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Five Portraits of Teachers’ Experiences Teaching Writing: Negotiating Knowledge, Student Need, and Policy

by Juliet Michelsen Wahleithner - 2018

Background: Numerous reports have highlighted problems with writing instruction in American schools, yet few examine the interplay of teachers’ preparation to teach writing, the instructional policies they must navigate, and the writing development of the students in their classrooms.

Purpose: This study examines high school English teachers’ instruction of writing while taking into account their preparation for teaching writing—both preservice and inservice, the instructional policies in place, and the learners in their classrooms.

Setting: Data used come from public high school English teachers teaching in Northern California. These data were collected in 2011–2012, when teachers were sill complying with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Research Design: I use year-long qualitative case studies of five high school English teachers to highlight various ways teachers used their knowledge of writing instruction to negotiate the pressures of accountability policies and their students’ needs as writers to teach writing. Data collected include beginning- and end-of-year interviews with each teacher, four sets of 1- to 2-day observations of each teacher’s instruction of writing, and instructional documents related to each teacher’s writing instruction. These data were analyzed using the constant comparative method to look for themes within the data collected from each teacher and then make comparisons across teachers. Findings from the case studies are supported by findings from a survey of 171 high school teachers who taught a representative sample of California high school students at 21 schools in 20 districts. The survey included 41 multiple-choice items that asked about teachers’ instructional practices and their perceptions of high-stakes accountability pressures and their students as writers. Survey data were analyzed quantitatively using descriptive statistics and principal components analysis.

Findings: Findings illustrate that significant differences existed in how the five teachers approached their writing instruction. These differences were due to both the teachers’ varied preparations to teach writing and the contextual factors in place where each taught. Those teachers with more developed knowledge of writing instruction were better able to navigate the policies in place at their sites and more equipped to plan appropriate instruction to develop their students as writers.

Recommendations: Findings indicate teachers would be better served by opportunities to develop their knowledge of writing instruction both prior to and once they begin their teaching careers. Additionally, the findings add to an existing body of research that demonstrates the limiting effect high-stakes assessments can have on teachers’ instruction of writing.


Numerous reports have highlighted problems with writing instruction in American schools (Graham & Perin, 2007; National Commission on Writing for Americas Families, Schools, and Colleges, 2004; National Commission on Writing in Americas Schools and Colleges, 2003), yet few examine the interplay of teachers preparation to teach writing, the instructional policies they must navigate, and the writing development of the students in their classrooms. As Neumann (2016) stipulated, to truly understand the complexities of instruction, we must consider multiple factors that influence teachers work. Working from an interpretive perspective (Creswell, 2007), this study examines high school English teachers instruction of writing while taking into account their preparation for teaching writingboth preservice and inservice, the instructional policies in place, and the learners in their classrooms.

Figure 1. Using Knowledge to Mediate Policy and Student Need to Teach Writing

English language arts teachers draw on their existing knowledge of writing instruction to mediate the existing instructional policies and student needs in their contexts when determining how to plan their instruction of writing.


As illustrated in Figure 1, the writing instruction teachers provide is a direct reflection of their preservice and inservice preparation to teach writing. The reality is that most English teachers receive little preparation at all (Hochstetler, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Totten, 2005). Once they begin teaching, teachers find themselves needing to plan instruction that responds to their immediate contexts, which includes site and district policies on instruction and the implicit policies brought on by standardized assessments. At the time this study was conducted, teachers were still responding to the accountability demands brought on by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Many teachers faced tremendous pressure to prepare their students for standardized assessments to help ensure their schools and districts made adequate yearly progress (AYP). The majority of those assessments required students to do little actual writing (Hillocks, 2002), and so teachers instead felt pressured to prepare students for multiple-choice items about writing (Applebee & Langer, 2006; 2009). While they were responding to instructional policies, as Figure 1 illustrates, teachers were also responding to their students, each of whom brought her/his own strengths and challenges with writing. Increasingly throughout the United States, these students are classified as English learners (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012a), meaning they are learning academic English at the same time they are developing as writers. Even when students are native English speakers, those from cultural backgrounds not closely aligned with the culture of school have varied ways of communicating, both through texts and with other individuals (Ball, 1999; Emdin, 2010; Morrell, 2002).

In short, when teaching writing, teachers must balance students varied needs while also responding to implicit and explicit instructional policies, often with limited knowledge of writing instruction. Consequently, many teachers end up turning to formulaic approaches (Gilliland, 2015; Wiley, 2000), such as the five-paragraph essay, a genre of writing that exists only in school settings and does little to prepare students for the writing they will be asked to do beyond high school (Council of Writing Project Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, & National Writing Project [NWP], 2011). The adoption of the Common Core Standards (CCS) by most states means that teachers will have to re-think their instruction of writing, especially as both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced systems of assessment ask students to compose various genres that look much more like the type of writing that exists in the world outside school than does the five-paragraph essay. If we are to work with teachers in meaningful ways to develop their knowledge of writing instruction so that they are able to develop their students as writers, we must first understand what their knowledge of writing instruction is and how that knowledge gets enacted in practice.

This study, drawing on case studies and survey results, examines the different ways teachers working in varying contexts taught writing, the tensions that arose as they used their knowledge of writing instruction to negotiate the instructional policies and their students needs, and how those tensions varied as teachers taught within the accountability context of NCLB.


Three bodies of literature frame this study: the complex knowledge teachers draw upon when teaching writing and how they develop that knowledge, the impact of NCLB policy on the instructional decisions teachers made, and the complex needs of students as they develop as writers and what teachers need to know to respond to those needs.


Effective writing teachers have a well-developed understanding both of how to construct texts and of the pedagogy needed to teach students to construct texts. Yet teachers have few opportunities to develop this knowledge.

Complex Knowledge Needed to Teach Writing

Teaching writing requires complex knowledge that extends beyond knowing how to write well. According to Hillocks (1991), this knowledge combines three different elements. First, teaching writing requires knowledge of the general writing process, such as understanding different approaches to prewriting or that revision means more than just editing. Second, to teach writing, teachers draw on knowledge of varied processes aligned with producing particular written genres. For example, the process used to write an editorial is different from the process used to write a research report. And third, effective writing teachers understand how to develop the content or substance of a particular text and how the process of developing that content varies from genre to genre: Developing an argument in a business letter is different from developing an argument in a persuasive essay.

The knowledge Hillocks articulates aligns with the content component of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) (Shulman, 1987). But PCK also includes knowledge of the pedagogy necessary to teach that content. For example, teachers with developed PCK for teaching writing know that part of what makes writing seem focused and organized is the writers use of linguistic devices that add to the cohesion of the piece at the micro level (Schleppegrell, 2004) and the use of rhetorical devices specific to the genre (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010; Kress, 1993) at the macro level. They realize that, in school, students need opportunities to learn these various devices. Additionally, they understand that students frequently have difficulty determining their position about a topic when asked to articulate an argument. As a result, teachers with developed PCK might use specific prewriting activities to help students develop a position about an argument (Gallagher, 2006). Significantly, teachers also realize that, to engage the students, the topic of the paper must be of high interest (Reed, Schallert, Beth, & Woodruff, 2004). Finally, having developed PCK for teaching writing includes knowledge of specific instructional practices and when to apply those practices. A teacher might guide students through an analysis of real-world texts to develop their understanding of rhetorical structures so they understand how the components of a text interact together (Braddock, 1974; Gallagher, 2011; Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013). After a genre analysis of a number of real-world texts to learn common rhetorical devices and how they are used, students might synthesize their findings to create a graphic organizer that reflects the common elements of the texts. The students might then use this when creating their own texts. In essence, the heuristic of PCK extends the claims made by Hillocks (1991) beyond knowledge of writing to also include knowledge of pedagogy and knowledge of students.

Tensions Caused by Lack of Opportunity to Develop Knowledge to Teach Writing

Despite the complex knowledge needed to teach writing, most teachers have few opportunities to learn much about writing instruction during their preservice preparation (Kiuhara et al., 2009; Nagin, 2006; Thomas, 2000; Totten, 2005). In fact, opportunities to develop knowledge of writing instruction vary widely, with many preservice programs providing little preparation at all. Many inservice ELA teachers report receiving only adequate preparation at best (Kiuhara et al., 2009), which is not surprising considering the range of ways writing gets addressed in preservice programs, if it is explicitly addressed at all (Hochstetler, 2007; Thomas, 2000). Few states require courses focused solely on writing instruction (Nagin, 2006), leading most programs to embed attention to writing within methods courses (Totten, 2005). Without a course focused exclusively on the teaching of writing, the specific pedagogy needed to effectively do so may only get addressed in passing.

Once teachers enter the profession, the development they receive to teach writing continues to vary greatly depending on where they work (Grossman & Thompson, 2004). Within the context of NCLB, much of the in-school professional development on writing was focused on preparing students for the minimal writing required on high-stakes assessments (Anagnostopolous, 2003) or on preparing teachers to follow mandated curricula (Yost & Vogel, 2007). Outside of school, teachers may engage in professional development opportunities on their own time. For example, the National Writing Project (NWP) is known for providing high quality professional development for teachers related to the teaching of writing (Dierking & Fox, 2013; Lieberman & Wood, 2003; NWP, 2010). Yet participating in out-of-school workshops or institutes requires teachers to take an initiative in their own development, often giving up both their personal time and resources.

As this research illustrates, teachers working within secondary schools likely had a range of opportunities to develop their knowledge to teach writing. Those who attended preservice preparation programs that provided little development and who then work in institutions that provide littleif anysubject-specific mentoring may have little more knowledge of writing beyond what they developed from their own writing as students.


Within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act accountability context, four levels of policy impact the way a teacher teaches: national, state, district, and site. Each policy level influences the policies created at the levels below it, meaning national policies impact state policies, which impact district policies, which impact site policies. When considering how to develop their students as writers, teachers must consider these policies, using whatever knowledge of writing instruction they have to respond appropriately.

At the national level, according to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2017), schools and local education agencies (LEAs)for example, districtsin the United States had to demonstrate AYP to receive Title I funding. Under NCLB, states were required to annually assess students proficiency in reading and math.

NCLB as a national policy impacted the policies set at the state level. In California, the site of this study, AYP was determined primarily by the percentage of students in a school or LEA who participated in the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and students performance on those exams (California Department of Education, 2013). Like state testing systems throughout the country, both systems measured students writing proficiency largely through indirect, multiple-choice items about writing (Applebee & Langer, 2006, 2009, 2011; Hillocks, 2002).

