Teaching Writing to Students in Transition: Models for Success

william j barry profile 2016 (1)

William J. Barry

While researching how robust technology use can improve students’ first-year experience, William J. Barry teaches academic research and writing at Concordia University.  He also trains adult educators in partnership with the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL) and teaches first-year seminar at Texas State University, where he is a Ph.D. candidate in developmental education.

Writing helps students learn and persuade (Graham, Gillespie, & Mckeown, 2013), while supporting lifelong literacy, but learning writing challenges learners and involves a complex process.  Along the way, developing writers pass through stages, including telling only what they know, transforming the text to their own benefit, and adjusting the text for the reader’s benefit (Kellogg, 2008).

As writers acquire competency, they emphasize prospective beliefs regarding the reader’s understanding of the text (Kellogg, 2008), and they target their audience by applying elaborated strategies to structure and content problems (Hayes et al., 1987).  As per Spivey’s (1990) academic writing skills–selecting, organizing, and connecting sources–Schriver (2012) described using genre knowledge, arranging non-related text parts into a coherent document, and balancing the appropriate mix between content and target audience, according to community-specific expectations as essential skills.

Creating text, which reflects a clear understanding of reader perspective, structure, and content, requires writers to use a diverse toolkit of knowledge, skills, and strategies (Hayes & Flower, 1980).  One of the challenges educators face involves helping students acquire those tools and the ability to employ them effectively, and meeting the challenge means first explicitly teaching the skills, strategies, and knowledge relevant to academic writing.

Several supported models, including cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al., 1989) and the socio-cognitive model (Schunk and Zimmerman, 1997) suggest sequences of learning by first observing before doing.  In other words, students must first observe a model (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2002), either a mastery model or a coping model (Bandura, 1997; Schunk, 1991).

Since academic writing includes building a macrostructure of the text as a first step, students need training on how the text should appear (Graham et al., 2012).  In particular, they need to learn and apply the text structure of the key genre in their community, which, for students in transitional roles, tend to be the various essays and term papers expected of a liberal arts education.  Starting by familiarizing students with the components, structure, and function(s) of such writing provides them with the essential framework within which to apply later process and skill training, translating to higher retention, better outcomes, and overall satisfaction.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.) Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Graham, S., Gillespie, A., & Mckeown, D. (2013). Writing: importance, development, and instruction. Reading and Writing, 26(1), 1–15.

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(4), 879–896.

Hayes, J. R., & Flower, L. S. (1980). Identifying the organization of writing processes. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.) Cognitive Processes in Writing (pp. 3-30). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hayes, J. R., Flower, L., Schriver, K., Statman, J., & Carey, L. (1987). Cognitive processes in revision. In S. Rosenberg (Ed.) Reading, Writing, and Language Possessing (Vol. 2, pp. 176-240). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kellogg, R. T. (2008). Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Ressearch, 1(1), 1–26.

Schriver, K. (2012). “What we know about expertise in professional communication,” in Past, Present, and Future Contributions of Cognitive Writing Research to Cognitive Psychology ed. Wise Berninger V., editor. New York: Psychology Press.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. New York, NY: Merrill.

Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1997). Social origins of self-regulatory competence. Educational  Psychologist, 32, 195–208.

Spivey, N. N. (1990). Transforming texts constructive processes in reading and writing. Written Communication, 7, 256–287.

Zimmerman, B. J., & Kitsantas, A. (2002). Acquiring writing revision and self-regulatory skill through observation and emulation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 660.


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