or Die, iA Writer, OmmWriter, Freewrite Smart Typewriter).

Handwriting issues are a big part of writing fluency early on, but its importance diminishes quickly (Juel, 1988). This may partly be due to the small or fine muscle demands of handwriting – though studies that replace handwriting with keyboarding have reported mixed results (Goldberg, Russell, & Cook, 2003; Spilling, et al, 2021). Sometimes keyboarding results in more fluent production of text and sometimes it doesn’t.

Given all that, what can you do to improve writing fluency?

1.     Teach handwriting and spelling explicitly. Such instruction has been found to improve both fluency and quality of writing (Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012). In the early grades at least, I’m a big fan of combining phonics and spelling instruction. The idea is to teach these skills to the point of automaticity. The youngster agonizing over how to form the letter G is not thinking about the ideas that he/she wants to communicate to a reader.

2.     Lower the emphasis on spelling and handwriting during drafting. This may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth – teach spelling but don’t require it – but that isn’t really the case. Handwriting and spelling facilitate communication. The more legible your handwriting and the more accurate your spelling, the more likely it is that readers will focus on your ideas.

However, when drafting, these skills don’t matter very much. Encourage (beseech, implore, beg) students not to worry about their spelling or handwriting while drafting. And don’t undermine this encouragement by spelling words for them or marking up their errors on an early draft.

Young kids benefit from trying to spell words because it requires them to analyze phonemic structure. Spelling instruction increases the body of knowledge that students use when they are trying to spell unknown words.  

3.     Discussion and planning can play an important role in writing fluency. Research has long found that getting kids talking about what they want to write about improves and makes more efficient the flow of ideas. For the youngest children, drawing about their topic can have the same kind of payoff. As children move up the grades, getting them to list or chart their ideas can help.

4.     Require a lot of writing. Students should be reading and writing throughout the day. They should be writing as part of reading, science, social studies, and math. As with any skilled activity, practice plays an important role – and given the learning benefits that writing about a topic can provide (Graham & Hebert, 2010) – writing should be a go-to-activity throughout the curriculum.

5.     Engage students in non-stop writing (Datchuck, 2017). The linguist S.I Hayakawa required his college freshman comp students to write – without stopping, rereading, revising -- for an entire class period. John Holt had his fifth graders doing the same for 15 minutes. As a primary grade teacher, my students wrote non-stop in multiple 1-2-minute intervals (Shanahan, 1977).

I’d provide a prompt and then have the students writing non-stop for 1 minute. Then I’d give their hands a rest and change the prompt and have them write for 90 seconds more. Finally, another break was followed by 2 more minutes of non-stop writing. Students who don’t know what to say next are to rewrite their last sentence until they have an idea (promoting the idea of thinking while writing as opposed to being a prelude to writing).

With the beginnings of three compositions in hand, students can begin to shape and improve their ideas. Sometimes I would have them pick the one they liked best for polishing. Or perhaps I would ask them to combine all three into a single paper. Over time, the students gained facility: they could generate a lot of sentences about an idea quickly, they could write and think simultaneously, and because of the limitations of such writing, they came to see the value of revision and editing.   

References

Berninger, V. W., & Winn, W. D. (2006). Implications of Advancements in Brain Research and Technology for Writing Development, Writing Instruction, and Educational Evolution. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 96–114). The Guilford Press.

Datchuk, S.M. (2017). A direct instruction and precision teaching intervention to improve sentence construction of middle school students with writing difficulties. Journal of Special Education, 51, 62-71. doi:10.1177/0022466916665588

Feng, L., Lindner, A., Ji, X.R., & Joshi, R.M. (2019). The roles of handwriting and keyboarding in writing: A meta-analytic review. Reading & Writing, 32, 33-63.

Goldberg, A., Russell, M., & Cook, A. (2003). The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(1), 3–50.

Graham, S. (2009-2010). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. American Educator, 20-27,40

Graham, S., McKeown D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K.R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 879–896.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

Kent, S., Wanzek, J., Petscher, Y., Al Otaiba, S., & Kim, Y. (2014). Writing fluency and quality in kindergarten and first grade: The role of attention, reading transcription, and oral language. Reading & Writing, 27(7), 1163-1188.

Kim, Y.G., Gatlin, B., Al Otaiba, S., & Wanzek, J. (2018). Theorization and an empirical investigation of the component-based and developmental text writing fluency construct. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 51(4), 320-335.