Many districts adopted their own system of assessments as a way to ensure students were prepared for the higher stakes state assessments (Anagnostopoulos, 2003). Typically, these assessments mirrored state assessments in terms of form and content. The result was that teachers felt greater pressure to prepare students to answer multiple-choice items about writing than to actually teach students how to write (Applebee & Langer, 2011; Hillocks, 2011; Scherff & Piazza, 2005). The pressures were even greater for teachers serving students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (McCarthey & Mkhize, 2013), who often turned to direct instruction or drill and kill to make sure they covered necessary content (Anagnostopoulos, 2005). Many ended up feeling a sense of what Wills and Sandholtz (2009) termed constrained professionalism: They still got to make the instructional decisions for what happened in their classrooms, but that instruction was constrained by the need to prepare students for various high-stakes assessments.

In all likelihood, that pressure will shift with the implementation of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments. Teachers will now feel pressured to prepare students to compose the text types specified within the CCS, while still drawing on their limited knowledge of writing instruction and with the void of experience from years spent preparing students for multiple-choice items about writing.


In addition to responding to the various instructional policies impacting their instruction, teachers also must consider where their students are in their writing development and how to further that development. Doing so effectively is particularly challenging for those teachers with little preparation to teach writing.

Understanding the Processes of Developing Writers

Teaching writing effectively requires having a developed understanding of students as writers. Early work in the field of psychology demonstrated that writers use three primary cognitive processes when composingplanning, text production, and revisingbut they do not follow these processes in a linear fashion. Rather, the processes are recursive (Flower & Hayes, 1980). Skilled writers monitor these processes and make decisions about when to move from one process to the next (Harris, Santangelo, & Graham, 2008). Other work in psychology distinguished between knowledge telling­when novice writers simply write everything they know about a topicand the knowledge transformation done by more expert writers able to manipulate the content to be communicated to align with specific genre characteristics (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). Struggling adolescent writers typically rely on knowledge telling when confronted with a writing task, meaning they need specific instruction in how to take the knowledge they have and use it to construct a text that conforms with given genre characteristics (de Milliano, van Gelderen, & Sleegers, 2012). Teachers with a depth of knowledge of writing instruction are able to recognize when students are working at the level of knowledge telling and draw on specific instructional strategies to help them move to knowledge transformation.

Also important for teachers of writing to remember are the rich, cultural resources students bring to the classroom, particularly as these resources relate to text production. By recognizing similarities between oral discourse patterns and academic texts, teachers can help students successfully draw on the knowledge they already have as they learn to construct academic texts (Ball, 1996; Barajas, 2007). Effective teachers of English learners also understand the developmental trajectories of their students as writersand that this developmental trajectory is different from that of native English speakers (Harklau & Pinnow, 2009; Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013; Silva, 1993).

The knowledge teachers need to target their students diverse writing needs is complex and extends beyond knowing just how to teach writing. Without a depth of understanding both of how to teach writing generally and also how to respond effectively to where students are in their writing development, a number of potential tensions may arise. These tensions get exacerbated when teachers are also trying to negotiate mandated instructional policies.


The studies highlighted here demonstrate that teaching writing is a complex act. As Figure 1 shows, teachers must constantly consider both the instructional policies in placewhich often tie their handsand the needs of their students, many of whom may be English learners. In doing so, they draw on the knowledge of writing instruction they have, however limited that might be. This study uses cases to explore variations in how teachers approach their teaching of writing while also drawing on survey results to illustrate how each case is representative of a larger population of English teachers.



Within this study, I seek to understand teachers instruction of writing and how the decisions they make are influenced by (1) their knowledge of writing instruction and (2) the context in which they teach, as shown in Figure 1. The methods I employ come from the interpretive perspective as my ultimate goals are to describe the practice of high school English teachers teaching writing and make sense of their instructional decisions (Creswell, 2007). First, I draw on constructivism, or describing individuals perspectives, experiences, and meaning-making processes, utilizing both surveys and interviews. The surveys allowed me to tap into the perspectives and experiences of a broad range of individuals. The interviews allowed me to deepen my understanding of a few teachers perspectives on and experiences of teaching writing, while also learning about the thinking behind their instructional decisions. To further understand and see the teachers in practice, I drew on ethnography to capture what happened in teachers classrooms (Koro-Ljungberg, Yendol-Hoppey, Smith, & Hayes, 2009). I used the interviews and observations to develop portraits of each teachers instruction and then drew on the survey analysis to provide an analytic frame for my findings. The survey results allowed me to generalize my case study findings across a larger population.


This study was conducted in California, a state historically known for its careful and often innovative attention to the instruction of writing. It was at the University of California, Berkeley that the Bay Area Writing Project began in 1974, a professional development program that developed into the National Writing Project, with over 200 sites throughout the United States (Lieberman & Wood, 2003). In the early 1980s, California instituted the California Assessment Program, which went well beyond traditional assessments of student writing by requiring students to compose a variety of genres (Murphy, 2003). Yet on the writing portion of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, California eighth graders (the highest grade for which data are available and the most recent year state-level data are available) scored lower than students in 35 states (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009).

In terms of teacher preparation, California reserves teacher preparation for postbaccalaureate study, which might suggest new teachers entering the profession have ample opportunity to develop their knowledge of writing through their undergraduate study. However, until 2013, prospective English teachers only needed to pass a subject-matter assessment rather than have an undergraduate major in English (Stillman & Blank, 2009). This policy meant that a high school English teacher may have studied biology as an undergraduate, but because s/he passed the subject-matter assessment, s/he is credentialed to teach English. Even if the teacher did major in English, the courses s/he took likely focused on literature rather than writing.

Prior to the implementation of the Common Core Standards and Smarter Balanced assessments, students in 9th through 11th grade in California were required to take the California Standards Test (CST), which included only multiple-choice questions about Written and Oral Language Conventions and Writing Strategies, as identified by the California English Language Arts Standards (California Department of Education, 2005). In winter of 10th grade, students had their first opportunity to take the CAHSEE. The CAHSEE included a student-constructed essay response along with 15 multiple-choice items assessing students knowledge of Writing Strategies and Written and Oral Language Conventions (California Department of Education, 2008). However, students could actually pass the ELA portion of the CAHSEE without passing the essay. In 12th grade, students were not required to take any state assessments, unless they had not yet passed the CAHSEE.

California is also home to a large number of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Nearly two-thirds of California students are students of color, and approximately 17% of the students enrolled in public high schools are classified as English learners (California Department of Education, 2015), creating an ideal context for studying the different ways teachers respond to the varied needs of their culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

Though these details highlight issues within California, they are certainly not issues that are unique to California. According to data from the 2011 NAEP Assessment of Writing, only 27% of 12th-graders nationally scored at or above the proficient level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012b). Additionally, teachers throughout the US report feeling unprepared to teach writing (Kiuhara et al., 2009) and pressured to align their writing instruction with the content of standardized assessments, most of which include only multiple-choice items about writing (Applebee & Langer, 2011; Hillocks, 2011; Scherff & Piazza, 2005). Finally, the number of English learners across the country continues to increase. Consequently, although the results reported in this study are particular to the California context, comparisons can be made to the challenges faced by teachers nationally as they negotiate similar challenges in their own contexts.


Data come from a larger, two-phased, mixed methods study that included (1) a survey of Northern California teachers working in schools that served a representative sample of California high school students and (2) year-long case studies (Yin, 2003) of eight teachers. This study draws on data collected from five of the case study teachers and quantitative analyses of the survey. Data collection occurred in 20112012, when teachers were still in the throes of responding to the former system of mandated assessments under the national NCLB legislation.

Participant Selection

Phase 1 of the study was a survey of California high school English teachers. I first identified schools from which to recruit these survey respondents. From the survey respondents, I then recruited case study participants.

To begin, I created a sampling frame that included every traditional (nonalternative) public high school in California within a 2.5-hour driving radius of the research site. In this final list were 317 high schools located within a 23-county region, which included schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas. These 317 schools were divided into quartiles according to their Academic Performance Index (API) scores. Using a random number generator, seven schools in each quartile were identified and contacted. From the 28 contacted, 21 schools (six from Quartile 1; five each from the three other quartiles) located in 20 cities in 16 counties allowed teachers to participate. Of 225 total ELA teachers at the 21 high schools (average 11 teachers per school), 171 completed the survey for an overall response rate of 75%.

When completing the survey, I invited teachers to volunteer to be case study participants. From 53 respondents who volunteered, eight teachers (two per quartile) were selected based on the representative nature of their survey responses: Their survey responses best aligned with the modal responses of teachers who taught at schools in the same quartile. The cases of five of the eight teachers are presented here because the analysis of their survey responses (discussed below) indicated their experiences were more generalizable to the broader population of survey responders than those of the other three case teachers. These five teachers taught in four districts located in four counties and served a broad range of learners, as displayed in Table 1.

Table 1. Overview of Case Study Participants

(Demographic Data from 20112012; Percent receiving free/reduced-price meals from 20102011, most recent year available; API scores from 2009 reflect school achievement levels at the time schools were selected.)


School Details

Courses Taught


School Demographics:

Enrollment: 862


English 10

English 10 Hon


School API: 636

% African Amer: 17.1

% Latino: 36.2

% Native Amer: 0.3

% Pac Islander: 0.5

% Asian: 5.8

% White: 33.5

% Filipino: 1.5

% Multiple: 3.9

% ELL: 11.6

% Free-Reduced: 80.2


School Demographics:

Enrollment: 267


Intro to College Writing (12th grade)

School API: 660

% African Amer: 4.9

% Latino: 84.6

% Native Amer: 0.4

% Pac Islander: 0.7

% Asian: 6.7

% White: 1.9

% Filipino: 0.4

% Multiple: 0.4

% ELL: 30.3

% Free-Reduced: 88.1


School Demographics:

Enrollment: 1,818


English 10

English 10 Hon


School API: 704

% African Amer: 7.5

% Latino: 34.9

% Native Amer: 0.7

% Pac Islander: 1.2

% Asian: 13.8

% White: 37.1

% Filipino: 1.3

% Multiple: 1.5

% ELL: 13.6

% Free-Reduced: 67.4


School Demographics:

Enrollment: 1,936


English 10 Hon

English 11


School API: 752

% African Amer: 1.7

% Latino: 47.3

% Native Amer: 1.0

% Pac Islander: 0.3

% Asian: 1.5

% White: 40.3

% Filipino: 3.8

% Multiple: 4.2

% ELL: 6.7

% Free-Reduced: 25.9


School Demographics:

Enrollment: 1,499


English 12

AP Literature

School API: 822

% African Amer: 1.1

% Latino: 26.4

% Native Amer: 0.0

% Pac Islander: 2.3

% Asian: 23.0

% White: 31.7

% Filipino: 4.3

% Multiple: 11.1

% ELL: 5.5

% Free-Reduced: 11.3


The survey teachers completed consisted of 41 close-ended items that included questions about their background and about the three domains of influence on teachers instruction of writing identified in the conceptual frameworkperceptions of knowledge and skills to teach writing, pressures of accountability policies, and perceptions of students diverse needs. Inviting teachers to respond to items about their writing instruction allowed me to use the perspectives of a range of educators to construct general understandings of their experiences (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009).

