Can Writing Close the Achievement Gap?

Can Writing Close the Achievement Gap?

In education, the “achievement gap” refers to consistent differences in academic performance between various groups of students. In the United States, the most significant achievement gaps occur between African American and Hispanic students and their white counterparts, as well as between students from low-income families and students who are better off financially.

How can writing help close the achievement gap?

Providing opportunities for students to write is one way that educators in any content area can work toward closing the achievement gap in their classrooms on a daily basis. Here’s how something as simple as writing can help tackle one of the most important issues in American education.

Writing improves thinking skills.

Critical and analytical thinking are essential to academic success, and writing consistently can help students drastically improve these skills.

Writing requires students to organize their ideas, provide evidence and analysis to support these ideas, grapple with complex topics, and clarify and reflect on their thoughts. All of these tasks can sharpen critical thinking skills, giving students the tools they need to excel academically.

If all students are provided with consistent opportunities to express complex ideas and problems on paper, the achievement gap could be reduced as students improve higher-level thinking skills.

But it’s not necessary to evaluate your students with lengthy writing assignments or extensive grammar checks every time they write. Instead, you can also provide low-stakes writing opportunities for students to simply express ideas and opinions, ultimately enhancing their ability to think and learn. 

Writing helps students find their voices.

The writing process, particularly when students are given opportunities to write about themselves, can be self-affirming. Writing allows students to express their personalities, voices, and ideas, which can lead to increased self-confidence.

In a study by Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen, seventh grade African American and Latino students were asked to write about the things, people, or values that were most important to them. These tasks were assigned at crucial points in the school year: the beginning of the year, around holidays, prior to major standardized tests, etc.

The goal was to help academically stigmatized minorities “focus on sources of strength and validation in their lives,” thus broadening their perspectives of themselves.

The results? The racial achievement gap dropped by almost 30%, GPAs rose, and the rate of remediation or grade repetition fell by 13%.

This improvement was the result of very brief writing assignments given only a few times a year. Try to create opportunities for your students to write about themselves, their lives, their goals, their ideas, or anything else that matters to them.

It can also be helpful to allow students to write about their families or cultural backgrounds. Students are more successful when diversity is considered an asset that is embraced by the teacher and the school.

For students who may feel overlooked, out of place, or unfairly stereotyped, writing can lead to increased confidence that results in better overall academic performance.

The feedback-revision process can empower students.

Receiving constructive feedback from teachers on their writing and then taking steps to improve can also help empower students.

When you provide feedback to students, point out what they are doing well in addition to areas that need improvement. This can increase student confidence while also motivating them to continue improving.

As students make choices about how to polish a piece of writing, they’re also empowered by a sense of agency and creative control that can shape them into more confident learners. The same is true when students see the actual results and improvement in their paper or overall writing abilities.

When students who normally lack academic confidence are encouraged, supported, and given a sense of ownership over their work, their confidence and their academic performance improves.

Writing provides teachers with crucial information for evidence-based instruction.

Evidence-based interventions are the most effective route to helping students who are falling behind. Teachers need to regularly assess individual students and use performance data to inform instruction. As teachers use various intervention strategies, gathering additional performance data can help determine what is and isn’t working for struggling students.

Writing is a fast and simple way to consistently assess students. Of course, you can assess the writing itself: grammar, spelling, punctuation, organization, and so on. However, you can also assess ideas. Ask a student to write down three things they learned about polynomials, or to provide a concise summary of the events leading up to WWII.

Assigning quick writing tasks can help you check that students are understanding the content you’re teaching. If it’s apparent that they aren’t grasping information, you can devote your next lesson to addressing the misconceptions or errors you found in their writing.

This also helps students reflect on what they’ve learned, which can deepen the ability to understand and remember information.

In the end...

Writing improves thinking skills and increases student confidence, which can be especially helpful for students who are struggling or who are stigmatized academically.

It can also help teachers evaluate struggling students and make informed decisions about how to most effectively instruct them.

By providing opportunities for students to write in your classroom, you can do your part to help close the achievement gap in education. 

WriteLab brings together Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence, and English Language Instruction. Student writing is analyzed in seconds with the WriteLab app—giving students feedback and suggestions on how to revise and polish their draft.

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