Latif, M. (2013). What do we mean by writing fluency and how can it be validly measured? Applied Linguistics, 34(1), 99-105. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/ams073

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in Grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77–88. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

Scardamalia, M., Bereiter, C. and Steinbach, R. (1984), Teachability of Reflective Processes in Written Composition. Cognitive Science, 8, 173-190. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog0802_4

Shanahan, T. (1977). Writing marathons and concept development. Language Arts,

Spilling, E.F., Rønneberg, V., Rogne, W.M. et al. (2021). Handwriting versus keyboarding: Does writing modality affect quality of narratives written by beginning writers? Reading & Writing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-021-10169-y

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Melanie
Jan 08, 2022 06:27 PM

THANK YOU, Timothy, for these temendous suggestions. "Few things are more painful than watching a child tearfully laboring over his wordless paper" rings SO true in my 2nd Grade Gifted/HIgh Achiever classroom, and one of my main challenges. I do follow #1 & 2, will add 'beg" :). I look forward to facilitating #5 nonstop writing!! I also provide many opportunities for students to illustrate what they write, during any subject. Increasing discussion brought a huge aha rembering when I provided students with a u-shaped PVC pipe that serves as a 'phone' for the writer to speak into then hear their own voice speaking about the writing topic. I then suggest to write down what they hear themself saying. Does that sound effective? Do you agree that this saying still applies, 'writers make good readers, readers make good writers'? All said, I still need a writing plan.

Jennifer Newman
Jan 08, 2022 08:03 PM

I think its important to differentiate between how we instruct our youngest writers (e.g. Kindergarten and grade 1) and how we teach older students who are already gaining proficiency with handwriting and spelling (assuming these are being taught in the earliest grades, which they often aren't). So much emphasis has been placed on getting Kindergarten and first grade students to write whole narratives using invented spelling. Wouldn't our time be better spent on providing explicit instruction and sufficient practice in letter formation and sound-spelling correspondences, both of which are necessary for achieving writing fluency? With stronger early instuction, I suspect students would present with fewer handwriting and spelling issues impeding their writing down the road.
Jennifer N

Harriett Janetos
Jan 08, 2022 08:07 PM

These are excellent recommendations. I would add that Graham reminds us that teaching writing genres is also essential because this "activates and directs knowledge and strategies for certain kinds of writing (e.g., an essay rather than a story)". And I would emphasize that it even helps kindergarteners who can be reminded that describing their favorite toy or telling about a trip to Disneyland requires different choices than giving the reasons why they think dogs make better pets than cats or explaining the life cycle of a frog. Although teaching the features of a given genre may seem restrictive, Coe (An apology for form: Or who took the form out of the process?) explains that a rhetorical form "may be generative insofar as it motivates a search for more information; but any form also biases the direction of the searching and constrains against the discovery of information that does not fit the form." This reminds me of a study which showed that consumers preferred having 6 types of jam to choose from rather than 36. Sometimes constraints can be liberating.