Survey Analysis

I analyzed the survey results first using descriptive statistics. To look for broad trends in how teachers responded to the survey items, I then analyzed the responses using principal component analysis (PCA). This process also provided a strictly empirical approach to identifying constructs in the data, allowing clusters of items to emerge that represented variations in teachers responses.

The initial PCA yielded 10 components with eigenvalues greater than 1. Following this initial analysis, I created a scree plot with the results, which suggested retaining a minimum of three factors and maximum of six. To determine if all six components should be retained, following Costello & Osborne (2005), four separate analyses were conducted, each time extracting one less factor. Ultimately, six factors or components were extracted, which together accounted for 63.2% of the total variance in responses. The six components retained provide insights into how this sample of California teachers perceived their experiences teaching writing.

Case Portraits of High School English Teachers

To develop a deeper understanding of the impact of teachers perceptions of their knowledge and skills to teach writing, the impact of accountability policies on their writing instruction, and their students diverse writing needs, the survey was followed by case studies of secondary English teachers (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009).

Case Data Sources

Each case study consisted of teacher interviews, classroom observations, and document collection. Once teachers were selected as case study participants, I contacted them individually via email to (1) let them know they had been selected, (2) provide them with information about the study, including the number of interviews and observations that would occur, and (3) set up a date for the initial interview. Throughout the year, I used email to keep in touch with the teachers. Prior to each set of observations, I contacted each teacher to find out when s/he would be addressing writing. In some cases, teachers contacted me to let me know they would be addressing writing on an upcoming date. Across all cases, teachers were responsive and open to my observations. As a thank you for their participation, at the end of the year each teacher was given a gift card to their choice of an office supply store or a bookstore. Appendix A provides a detailed schedule of data collection from each case participant.

Teacher interviews. To learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the teachers, I conducted two semistructured interviews with each case teacher, one prior to the first classroom observation and one after the final observation. These interviews provided an opportunity for teachers to share their perspectives, experiences, and meaning-making processes with me (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009). In the first interview, questions were clustered in four broad areas: (1) background as a teacher; (2) teaching context, including existing policies for teaching writing; (3) perceptions of students strengths and weaknesses as writers; and (4) beliefs about and instructional practices for teaching writing (Appendix B). Interviews lasted from 50 minutes to just over an hour. In the second interview, questions focused on teachers reflections on their teaching of writing during the year, including the impact of assessments or policies and the specific genres of writing they taught and why (Appendix C). The length of the second interviews ranged from 45 minutes to an hour and 20 minutes. The interviews enabled me to draw out each teachers personal narrative (Weiss, 1994) related to her/his teaching of writing. All interviews were digitally recorded and then transcribed. Variations in the length of interviews occurred because of differences in how teachers responded to the set questions and variations in the follow-up questions asked.

Classroom observations. To learn what teachers instruction of writing looked like in practice, I conducted ethnographic observations (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009) of each teacher for 1 to 2 days of instruction at four points in the school year: (1) early in the year (AugustOctober), when teachers were establishing expectations and instructional routines; (2) late fall (NovemberDecember), near the end of first semester when instructional routines were in place and teachers likely were aware of particular students needs; (3) just prior to the mandated state assessment period (JanuaryMarch), when testing pressures likely were most heavily felt; and (4) after testing had been completed (AprilMay).

During each observation, I recorded typed field notes (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973) that documented the instructional approaches the teacher used to teach writing, specifically what s/he chose to emphasize and what, if any, scaffolding s/he used. Primarily, I tried to capture the whole-class talk: what the teacher said during whole-group instruction and any student responses. I also recorded information teachers used in their instruction, either by writing on a whiteboard or using an overhead projector, document camera, or SmartBoard. When students worked in groups, I would observe group discussions and record general trends I saw in how they interacted with the content and one another. For example, when students worked together to construct thesis statements, I recorded the interactions of one group as they negotiated what to write. As much as possible, I tried to remain unobtrusive in the classroom.

Documents. Finally, to learn how teachers communicated expectations and what they emphasized through assessment, I collected instructional documents related to their writing instruction. These included: (1) handouts, particularly from observation days; (2) writing assessments, including rubrics; and (3) site or district guidelines related to writing instruction. These documents informed emerging understandings of the teachers instructional decisions and supported and augmented data collected through observations and interviews (Yin, 2003). The number of documents collected from each teacher varied. In some cases, teachers shared only the handouts from the days of instruction. In others, teachers shared their entire unit plans.

Case Data Analysis

As a first stage of analysis, after each teacher interview I wrote an informal analytic memo highlighting key ideas the teacher discussed and any emerging themes. Within each memo, I noted patterns I detected in the teachers discussion of his/her knowledge of writing instruction, accountability policies s/he faced, and his/her students command of writing strategies and skills. After the end-of-year interviews, I was also able to draw on the field notes I collected during my observations of the teacher to inform my analysis.

In the next stage of my analysis, I coded the interview transcripts and field notes collected during observations from each teacher inductively for emerging themes, using the constant comparative method of data analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Where appropriate, I also consulted instructional documents I collected to further inform my understanding of the teachers instruction. Broadly, my coding was guided by the focal areas of this study: teacher knowledge for teaching writing, pressures from instructional policies, students command of writing strategies and skills, and teachers actual instruction of writing. Within each of these areas, I developed themes that emerged inductively from the data collected from each teacher. For example, when coding data collected from one teacher, under the broad category Writing Instruction, the themes of Feedback to Students and Focus on Surface Features emerged. When coding data collected from a different teacher, themes under the category Writing Instruction included Integration of Reading and Writing and Modeling Process. Thus, the themes that emerged were particular to each teacher. Table 2 provides a sample of how data were coded into the broad categories and then themes within those categories. The table also notes how data instantiating these themes came from various sources.

Table 2. Example of Coding Processes



Language from observational field notes, interview, and/or instructional document

Perceptions of Knowledge and Skills to Teach Writing

Preparation to Teach Writing

[From Victoria Beginning-of-Year Interview 10.17.11]

Victoria: As an employee at the Writing Center, your first semester there, you take an independent study, how to tutor a class, which is all research. Youre reading research-based articles from other writing centers and just from masters in the field on what works best one-on-one and in small group tutoring.


Professional Development for Writing Instruction

[From Owen Beginning-of-Year Interview 08.23.11]

Owen: I would say the only professional development that Ive had with teaching writingno. Not really. None. But everyones, well, in the pastand its been some time since the budget kind of went the wrong waythey would let us norm reference papers as the English department per grade level. So we have done that. We all talked about what good papers were, bad papers, what worked and what didnt &

Perceptions of Students Command of Writing Strategies and Skills

Mid-level students

[From Josh Beginning-of-Year Interview 05.14.12]

Josh: Id like to think that the middle students were the ones I could make the most advances with. They were almost getting to that really good arguable thesis. And I was able to nudge the fence a little bit on that. They were able to get that.


Critical Thinking

[From Nicole Beginning-of-Year Interview 08.22.12]

Nicole: Not a lot, not very independent thinkers. Not very critical thinking. Not very much critical thinking. Definitely trained to do multiple choice and less writing.

Perceptions of Accountability Pressures

Pacing Guide

[From Gavin End-of-Year Interview 05.11.12]

Gavin: Next year I will have alongside my honors classes also college prep tenth grade, and I will be expected to I think give some benchmark assessments and God forbid there might even be a pacing calendar.


District Curriculum

[From Owen Observational Field Notes 03.13.12]

A student says hes never done source cards.

O: And thats part of the problem. The district wants us to have you make source cards, but not everybody does it. This is a district-ism. They want me to have you guys and gals do source cards. And I think its a good thing.

Instruction of Writing

Persuasive Essay, Pre-Writing, & CAHSEE Prep

[From Nicole Observational Field Notes 01.30.12]

St: So let me get this straight. First Im going to talk about the rebuttal and then the next two or three points are going to be the reasons they should come?

N: Yes & so you should kind of have an outline already. You have your pros and cons, most of you have a thesis, and you have your rubric. So what do you think youre going to do now?

St: Write the essay.


Writing Groups

[From Victoria Observational Field Notes 10.28.11]

V: The process is gonna be the same as last week. Everyone is going to read their piece out loud. Youll give them one piece of positive feedback. Then youre going to read it silently and grade it on the rubric. The only thing thats different from last time is that the feedback was too general last time and it would be hard to do revisions based on that. So I made this checklist you can use. You need to pick one piece of positive feedback from this side and one piece of negative feedback.

Coding the data in this way allowed me to develop a nuanced understanding of how each teacher used her/his knowledge of writing instruction to negotiate the factors in her/his particular context. Because the data were clustered into the same broad categories for each teacher, after coding the data, I was able to look across the cases to tease apart similarities and differences in the teachers perceptions of their knowledge and the instructional practices they used. Additionally, I was able to make comparisons in how their perceptions of their knowledge and skills to teach writing, the accountability pressures they felt, and their students development as writers impacted their instructional practices.

Aligning Results of Case Study and Survey Analysis

After developing themes within each case using the qualitative data, I then looked at the data collected from each case teacher through the lens of the PCA I conducted on the survey data. Using the PCA findings to further inform my data analysis provided the opportunity to determine whether themes I observed in the case study teachers might be representative of other survey respondents.

In fact, five of the eight case teachers survey responses aligned with the five components that, together, accounted for the greatest amount of variance in teachers responses, as shown in Table 3. At their end-of-year interviews, I shared the results of the PCA analysis with each teacher to show them the component with which they aligned. In each case, the teacher agreed with the alignment. The alignment of responses suggests the experiences of these five teachers are broadly representative of the 171 teachers who responded to the survey.

Table 3. Factor Loadings for Components Retained From Principal Component Analysis and Survey Responses (On a Scale of 16 From Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree) for Case Study Individuals

Survey Item


Strong Belief in Student Knowledge and Capacity with Writing

(16.9% variance)

Uses Elements of the Process Approach

(10.8% variance)

High Student Need and Tight Focus on Test Preparation

(10.6% variance)

Controlled Instructional Practices

(9.3% variance)

Perception of Strong Knowledge of Writing Instruction

(8.7% variance)

Factor Loading

Joshs response

Factor Loading

Victorias response

Factor Loading

Nicoles response

Factor Loading

Owens response

Factor Loading

Gavins response

6. I require my students to follow the five-paragraph model when writing essays.





7. I assign specific writing topics to my students for their essays.





8. My students have opportunities for informal, exploratory writing.







9. To help students generate ideas for their writing, I provide them with supports such as informal writing assignments, group activities, graphic organizers.





10. For multi-draft assignments, I provide students with feedback (written or oral) on early drafts.





11. I provide my students with written copies of writing assignments that include the specific criteria on which they will be assessed.





12. I provide my students with graphic organizers, outlines, or other supports to help them organize their writing.





13. My students analyze writing samples to understand genre characteristics.





14. I teach grammar to my students through sentence correction approaches.





15. I spend instructional time on test-taking strategies, such as process of elimination or plugging in given response options.





16. I provide CST and/or CAHSEE-style practice questions for my students, such as identifying sentences that need to be changed or correcting grammar errors in a given passage.





17. My knowledge of writing instruction allows me to differentiate my instruction for the full range of learners in my classroom.




18. I have the skills and knowledge I need to teach my students the writing they will need to be successful in high school and beyond.




19. I have flexibility in how I teach writing.




21. At my site, I am regularly expected to administer the same writing assessments as my colleagues within an assigned window of time.





22. At my site, I am expected to follow the same pacing guide as my colleagues who teach the same grade level.





23. At my site, my instructional practices are monitored by site and/or district officials.





27. I feel pressure to prepare my students for district-mandated writing assessments.





29. My students understand that they should consider the needs of their audience when they write.




30. My students understand how to use evidence to support their ideas.




31. When given a writing prompt, my students typically understand and are able to do what the prompt asks.




32. When writing, my students are able to organize their ideas in a logical way.




33. My students understand the difference between a narrative and an expository essay.




34. When I assign an essay in response to a piece of text, most of my students only summarize the text.*




36. Regardless of what the writing task asks, my students respond in the same way.*




37. My students writing is typically free from grammatical or sentence structure errors.





38. Most of my students live in literacy-rich homes.





39. My students typically use paragraphs appropriately when they write.




40. My students are engaged in the writing they do.





I approached this research study as a former California high school English teacher and curriculum coach, as well as an active Teacher Consultant with the NWP. This background allowed me to align myself with the teachers involved because I could relate to their struggles to develop their students as writers. Additionally, like most of the teachers highlighted here, I recall little, if any, attention to writing instruction during my preservice preparation. Instead, the majority of my knowledge to teach writing came from strong mentors at my teaching site and my years of active involvement with the NWP. At times, the case teachers did seek my advice as they thought through next steps in their writing instruction. In these cases, I offered how I might approach the instruction. However, I never offered instructional advice if it was not solicited by the teacher. In one case, the teacher invited me to participate in the scoring of a department-wide beginning-of-the-year writing assessment. I joined teachers from across the school to score the writing and share my insights in a group discussion at the end of the day. The opportunity to participate in the event allowed me to gain further insights into the writing instruction at this site and allowed me to repay the teacher for the access she provided me to her classroom.


The five cases illustrated here provide different portraits of ways teachers used knowledge of writing instruction to respond to accountability pressures in their particular contexts and their students as writers. As discussed above, each case also highlights a profile that broadly maps onto the findings from the PCA of the survey results. Table 1 provides an overview of the demographic details of the students in each teachers school.


A 12th-grade English teacher in a high performing suburban high school, Josh believed his students were skilled as writers. Throughout his 15-year teaching career, Josh always taught only seniors. In the year of observation, he taught two College Preparatory (CP) senior English classes and three Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature classes. Valley High School, where he worked, was situated in an affluent suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a whole, 31.7% of the schools student population identified as White, followed by 26.4% who identified as Latino, and 23% who identified as Asian (Table 1). However, the majority of students in Joshs classes were White, and he had few English learners. Although only 11% of Valleys students received free or reduced-price meals, Josh believed his students represented a range of economic levels, especially compared to other district schools. I think we tend to be a lot more mixed, he explained. I think its diverse, and I do think we have a real range of students here.

With an API score of 822, Valley High School was one of the highest performing high schools in the state. That said, because the school had not made its AYP targets, the observation year was the schools first year in Program Improvement. Consequently, the school faced new pressures from the district, including regularly administered benchmark assessments. But Josh taught seniors who did not take the CSTs or any other state-mandated assessments, which meant they also were exempt from the districts assessments. Their performance did not count toward the schools API scores, so Josh did not feel the same pressures as his colleagues. As he said, All these sorts of benchmarks and everything, no one cares what the heck the seniors are doing. We have very few common assessments. Despite not feeling pressured, Josh and his colleagues regularly met to discuss curriculum. The teachers also opted to have their students take a department-created common assessment for the sake of the members own knowledge of their students as writers, knowledge they could use to collaboratively plan appropriate instructional activities.

Development of Knowledge to Teach Writing

When teaching writing, Josh drew primarily on knowledge he developed from collaborating with his colleagues. He remembered the teaching of writing being addressed during his preservice preparation, but he did not recall any specific pedagogy that was discussed. What I think is that the teacher credential programs give you a language to talk about stuff, which is good, he explained. That said, Josh did not believe his preservice preparation contributed much to his development as a writing teacher. Since completing his teaching credential, Josh had attended few professional development workshops outside those provided by his school or district, with the exception of the annual AP Institute sponsored by the College Board. I dont go every year, he said, but I go frequently.

The knowledge of writing Josh drew on came from regular conversations and sharing of best practices with his colleagues. He frequently referenced making curricular decisions based on these discussions. My CP senior team, we were really working well together, and that sort of peer coaching thing that we were doing was really good, he reflected at the end of the year. When he found himself struggling with his instruction, Josh sought out his colleagues for advice. In addition to regularly sharing instructional approaches, the members of Joshs department used a common vocabulary to teach writing. Josh had a poster in his classroom that broke down the departments agreed-upon essay terms. He also frequently referenced what the department called the C-Q-Cor context-quote-commentaryapproach to writing body paragraphs. By using a common language and a common approach, the department members hoped they could then build upon one anothers instruction during students four years at the school.

Students as Writers

The PCA of the survey results indicated that many respondents believed their students had a strong capacity as writers. Joshs responses, too, indicated he shared this belief (Table 3): His students knew they needed to consider the needs of their audience, knew how to use evidence to support their ideas, were typically able to respond to a writing prompt, could organize their ideas into paragraphs logically, and were engaged in the writing they did. In short, his responses indicated he believed his students knew what they were doing when it came to writing. According to Josh, part of the reason his students had this strong capacity as writers was because they were seniors and because of his department members shared approach to writing instruction. By the time they [students] get to me, theyve had a lot of writing instruction, he explained. They already knew the C-Q-C approach the department used, allowing Josh to focus on the more specific features of each genre. Josh illustrates the case of a teacher who is able to build on his students strong foundational knowledge of writing, which was the result of his departments commitment to collaborating on their instruction.

Approaches to Teaching Writing

When teaching writing, Josh primarily relied on various scaffolds he created and the use of writing models. He constantly looked for ways to break down the tasks associated with different genres. A focus of his instruction in his CP class was writing analytical essays, primarily about the literature students read. Josh began the year helping students develop arguable assertions. First, he worked with his students to develop thesis statements about the use of distortion in specific short stories. He explained, Were doing these charts that help them break down the distortion and telling what it means and then trying to turn it into a thesis. Josh talked through the instructional sequence he would use: continue to work with short stories, finally select a short story, and look for evidence to support their thesis about the story. Once they completed this work, students would move on to write a full essay on that story. By providing students with many opportunities to practice writing arguable assertions in low-stakes settings, Josh scaffolded their development as analytical writers.

In addition to guiding students through the process of writing an essay, Josh frequently called on students to share their writing as a way of providing models. When students in his CP classes were writing personal essays, he spent a class period working with them specifically on writing techniques they might use in their essays, including en medias res, imagery, internal monologue, and figurative language. After reviewing each technique, Josh gave students a scenario and asked them to write about that scenario using the technique under discussion. Josh provided students time to write and then called on individuals to share what they had written. After one student read, Josh exclaimed, Did you guys hear Tanyas use of personification in there? He continued to review Tanyas use of each of the techniques discussed, reinforcing for students what each sounded like. By having students share, students who might not be familiar with a technique heard both Joshs explanation and examples and what the technique sounded like when used by one of their classmates. These examples served as model texts for them.

State Standards Guide Writing Instruction

Josh relied on the California State Standards (California Department of Education, 1997) to guide his selection of which genres his students would write. During the year, his CP students wrote two personal essays, several analytical essays, and a historical research paper, as the standards document stipulated. Perhaps surprisingly, his students were more challenged by the personal writing than the analytical. According to Josh, this was likely because of the department focus on the analytical essay. Because they [students] know the structure, that tends to go a little bit better by the time they get to us [senior teachers], he said. Yet most of Joshs students were college-bound seniors, which meant they were writing personal narratives for their college applications. Consequently, Josh thought it was important to work with them on writing a personal essay early in the year. Important to note is that no assessments played a part in determining what Josh would teach. Instead, the genres he would teach came from the standards and how he would teach those genres came from his discussions with his department. He felt little external pressure to develop his students writing in a specific way, other than perhaps the knowledge that his students needed to be able to construct strong personal statements.

Impact of Department Collaboration on Students Writing

The culture of collaboration in which Josh worked led to his development as a teacher of writing. It was through their conversations that Josh and his colleagues problem-solved their instructional challenges. The fact that he taught seniors meant Josh was not directly impacted by pressures from accountability policies. Without these pressures, he was able to use the knowledge of writing instruction he developed from his collaborations with his colleagues and the AP Summer Institutes to fine-tune his students knowledge of specific genres. But the culture of collaboration in which Josh taught also meant his students came to him with a strong foundation in writing. When they arrived in his class, his students knew how to structure an essay thanks to the departments focus on writing analytical essays. Josh recognized this, as indicated by his alignment with the component from the principal component of the survey results, Strong Belief in Students as Writers (Table 3). As a result, Josh was able to build on this foundation and focus his instruction on furthering his students overall development as writers.