Joan Sedita
Jan 08, 2022 08:55 PM

Thanks Tim for focusing on writing. There is so much I'd like to build on from your post that I could fill a book... and in fact a book that I recently wrote for Brookes publishing is in production, due for publication this summer titled "The Writing Rope: A Framework for Explicit Writing Instruction in All Subjects." Berninger called the model you referred to "The Not So Simple View of Writing," something I wrote about in a December blog post https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/the-not-so-simple-view-of-writing/ It depicts writing as a combination of Transcription Skills (spelling and handwriting), Text Generation (composing, including idea generation and text structure), and Executive Functions (goal setting, planning, revising) with Working Memory as a linchpin connecting it all. I think executive functions (and the difficulty with writing that results from EF deficits) plays a big role in holding students back from writing a lot and writing well, as Graham and Harris have highlighted with their research over 2 decades about the role of self-regulation in writing.
Picking up on your comments about transcription skills being like fluency for reading - I agree and often make that connection when providing writing PD to teachers. Just as spending energy on decoding takes away from focusing on making meaning, if students don't become automatic and fluent with spelling and handwriting/keyboarding, they can't focus their attention on higher-level composing skills. Graham et al. in the 2012 IES guide "Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers" recommend explicit instruction of transcriptions skills.
One area you did not focus on is the need to explicitly teach students about text structure, which I think needs to include paragraph structure, the structure of patterns of organization and their related transition words (i.e., description, cause/effect, sequence, compare/contrast, etc.), and longer text structure (i.e., introductions, conclusions, body development). All of this can begin in the early grades, and students need EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION for these levels of structure.
Another important area for which explicit instruction is essential is the stages of the writing process -- what Hayes & Flowers identified years ago, and what I simplify for students as "think, plan, write, revise," and the recursive nature of these stages. When student are taught that time spent at the think stage (idea generation and collection if information from sources) and plan stage (using an organizing tool such as a graphic organizer), they start to realize that the write stage (using sentences and paragraphs to convey what they want to say) will be more effective. Explicit instruction in strategies related to every stage is needed, also recommended in the 2012 IES guide as well as the Graham et al. 2016 IES guide "Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively." This includes things such as how to use pre-writing graphic organizers.
Another area that deserves more focus is syntactic awareness. Another parallel with reading comprehension can be made. Many students who do not develop solid oral language have insufficient syntactic awareness. They have difficulty comprehending and also writing long, complex sentences. Sentences are the basic building blocks of writing. Sentence building skills such as sentence combining (with instructional suggestions by Strong in the 1980's and more recently in Bruce Saddler's work) and sentence elaboration practice (such as the "Kernel Sentence" work of Haynes and Jennings, my colleagues from Landmark School) help students develop fluency with sentence writing. I think developing proficiency with sentence writing goes a long way towards addressing what you note as the problem with "perfectionism" related to rewriting sentences.
Yet another area that deserves focus is the need for explicit instruction in the skills needed to write from sources. Graham & Hebert's 2010 "Writing to Read" report highlights the role that writing plays in supporting and improving reading. And state literacy writing and reading standards place great emphasis on writing that is text based. Yet students receive very little explicit instruction in skills such as close reading to identify relevant text information, note taking to gather and save that information, and instruction for how to turn notes into sentences into well-structured paragraphs.
Teachers also need to be aware of the value of showing students text models (referred to as "mentor text") to emulate for the various areas I discussed above. For example, how to use transitions, how use dialogue in a narrative piece, how to write a topic sentence, or how to write an introduction to an opinion/argument piece that states the claim.
I have long felt that, compared to reading, our field has neglected writing instruction in terms of research on effective practices as well as defining the components that make up skilled writing. I am heartened by the emphasis currently being placed by many states on providing reading PD that is evidence based, but am waiting for the light bulb to go off in recognition of a similar need for writing PD for teachers. There is also a paucity of writing assessment tools. Most literacy educators can easily name the components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension) but when asked the same about writing they see it as a monolithic skill. In 2019 I developed a "Writing Rope" framework with a goal of making teachers aware of the multiple components (rope strands) that need to taught and practiced to enable skilled writing, summarized in a 2019 blog post: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/we-need-a-writing-rope/ This includes Critical Thinking Skills (generating ideas, gathering info from sources, stages of the writing process), Syntax, Text Structure (at the levels described above), Transcription, and Writing Craft (word choice, awareness of task/audience/purpose, use of literary devices such as dialogue). Your blog post has highlighted the many facets that contribute to writing fluency and addresses many of the components of my Writing Rope. I hope you will devote more of your posts to this topic of writing!

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 08, 2022 09:02 PM

Jennifer-
No, I don't agree with you on that. I think that it is very reasonable to encourage K-1 students to write without regard for spelling. First, kids get a lot of benefit from invention -- it requires much more analysis of the phonological aspects of the language than reading usually does. Second, it provides teachers with valuable diagnostic information -- revealing what they know about written language and how it works. Third, it keeps spelling limitations from limiting vocabulary choices. Fourth, it can free kids up to write fluently -- not being derailed by trying to make their transcriptions "perfect." That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be teaching handwriting and spelling at those grade levels, just that there are benefits to not overemphasizing that during writing.

thanks.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 08, 2022 09:05 PM

Melanie--

I've never used such a device myself as a teacher, but I have talked to many teachers who swear by that. It certainly makes the point to those beginning writers that they should try to spell each sound that they hear in words. Makes sense-- for a while. Once kids can fully segment words phonemically, there likely would be no benefit.

thanks.