Victoria, a 1st-year teacher, taught a 12th-grade Introduction to College Writing class at Center High School, a lower-performing (API 660) high school located in an urban district. In this course, she used elements of a process approach to writing instruction (Applebee, 1986; Graves, 2003) to carefully scaffold writing assignments for her students. A small high school with only 267 students, Center served a population of primarily Latino students (84.6%) (Table 1). At 30.3%, the percentage of students classified as English learners was more than twice the state average. Additionally, 88.1% of the students qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

The class that Victoria taught, Introduction to College Writing, was unique in that it was a mandatory second English class for seniors. As she explained, We realized there was this gap between students who were (University of California) A-G credit ready and their writing & a lot of them are getting remediated. Center prided itself on having the highest University of California and California State University acceptance rates in the district. But although students were being accepted to the states universities, their performance on the mandatory writing entrance exams indicated their writing was not on par with university expectations. In its first year, the Introduction to College Writing class Victoria taught was the solution to this problem.

Students Struggle with Academic Language

Many of the challenges students in Victorias class faced with writing were actually issues with language. You can tell theres a lot of critical thinking going on, explained Victoria. But when they try and put the thoughts on the paper, it gets really jumbled. Part of Victorias focus in the year became explicitly teaching grammar and sentence construction to her students as a way to empower them to be effective communicators. Although Victoria noted her students ability to think critically, she also cited their challenges with developing their analysis in their writing. They have the claim, but they dont back it up with their analysis, she explained. Students challenges with developing and explaining their ideas became Victorias challenges as she struggled to develop instructional approaches that would help her students successfully communicate their analysis.

Strong Undergraduate Preparation to Teach Writing

Though in just her 1st year of teaching, Victoria had a more developed knowledge of writing instruction than the other teachers included in the study. The reason for this was a strong focus on writing pedagogy that began prior to her teaching credential program. Victoria was an English major as an undergraduate and opted to do an emphasis in secondary education. This meant she took undergraduate courses focused on writing pedagogy, reading pedagogy, and grammar. Additionally, she worked in her universitys writing center, which required a course focused on working effectively with student writers. According to Victoria, this writing pedagogy class most influenced her writing instruction. In this course, the instructor used a genre study approach. So how to structure genre study and how it works, Victoria explained. We also looked at a lot of student work, how to comment on student papers. Additionally, the instructor guided students in developing their own writing processes. Because she began to consider how to teach writing early in her professional career, Victoria acknowledged that she entered her credential program ahead of most of her peers. She also credited the teacher with whom she did her student teaching with helping her further develop her knowledge of writing instruction. Still, Victoria recalled little focused attention to writing instruction in her actual teacher preparation program.

Preparing Students for the Writing of College

Because of the goals of the Introduction to College Writing course, Victorias instructional emphasis was improving her students writing skills and preparing them for the college placement exams. I guess the outcome that were going to see if this class is working is the (CSU) English Placement Test, explained Victoria. The English Placement Test, which asks students to read and respond to a brief quote using relevant examples to support their ideas, became a de facto policy that informed Victorias instruction. Yet she chose not to teach directly to the test and focused instead on developing her students as writers. In alignment with district expectations, students were required to pass specific certifications for each course. [Its] work that shows that students master the subject matter and that theyre certified in that subject matter, Victoria explained. But as the course creator, Victoria determined what those certifications would be. Like Josh, Victoria was not directly affected by national or state policies because she was not required to prepare her students for state assessments.

Approaches to Teaching Writing

Victoria worked with her students on a number of different genres during the year. She intentionally structured the writing assignments so that they built on one another in terms of complexity. [It] starts with the personal and opens up because students are so egocentric and then you open to the sociocentric, she explained. Her hope was that each piece students wrote would serve as a level of scaffolding for the next assignment.

Victoria also worked to carefully sequence the steps students took to complete each assignment. As she learned in her undergraduate writing pedagogy class, for each new genre students wrote, they first engaged in a focused study of that genre. Victoria provided students with models to read and specific prompts to help them notice the features of the genre. The samples also served as models when students were constructing their own texts. Next, she guided students through various prewriting work so that theyre never approaching a screen or their paper blank. Once students had a first draft, they met in writing groups to get feedback from their peers. When they did so, Victoria had a specific set of protocols for them to follow. The day students met to discuss drafts of their personal statements, she first had them read and critique their own drafts before exchanging pieces. Everyone is going to read their piece out loud. Youll give them one piece of positive feedback. Then youre going to read it silently and grade it on the rubric, Victoria instructed. The students final step was to complete a revision plan outlining what they would do to improve the next draft. Victoria would provide feedback on this draft that students could use to revise the piece one more time.

Victoria believed strongly that sample essay structures provided supports for students struggling with how to organize their writing. When responding to the survey, Victoria indicated that she required students to follow the five-paragraph model when writing essays. At the time, she was responding based on her instruction of 9th graders during her student teaching. Still, even for seniors, she saw this model as effective, though perhaps not in the stringent way some teach it. I believe heavily in teaching the five-paragraph model, she said. Its a framework. Its a structure that helps kids to be successful in analyzing something and creating a thesis and supporting that thesis. Like the specific steps she had students follow for their analysis of genre models or the specific guidelines for writing group meetings, to Victoria, the five-paragraph essay model served as a scaffold for students.

Writing Process Scaffolds Guide Students Development

For Victoria, what was most important in her teaching of writing was finding supports that would help students develop into successful writers. As evidenced by her survey responses, Victoria viewed learning specific writing structures, like the five-paragraph essay model, and learning to value each step of the writing process as key to that development. These beliefs in both structure and the writing process led to her alignment with the component Uses Elements of the Process Approach, from the PCA of the survey results (Table 3). Like Victoria, many of the survey respondents indicated they, too, used elements of a writing process approach in their writing instruction. The writing process Victoria emphasized was a scaffold for students; each stepgenre analysis, prewriting, drafting, conferencing, revisionwas intended to help them write their best possible piece. Ultimately, Victoria hoped students internalized these steps and would use them on their own in their future careers as college writers.

Victoria was able to keep a tight focus on developing her students into college-ready writers without getting distracted by the need to prepare them for state-mandated assessments. This was, in part, because her students were seniors and not required to take any state assessments. It was also because the course she taught was an elective. Victoria was required to prepare her students for the district certifications, but because she created the course, she determined what those certifications were. Rather than the policy informing Victorias instructional decisions, her choices of what genres would best develop her students as writers influenced the policy.


A 7th-year teacher, Nicole taught English 10, English 10 Honors, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)1 in a suburban high school. With an API score of 636, Hillside High School was the lowest performing school in the district. In fact, in the year prior, the school was one of the 5% lowest performing in the state, a status that allowed it to obtain a School Improvement Grant. Whether or not the school continued to receive future grant funds was determined by students test scores, which placed additional pressure on teachers and students. As shown in Table 1, the school served a diverse population of students, 80% of whom received free or reduced-price meals and 11.6% of whom were classified as English learners.

Perceived Knowledge of Writing Instruction

Nicole began her teaching career with a foundational knowledge of how to teach writing beyond that of many new teachers. As an undergraduate, she took the same course focused on writing pedagogy that Victoria took. Nicoles resident teacher during her student teaching was a longtime veteran of the Bay Area Writing Project. But Nicole did not remember learning anything about teaching writing in her teacher preparation program. [It was] more like classroom management, student engagement, she explained. Not that writing wasnt important & but teaching novels is important and then you do your writing based on what you read. Once she began teaching and saw her students struggling with writing, Nicole turned to other resources. She participated in both AVID and AP professional development sessions and drew heavily on the approaches she learned from each. Together with her undergraduate preparation, these experiences provided Nicole with the core strategies and approaches she used to teach writing.

Students Taught to Follow Formulas

Like Hillside High School as a whole, approximately two-thirds of Nicoles students were from diverse backgrounds representing a range of ethnicities: African American, Southeast Asian, and Latino. Several of the White students in her classes were either Eastern European immigrants themselves or the children of recent immigrants and spoke Russian as a first language. Nicole noted the diversity of students at the school and added, kids generally that are going to college are the first in their families to do so, suggesting her need to also teach her students about college expectations and the process of preparing for college. Nicole added that students had a number of academic struggles, a reflection of being educated in an era of accountability. [Theyre] not very independent thinkers & definitely trained to do multiple choice and less writing, she explained. As writers, students in Nicoles classes thought about essays in terms of the five-paragraph structure. [They ask], does it have to be five paragraphs? & Theyre very trained coming in for that. Students also struggled with understanding the overall purpose of the essay, perhaps because they did not understand its connection to any out-of-school situation.

Impact of Accountability Policies

Hillside was located in a district that emphasized the state assessments. ELA teachers were given a curriculum guide they were expected to follow. This guide aligned with quarterly benchmark assessments, which aligned with the CAHSEE and the CSTs. The hope of the district was that, by preparing students for the benchmark assessments, teachers would be preparing students for the state assessments (Anagnostopoulos, 2005). With the support of her site administration, Nicole chose not to follow the district curriculum and instead used her own knowledge of her students strengths and challenges and the content of the state assessments to guide her instructional decisions. That [district benchmarks] wasnt my main focus & because theres not as much consequence for not doing well on that as there is for the CAHSEE and the CST, she explained. Not passing the CAHSEE meant serious consequences for her students, whereas not passing the district benchmark assessment carried no weight. Although the district implemented the curriculum and benchmark assessments to ensure teachers prepared their students for the assessments, Nicole felt confident in her ability to plan responsive instruction that would be more beneficial than the predesigned curriculum.

Because Nicole felt responsible for preparing her students for the CAHSEE, the exam became the focus of her instruction. Nicole began the school year working with students on sentence construction to prepare them for multiple-choice test items on language conventions. When working with students on essay writing, Nicole focused on the genres potentially assessed on the CAHSEE: biographical narrative, response to literature, expository composition, persuasive composition, and business letter (California Department of Education, 2008). For each new genre she taught, Nicole had students respond to CAHSEE-released prompts and assessed their writing using the corresponding CAHSEE rubric.

Approaches to Teaching Writing

Nicole attempted to focus her writing instruction on areas where she saw her students struggling. She began each unit with an assessment of what students knew or could do and then used the information she gathered to guide her instructional decisions. One way she did this was by relying on what she called templates. I have a template for writing a summary, she explained. Its a fill-in-the-blank kind of thing, but they do have to come up with stuff on there. Essentially, Nicole provided students with a scaffold to guide their use of the rhetorical moves made in academic writing. Her rationale was that students understand the elements they need to include, but they dont necessarily understand how to put those elements together in a cohesive manner. The template helped show them how to do so.

Similar to the template, Nicole provided students with heuristics to help them remember what elements needed to get included in specific parts of their essays. When working on theme analysis essays, she reminded students to include TAGTopic, Author, Genrein their introductions. When they moved on to body paragraphs, Nicole reminded students of TEAR: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis, Restatement. Important to note is that Nicole only stipulated these elements must be included: She did not specify how many pieces of evidence or how many body paragraphs the essays required. Students made those decisions depending on what information they believed was necessary to develop their ideas, while relying on the basic structure provided by the scaffold.

Nicole also modeled her expectations for students. Anytime her students were required to write, Nicole wrote her own version of the assignment so students would have examples written to the same prompts. After passing out an essay she had written, she told students, Were gonna see maybe some things I could do to make this better and maybe some things you want to steal to use in your own essay. By encouraging students to critique her writing, Nicole helped them understand the nature of drafting, that a piece of writing is a work in progress open for revision. By explicitly telling students it was okay for them to use pieces of her essay in their own writing, she provided an additional scaffold that might help them if they got stuck. Doing this demonstrated her awareness of the various needs of writers and that, even if the students did use pieces of her writing, their essays and their ideas would ultimately be their own.

Tensions in Nicoles Teaching of Writing

Nicoles goal in teaching writing was to help her students be successful in whatever writing situation they encountered: the CAHSEE or, later, the SAT or their future college classes. Because she saw her students overall as struggling with writing, as indicated by her alignment with Component 3, High Student Need and Tight Focus on Test Preparation, from the PCA of the survey results (Table 3), she attempted to scaffold each writing assignment for her students. Nicole drew on the knowledge of writing instruction she had to determine how to meet her students needs, yet the policies in place influenced the decisions she made as she realized that a huge hurdle for her students was passing the CAHSEE. By privileging the content of the CAHSEE, Nicole both helped ensure her students success in clearing a graduation hurdle and helped ensure the schools success in bringing up test scores. The consequences of her focus, however, may be that students developed an understanding of the genres she taught in terms of their alignment with the CAHSEE rather than as rhetorical structures to be used beyond the testing situation.


Owen was in his 12th year of teaching during the year of observation. As shown in Table 1, he taught sophomore honors and college preparatory English at a suburban high school whose student population was predominantly White (37.1%) and Latino (34.9%). Approximately two-thirds of the students (67.4%) received free or reduced-price meals, and 13.6% were classified as English learners. The school where Owen taught was in the same district as the school where Nicole taught, which meant he, too, was expected to follow the district-created curriculum guide and administer quarterly benchmark assessments. Whereas Nicole used her knowledge of her students as writers and her knowledge of writing instruction to navigate the district instructional policies, Owen illustrates the case of a teacher with little knowledge of writing instruction who believed his instruction was controlled by the guidelines set out for him by the district. In fact, his responses aligned with those associated with Component 4 from the PCA of the survey results, Controlled Instructional Practices (Table 3). Owen felt like his instructional practices were monitored, that he was expected to follow a pacing guide, and that he was pressured to prepare his students for district-mandated assessments.

Perceived Knowledge of Writing Instruction

Despite his 12 years of teaching experience, Owen had very little knowledge of writing instruction. I would say its [teaching writing] probably one of my weaknesses, to tell you the truth, he explained. Owen did not recall learning anything about how to teach writing during his teacher preparation. His primary professional development focused on writing instruction came from collaboratively scoring essays with other members of his department. We all talked about what were good papers and what were bad, what worked and what didnt, he explained. Although this activity provided a space for teachers to discuss their craft of teaching writing and share instructional strategies, due to budget constraints, Owen added, Its been several years since weve done that. The only other writing-focused professional development Owen recalled was focused on an approach that favors structure over the development of ideas. I thought there was some merit to it to tell you the truth, he said. It kind of had a bad name around here. Some of us were peer pressured not to use it. The pressure Owen felt from his colleagues may have been what kept him from implementing what he learned. Yet when he taught writing, Owen tended to emphasize structure, suggesting he still might have been following the general principles of the approach.

Students as Writers

When considering his students writing, Owen focused primarily on the surface features, such as mechanics and basic structure. I saw in paragraph writing recently that half of them didnt even indent, he said when describing his students as writers. Its like, Come on guys, youre in the tenth grade & Youve got to put a period at the end of the sentence. You should capitalize the first letter of the sentence. Based on Owens comments, his students focus was getting their ideas down on paper, likely in an attempt to finish the assignment, rather than on worrying about properly formatting their writing. This lack of concern over formatting suggests students had little awareness of their audiences expectations.

Students struggles with formatting extended beyond punctuation and capitalization to understanding how to structure their ideas. Early in the year, Owen talked through different prompts he gave students for writing an autobiographical narrative, suggesting that each point of the prompt could be a paragraph of the essay. This led a student to ask if the essay could be just one paragraph. From her question, it is unclear whether she knew how to organize her ideas into paragraphs or whether she just wanted to write them out without worrying about paragraphs. Regardless, the incident demonstrates Owens need to work with students on how and why to structure their ideas in their writing, as well as students need to understand what readers expect when reading a composition.

District Curriculum Guide and Benchmark Assessments

Like Nicole, Owen was required to follow the district curriculum guides and prepare his students for the quarterly district benchmark assessments. Unlike Nicole, he felt pressured to adhere to these guidelines. He explained, Definitely the biggest influence [on my teaching of writing] is the school district. According to the district guidelines, students were to complete 16 writing assignments per year, four of which had to be of final draft quality. The two required district writing assessments (theme analysis and controversial issue research paper) counted as two of the final draft assignments. Owen used the midyear theme analysis essay as a guidepost for his instruction. Normally I have them write on a book, he explained. This year I picked two short stories. What I did is I tried to align it more with how the district was going to throw their on-demand theme analysis paper. Owens change in instruction was the direct result of a change in the assessment. Now that it asked students to write on two texts, Owen shifted what he asked students to do in the weeks leading up to the assessment to ensure his students were prepared.

Although the district curriculum guide was specific about the number of writing assignments students must do, no specificity was given beyond stating that those assignments must include the writing modes stipulated in the standards in place at the time: narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive. Owen made sure to incorporate a variety of small-scale writing assignments, such as the 250-word autobiographical narrative he assigned to students, which included multiple drafts. For Owen, the district curriculum guides and assessments provided a framework of what to teach. Because he knew the guides were aligned with the state standards, he felt safe following the map provided.

Approaches to Teaching Writing

The majority of Owens teaching of writing came through direct instruction to the whole class. Owen relied primarily on telling his students how and what to write rather than showing them. When working with his students on controversial issue research projects, Owen provided three possible structures on the board for students to follow. Remember, this is probably the easiest one: pro, con, then your opinion, he explained. Or you can just flip it: con, pro, then your opinion. Then this third structure is what I call the tennis match because its back and forth. After going over the possibilities, Owen discussed the proper way to create an outline. Although he later encouraged students to meet with him if they had any questions, the bulk of his instruction came through this brief whole-class discussion.

At times, Owen attempted to use modeling with his students. More often than not, the modeling came in the form of him talking through how he would approach a writing task. For example, when discussing writing a business letter, Owen shared scenarios detailing when he might send an actual business letter, along with what information he would include and why. In this case, he used a think-aloud approach to model how to approach a writing situation. Owen used actual model texts when reviewing the state preparatory materials for the writing portion of the CAHSEE. He projected each model essay onto the screen and then commented on elements such as the number of paragraphs, the number of words, or the fact that it included a quote. Owen also read out loud the provided commentary, at times offering additional comments. Of the four sets of observations during the year, this was the only time Owen used model essays, suggesting he may have only done so because they were provided. Owens use of modeling demonstrates a basic understanding on his part of the importance of sharing examples with students, even if the example was just how he would approach a writing prompt.

Limited Knowledge Leads to Reliance on District Curriculum Guide

As Owen worked to follow the districts curriculum guide and prepare his students for the various assessments, he faced the challenge of having little knowledge of writing instruction on which to draw, in part because he had very little formal development in the teaching of writing. Owen ended up focusing on the surface features of writingmechanics, format, structurerather than working with students to develop their ideas or understand the purposes behind the different genres they were writing. While the instructional approaches Owen relied on can be useful, the lack of incorporation of other approaches suggests his limited knowledge of specific writing pedagogy. As his alignment with the component Controlled Instructional Processes (Table 3) suggests, Owen felt controlled by the instructional policies in place in his district, and unlike Nicole, he lacked the knowledge of writing instruction necessary to navigate those policies.


Gavin was in his 6th year of teaching. He taught English 10 Honors, English 11 College Preparatory, and AVID at Classic High School. Like the school where Owen taught, the student population at Classic was predominantly Latino (47.3%) and White (40.3%) (Table 1). Unlike students at Owens school, just over one-fourth of the students at Classic qualified for free or reduced-price meals. At 6.7%, the percentage of students classified as English learners was just under half the state average at the time. In the past, students at Classic were placed into one of four tracks for their English classes: Honors, CP, Non-CP, and English Support. The school eliminated the two lower tracks so that all students were now enrolled in Honors or CP English classes. As Gavin explained, There is just a huge range and variability inside the classroom at any given moment. It wasnt necessarily like that before. Gavin felt himself challenged to find the appropriate instructional approaches to address a wider range of student needs.

Though sophomore English teachers at Classic were expected to administer quarterly benchmark assessments from the district and follow a pacing guide, Gavin escaped these pressures because he taught English 10 Honors. Gavin instead chose to simply file away the pacing guide. He still administered the benchmark assessments, but he did nothing to explicitly prepare students for them. Instead, Gavin focused on finding ways to connect his reading and writing instruction. Students wrote about the literature they read, and he used informal writing as a way to introduce his students to the big ideas of texts. In addition to the benchmark assessments, there was an annual district writing assessment required of all students, scored collaboratively by teachers at each site. Gavin did feel some pressure to prepare his students for this writing task, but it impacted his instruction for only the few days prior to the assessment.

History as Writer Forms Foundation for Knowledge of Writing Instruction

Like most of the other teachers highlighted, Gavin recalled little from his preservice preparation focused on the teaching of writing. A little bit, a very little bit, he admitted. Instead, he highlighted a year-long workshop series provided at his school site by the Bay Area Writing Project as being instrumental in his development of writing pedagogy. It was a year-long series. We had six speakers, he explained. That is probably the most teacher-friendly, most common sense approach. This workshop series occurred during Gavins 3rd year of teaching, 3 years prior to the year of observation. Though Gavin had little formal development in the teaching of writing, the development he did have was built on the foundation of his own history as a writer. Gavin majored in media studies as an undergraduate, with a focus on journalism. Prior to teaching, Gavin worked as a writer. This history meant he had a strong knowledge of the craft of writing, knowledge he pulled from when working with his students.