tim

Joan Sedita
Jan 08, 2022 09:35 PM

I agree with what Tim just wrote about the importance for K-2 students to be encouraged to compose even before they have learned to spell. In K they can begin to learn the stages of the writing process and start composing even if it's simply through their drawings with added labels or word lists, and then orally explaining the ideas they are trying to convey. Asking them to add more to their drawings teaches them to elaborate on what they want to say in their writing. Also, there is benefit to explicitly teaching students how to express what they want to say in the drawing. For first and second graders, explicit instruction and guided practice for generating and expanding sentences (first orally, then written) sets the stage for better writing later. Same for introducing paragraph structure. And state writing standards expect students as early as these primary grades to learn the difference between the structure of informational, narrative, and opinion writing, including generating simple introductions, conclusions, and body development that is appropriate for the 3 genres. This can be accomplished in just a few written sentences starting in grade 1. All this can be done allowing them to use invented spelling so they focus on expressing themselves through writing. I'm a big fan of explicit instruction in phonics and word study to develop solid early decoding and encoding skills, but in some respects teaching spelling is best done during the reading instruction block than the writing block.

Catherine Walsh
Jan 10, 2022 12:38 AM

What is a good source for writing prompts for the continuous writing exercise (60 sec, 90 sec, 2 min) that you describe. Are they writing to three different prompts?

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 10, 2022 03:05 AM

Catherine--
I often had the children writing three related pieces. For example, in our curriculum, the children were studying various cultures and continents. I might have "writing marathons" on the life of a child in Kenya, Brazil, and U.S. Then we'd combine them. Or, if I had $100, a $1000, or a $1,000,000. You can have sets of non-stop writing that focuses on any differences in quantity, degree, sequence, role, perspective, etc. Perhaps have them write in one paper about how a particular character felt about the events in the book (perhaps, Wilbur from Charlotte's web), another on Charlotte's take, and a third on what Fern thought was going on. Those kinds of writing can then be compared, combined, selected from for further work.

tim

M
Jan 10, 2022 04:36 AM

I definitely want to try some nonstop writing for prompts! I have found, though, that simple sentence construction is an issue for many students in my third grade class. Many are still struggling with letter formations after being on a computer for two years. We struggled to write well structured sentences at the beginning of the year so I spent a lot of time doing sentence level work. What are your thoughts on that? The well known writing curriculum (and frequently discussed on this blog) we use seems to expect kids to jump into writing whole personal narratives/ essay writing before they can even write well structured sentences and paragraphs. I’ve talked to kindergarten and first grade teachers in my school who are stressed about kids being expected to write chapter books before their letter formation is automatic, with this particular curriculum. Of course teachers adapt to meet the needs of their students, but the expectation is to be on that curriculum’s trajectory no matter what.

Don Potter
Jan 11, 2022 03:35 AM

I test the handwriting fluency (legibility and speed) of every student coming to me for tutoring. In over 20 years of tutoring, I have never had a student from my local school district that could write the alphabet fluently from a to z in manuscript or cursive. Handwriting is one of the first and most important things I remediate.

Lynne Raiser
Jan 12, 2022 06:52 PM

Try 5 minute free writes with reluctant writers.
"Write about anything you want to. Don't worry about spelling. You can fix it later. Write a letter down to remind you what word you can't spell. Talk to the paper. If you can't think of what to write about, write THAT: "I can't think of what to write about. I don't want to write. This is stupid." Write whatever you are thinking about. If you are thinking, you can write!"

The lowest 2nd grade readers in an inner city school LOVED. this. Once a week they worked with a tutor in my teacher education language arts methods class . They often came with a topic. We kept a list of topics (student generated). Some students wrote about footballl or their dogs every week. That's fine. The purpose was fluency not new ideas. They charted progress.

One student never wanted to read or write. In our reading methods course, I wrote football stories for him every week and got some reading out of him. One day he would not stop at 5 minutes. We let him continue. He wrote 157 words! We tutored him for almost 2 years before he wrote those words but it thrills me years later.

At the end of each semester, the students polished their favoriite pieces and each one made a book. Of course I had a college student paired with each child, so it was an easy project for both. Writing fluency work is just as important as reading fluency and multication facts fluency. When I write myself I just WRITE on my topic and later go back and fix it. That's what I am doing right now! Now I'll go back and fix it.

Students need to write every day. Some is "fixed" but most is not. You can't build fluency with a purple pen. Writing is very personal It's the most personal thing you could ever ask me to do. Repect it. Encourage it. But just like speech and reading fluency, writing fluency must be encouraged without penalty. Remember: Writing always has a purpose. If fluency is the purpose, let them write without penalty. Thanks for "listening."

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How to Teach Writing Fluency

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