Students as Writers

The movement from multiple tracks of English courses to just two meant that Gavin now had a larger range of student writers in his classes. Additionally, many of the students in his College Prep classes were actually students who qualified for Special Education services who had been mainstreamed, creating another challenge for him. Overall, however, Gavin described the primary challenge of his students as staying engaged in their schoolwork. In his opinion, part of the reason for this was students interest in social media. But he also felt like their engagement with social media contributed to their skills as communicators. I think because of the way they communicate online, their strengths are utilizing different forms of expression to say something, to get their message across, he explained. When it came to writing an academic essay, however, Gavin believed his students needed more guidance. Gavins challenge, then, became finding a way to provide this guidance while also keeping his students engaged.

Approaches to Teaching Writing

Gavins responses to the survey indicated he saw himself as knowledgeable about the teaching of writing, that he was able to develop his students as writers. These survey results aligned him with Component 5 from the principal components analysis, Perception of Strong Knowledge of Writing Instruction (Table 3). Gavin believed his real strength was in being able to break down complex ideas for his students. For example, the idea of a thesis statement or the idea of a semicolon or a comma splice or the idea of an adverbial transition, he explained. The idea of making those ideas, that are rather complex for a teenager, pretty clear, pretty easy to understand. Gavin used a variety of instructional strategies to help break down the complexities of writing for his students.

A key way Gavin helped students understand the elements they needed to include in different genres was through the use of visual representations. Early in the year, Gavin guided his sophomores through the process of writing an essay. As they approached the analysis section of their first body paragraph, he drew a diagram that included a small box with a much larger box directly below it and set off-center to illustrate the relationship between evidence cited and analysis of that evidence. Heres your evidence (drawing the first box), he explained. And heres your deep explanation (drawing the second). Where it rubs up against the evidence, thats the story level & as you step down (pointing further down in the box), you reach the level of ideas, your ideas. And more general ideas about the world. By creating this visual and talking students through the ideas represented, Gavin created a heuristic to guide students understanding of the genre. Students could both see graphically what they needed to do and use the graphic to guide their writing. In this way, it served as a scaffold to guide their development.


Gavin also relied on essay models to help make complex ideas clear to his students. When his sophomores were working on essays about To Kill a Mockingbird, Gavin continually showed an essay written by a previous student to demonstrate his expectations. Gavin relied on models when doing creative writing with his students as well. During their reading of a short story, Gavin had students write their own sentences following the syntax of the first sentence of that story. Though students did not have to follow the sentence exactly, the syntax provided a model to guide students as they worked with language. Gavin understood that using other texts as mentors provided students with a starting place for their writing, a way into a new genre. Having an example helped them understand the complexities of what they were attempting to write.

Strong Knowledge of Writing Instruction Leads to Few Tensions

Gavins strong confidence in his knowledge of writing instructionas seen in his survey results (Table 3)allowed him to disregard the district policies, similar to the way Nicole did. He felt confident that the instruction he provided students was enough to prepare them for the quarterly benchmark assessments. Important to note is that he did not teach the general, College Prep sections of sophomore English. Had he done so, he might have felt more pressure to follow the mandated curriculum, the curriculum that he, instead, filed away at the beginning of the school year. Unlike Nicole, Gavin did not feel pressured to prepare his students for the CAHSEE either. Again, this might have been different had he not taught honors sophomores, but he knew his students would have little difficulty passing the exam. The result was that few tensions existed for Gavin when it came to his instruction of writing.


The goal of this study was to examine variations in how teachers used their knowledge of writing instruction to negotiate the pressures of accountability policies and their students diverse needs as they taught writing. The primary sources of data to explore how teachers approached their writing instruction were case studies of five teachers. These cases were complemented by a survey of 171 teachers who served as a representative sample of California high school English teachers. As the findings illustrate, significant differences existed in how the teachers approached their writing instruction. These differences were due to differences in both the teachers preparations to teach writing and the contextual factors in place where each taught (Figure 1).


The five teachers highlighted here had varied opportunities to develop their knowledge of writing instruction. As discussed previously, in California, preservice teacher preparation is reserved for postbaccalaureate study. None of the teachers profiled reported having opportunities to develop their knowledge to teach writing during their preservice preparation.

Three of the teachers did begin teaching with a foundational knowledge of writing instruction. Nicole and Victoria learned about teaching writing during their undergraduate coursework. Coincidentally, both were English majors who opted to do an emphasis in secondary education at the same institution, though not at the same time. As part of that emphasis, they took a course focused on writing pedagogy that provided them with a foundation in how to teach writing. They were able to build on this foundation when they began their teaching careers. Thanks to his prior career as a journalist, Gavin began his teaching career with developed content knowledge of writinghe knew firsthand what it felt like to struggle through composing a text and what types of supports helped him through those struggles. Once he began teaching and had opportunities to engage in professional development focused on teaching writing, he was able to connect what he learned to his existing knowledge. The result was his development of PCK for the teaching of writing, as indicated by his alignment with Component 5 from the PCA of the survey results, Perception of Strong Knowledge of Writing Instruction (Table 3).

Like the others, Josh did not recall much attention to writing during his preservice preparation. The knowledge he had came from ongoing collaborations with site colleagues who regularly met to discuss their expectations of students and instructional strategies to help students meet those expectations. These continued conversations helped him to develop his own foundational knowledge of writing instruction, though this knowledge came once he began his teaching career rather than before it began, as was the case with Nicole, Victoria, and Gavin.

Four of the five teachers also participated in professional development focused on writing instruction. But again, their experiences were significantly different. Owen, who had no preservice preparation to teach writing, attended only one writing-focused professional development workshop during his 12 years of teaching. But because the approach focused on in the professional development had a bad name at his school, he never implemented what he learned. Gavin, too, had attended only one professional development focused on writing instruction. Unlike the workshop Owen attended, however, the professional development in which Gavin participated occurred throughout the school year and was led by the Bay Area Writing Project, known for embracing a writing process approach to writing instruction (Nagin, 2006). Additionally, this workshop series occurred at Gavins school site, meaning he attended the sessions with his colleagues and could consult with them between the organized sessions. Both Nicole and Josh taught AP courses and regularly attended the AP Summer Institutes focused on developing teachers knowledge of pedagogy and credited these opportunities with developing their knowledge of writing instruction. Similarly, both Nicole and Gavin taught AVID and attended the week-long AVID summer institutes. Like the AP Institute, the AVID Institute provided specific professional development focused on the teaching of writing. Only Victoria had not attended any writing instruction-focused professional development, though she was also in only her 1st year of teaching.


The knowledge of writing instruction each teacher had led to differences in how they navigated the instructional policies at their school sites. But what those policies were and how they were enacted also differed. Josh and Victoria both taught only seniors who did not take any state assessments. For Josh, this meant the only policy that impacted his instruction was the state standards. But his adherence to those standards was not regulated in any way. As part of their ongoing collaborations, his department did have an agreed-upon approach to teach writing, which could be considered a department instructional policy. As a member of the department Josh had a voice in constructing that policy; it was agreed upon by him and his fellow department members rather than passed down to him in the form of a mandate. Victoria also taught seniors, though her district required all students pass course-specific certifications. But because Victoria had created the course and determined the genres she wanted to teach, the certifications mapped directly onto her instructional plan. Victoria did feel some pressure to prepare her students for the University of California and California State University writing placement exams. Rather than focus her instruction just on the content of the exams, she used her knowledge of writing instruction to plan a sequence of writing tasks she believed would best develop her students overall writing ability. So although Victoria did respond to external instructional policies in her instruction, she ultimately had control in how she responded to those policies.

Gavin and Nicole both had specific district policies in place for the 10th-grade classes they taught, policies intended to help prepare students for the CAHSEE and CSTs. For both, the policy included a pacing guide with specific benchmark assessments. But both opted to disregard the policies, though Gavin did so to a greater extent than Nicole. Gavin simply filed away the pacing guide and taught what he wanted, trusting his students would do fine on both the district-level benchmark assessments and the state-level standardized assessments. He did admit his instruction might have been more tightly monitored had he not taught the honors course. Nicole, too, chose not to follow the mandated pacing guide because she believed she was a better judge of how to develop her students as writers. Still, unlike Gavin, Nicole felt a strong pressure to make sure her studentsthose in both her honors and her college prep sectionswere prepared for the CAHSEE. Consequently, much of her instruction throughout the year ended up responding directly to the content on the CAHSEE. Not surprisingly, she aligned with Component 3, High Student Need and Tight Focus on Test Preparation (Table 3), meaning her experiences align with those of many of the other survey respondents. Gavin, on the other hand, hardly even mentioned the CAHSEE in his classes. Important to note is that 80% of the students at Nicoles school received free or reduced-price meals and nearly 12% were classified as English learners. The school was also one of the lowest performing in the state. These statistics suggest that teachers in schools that serve lower income students in low-performing schools face greater pressures to conform their instruction to implicit policies of the assessments. This echoes what McCarthey and Mkhize (2013) found in place at the elementary level.

Owen taught in the same district as Nicole, meaning he, too, had the same district-mandated pacing guide and benchmark assessments. Unlike Nicole, Owen felt that these district policies controlled what he taught and when, which was reflected both in his alignment with Component 4 from the PCA of the survey results, Controlled Instructional Practices, and his actual instruction. He knew his students were expected to take the quarterly benchmark assessments, so his instructional focus was following the pacing guide to prepare students for those assessments. Owen also felt a responsibility to prepare his students for the CAHSEE and spent the weeks leading up to the exam preparing students for the writing tasks they could potentially encounter. In sum, Owen felt pressure from both the local and the state levels, leading him to feel like he had very little autonomy in his writing instruction.


Perhaps not surprisingly, the teachers also had different perceptions of their students as writers. In many ways, these perceptions mapped onto the socioeconomic status of the students in the teachers classrooms. Both Josh and Gavin taught in schools that served smaller percentages of English learners and students receiving free or reduced-price meals (Table 1). As already discussed, Joshs survey responses aligned him with the first component from the PCA, Strong Belief in Student Capacity with Writing (Table 3), meaning that overall, he believed his students came to him as well-developed writers. Likely, this is because of his departments common approach to teaching writing. Josh knew his students had already learned how to use evidence to develop their ideas and how to organize those ideas logically. As a result, he could move beyond this foundational knowledge to work with his students on their critical thinking. Similar to Josh, Gavin, too, believed his students had a reasonably developed knowledge of writing, especially in his honors course. What Gavin highlighted when thinking about his students was the huge range in knowledge and skill they had when it came to writing. This posed a significant challenge for him as he had to think about ways to develop the range of students in each classhow to support those who struggled while still pushing those who excelled. Again, similar to Josh, he focused on guiding his students in developing their ideas and spent little time addressing language issues.

Victoria and Nicole both worked in schools that served primarily students who lived in poverty. At Victorias school, 88.1% of the students received free or reduced-price meals, while 80.2% of the students at Nicoles school did (Table 1). Both highlighted their need to work with their students on their development and organization of ideas as well as their academic language. Doing so became a focus of their instruction, something that neither Josh nor Gavin really had to spend much time on. For Nicole, developing her students knowledge of language was in service of improving both their writing overall and their performance on the standardized assessments. Similarly, because Victoria knew her students needed to score well on the college writing proficiency exams, she knew her students needed to improve their knowledge of grammar and conventions in order to make their writing comprehendible.

At the school where Owen worked, approximately two-thirds of the students received free or reduced-price meals, and 13.6% were classified as English learners (Table 1). Like Victoria and Nicole, Owen believed his students needed work on the mechanics of their writing. But when discussing his students, he focused on the surface features of their writingindenting paragraphs, putting the proper punctuation at the end of the sentence, formatting papers correctly. Owen never discussed working with his students on the development of their ideas, likely because of his own limited knowledge of how to assess and support his students as writers.


Ultimately, these five cases highlight how teachers knowledge of writing instruction impacts their ability to negotiate the policies in place and how they perceive their students as writers, as illustrated in Figure 1. The impact of a lack of knowledge of writing instruction is most clearly seen in the case of Owen. He had few opportunities to develop his knowledge and, consequently, struggled more than any of the others to develop his students as writers. His limited knowledge impacted his ability to even recognize where his students needed development, let alone how to work with them in their areas of weakness. Additionally, he felt the most confined by the instructional policies in place. Owen was not able to work within those policiesor even disregard the policiesin the ways that Nicole and Gavin did. Nicole taught under the same policies as Owen, yet her developed knowledge of writing instruction allowed her to examine what the policy required while also examining the development her students needed in order to improve their writing. She understood the overall goals of the policy. But she also knew, through her assessment of her students, that she could use her knowledge to provide them with more appropriate instruction. Similarly, Gavin trusted his knowledge of writing instruction to develop his students as writers more than the curriculum guide imposed on him. He simply disregarded the guide in favor of instructional approaches he determined most appropriate.

Contrasting Owen with Victoria further illustrates the impact of knowledge of writing instruction. As highlighted above, Victoria had significant opportunities to develop her knowledge of writing instruction while working on her undergraduate degree. In her teaching context, she had students who struggled in a number of areas with writing. She indicated that they had the critical thinking skills, but they did not know how to organize their ideas. They also struggled with using appropriate academic language. Unlike Owen, Victoria could recognize and articulate both her students areas of strength and their areas of weakness. She was able to plan the appropriate instruction to build on those areas of strength to guide their development.

Josh did not face the same policy constraints as the other teachers, and his students came to him with a solid foundation as writers. This meant he did not face some of the challenges others highlighted in the study faced. But what Josh illustrates is the importance of opportunities for teachers to continue their knowledge development beyond their preservice preparation. The majority of his knowledge of writing instruction came from his ongoing collaborations with his colleagues, coupled with his opportunities to attend AP professional development workshops. Had he not had these opportunities, his instruction might have looked more like that of Owen, who lacked even the language to talk about his students as writers.


The experiences of the five teachers featured here, supported by the PCA of the survey results, highlight the impact of teachers knowledge of writing instruction on how teachers approach their teaching of writing. The teachers with a stronger knowledge base were better equipped to assess their students needs and plan appropriate instructional activities to guide their students development. They were also better equipped to navigate the accountability policies in place at their school sites. Yet as existing research (Hochstetler, 2007; Kiuhara et al., 2009; Nagin, 2006; Smagorinsky & Whiting, 1995; Thomas, 2000; Totten, 2005) already shows, the preparation of teachers to teach writing varies widely across the country. The experiences of these teachers further illustrate the extremes in those variations: Victoria had multiple opportunities to develop her knowledge of writing instruction while Owen had almost none. But none of the teachers featured here recalled focused attention to writing instruction during their preservice preparation. At most, writing was addressed in service of studying literature. Consequently, teachers were left to cobble together opportunities to develop their knowledge once they entered the profession from whatever professional development was available to themcollaborations, NWP workshops, or AVID or AP Summer Institutes.


These findings indicate teachers would be better served by opportunities to develop their knowledge of writing instruction prior to entering the teaching profession. Ideally, preservice English teachers would engage in a focused study of writing instruction, which might include opportunities to read key texts in the field, such as those examining effective instructional approaches (for example, Atwell, 1998; Hillocks, 2011; Nagin, 2006; Newkirk & Kent, 2007) and those addressing the particular writing needs of English learners (de Oliveira & Silva, 2013; Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013). Additionally, preservice teachers would benefit from opportunities to try out and reflect upon instructional approaches in a supportive environment, particularly those identified by Graham and Perin (2007) to be most effective in developing adolescents as writers.


Practicing teachers would also benefit from opportunities to further develop their knowledge of writing instruction. The short time teachers spend in their preservice preparation is not enough to fully develop the complex knowledge needed to teach writing. Even when they do develop this knowledge, moving from one context to another brings additional challenges as teachers must adapt their instruction to meet the needs of their students: Victorias instruction of her inner-city seniors required very different foci from Joshs instruction of his suburban seniors. Therefore teachers need opportunities to engage in sustained professional development focused on writing instruction, such as that led by local sites of the NWP. Through its Local Sites Research Initiative, the NWP identified a number of professional development programs that positively impacted teachers instruction of writing, as demonstrated by increases in students writing proficiency (NWP, 2010). More teachers should have access to these types of opportunities at their sites and in their districts.

Similarly, teachers should have opportunities to engage in meaningful collaborations at their school sites, similar to the type of professional learning community Josh and his colleagues established. To truly be effective, the teachers should control the content of their meetings. Additionally, teachers should engage in critical examinations of student work in order to reflect on their past teaching and plan future instruction (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008; Fullan, 2000; Newmann, 1996; Owen, 2014; Watson, 2014), just as Josh and his colleagues did.

The Common Core Standards have been adopted by and implemented in 42 states. In many cases, the writing requirements of the Common Core Standards are significantly different from the writing requirements of the former systems of standards, as are the types of writing tasks required of students on the assessments. As a result, both preservice and inservice teachers need opportunities to develop knowledge of the types of writing specified within the standardsnarrative, informational, and argumentative, what genres fit within each of the three text types, and how some genres draw on multiple text types. For example, a persuasive letter might use a narrative to help make an argument. Once teachers develop their understanding of various genres through writing their own texts and analyzing various model texts, they can then begin to consider how to teach those genres to students.

Without opportunities to develop their knowledge of writing instruction, teachers will likely not be able to assess their students writing strengths and challenges. Much like Owen, they will end up simply following whatever instructional mandates are handed to them, without making the necessary adjustments to tailor the instruction to meet their students needs.


The experiences of these five teachers also offer a number of implications for educational policy, especially as states align their curriculum with the Common Core Standards. The findings of this study support previous research demonstrating that the accountability policies in place at teachers sites and districts caused significant challenges for teachers as they addressed writing (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003; Hillocks, 2002; Tracey, 2005). The primary sources of these challenges were the mandated assessments required under NCLB. Because of the high stakes attached, teachers spent their instructional time preparing students for the assessments rather than for situations that require more complex knowledge of writing processes and products. Since data collection occurred for this study, Common Core states have implemented assessment systems that require students at every level to create constructed responses. Yet when high stakes are attached to any system of assessments, the danger is that the curriculum will be narrowed to focus just on the content of those assessments. To truly develop students as writers prepared to engage in the types of critical thinking and writing required in the postsecondary world (Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, & NWP, 2011), teachers must expand their instruction of writing beyond the scope of the assessments in place. And to expand that instruction, teachers need multiple opportunitiesboth preservice and inserviceto develop their knowledge of writing instruction.


This research was supported by a dissertation fellowship from the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD).


1. Offered at schools throughout the country as an elective course, AVID aims to develop students college-readiness skills. Courses provide instruction in study skills and focus on developing students knowledge of the requirements to attend postsecondary institutions.


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Details of Case Data Sources


Survey Taken

Teaching Schedule

Beginning-of-Year Interview

Observation 1

Observation 2

Observation 3

Observation 4

End-of-Year Interview


May 4, 2011

1Eng 12 AP

2Eng 12 CP

3Eng 12 AP


5Eng 12 CP

6Eng 12 AP

Sept. 9, 2011 (58:22)

Sept. 21 (Per. 2 & 5)

Sept. 22 (Per. 2)

Dec. 14 (Per. 15)

Mar. 15 (Per. 1)

Apr. 9 (Per. 13)

Apr. 18 (Per. 1 & 3)

May 14, 2012



May 11, 2011



Oct. 17, 2011 (1:04:44)

Oct. 26 (Per. 5&6)

Oct. 28 (Per. 5)

Jan. 5 (Per. 6)

Jan. 6 (Per. 5)

Mar. 16 (Per. 6)

Apr. 4 (Per. 6)

May 15 (Per. 6)

June 7, 2012 (2:00:14)


May 25, 2011

1Eng 10 Hon

2Eng 10 Hon

3Eng 10

4Eng 10

5AVID 10

6AVID 12

Aug. 22, 2011


Sept. 2728

(Per. 13)

Dec. 5 (Per. 13)

Dec. 7 (Per. 13)

Jan. 30 (Per. 23)

Jan. 31 (Per. 23)

May 1 (Per. 23)

May 2 (Per. 23)

May 24, 2012



May 11, 2011

1Eng 10

2Eng 10

3Adv Eng 10

4Eng 10


Aug. 25, 2011


Sept. 1415

(Per. 14)

Jan. 19 (Per. 12)

Jan. 23 (Per. 12)

Mar. 13 (Per. 2 & 3)

Mar. 22 (Per. 2 & 3)

May 11 (Per. 23)

May 17, 2012



May 4, 2011

1Eng 10 Hon

2Eng 11 CP

3Eng 11 CP

4Eng 10 Hon



Aug. 23, 2011


Sept. 6 (Per. 1 & 4)

Sept. 7 (Per. 1)

Dec. 9 (Per. 12)

Dec. 13 (Per. 1)

Feb. 21 (Per. 12)

May 8 (Per. 12)

May 9 (Per. 12)

May 11, 2012



Beginning-of-Year Interview Protocol:

Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me.

The purpose of this interview is to learn a little bit about your teaching of writing and the context where you teach.

Just so you know, youre free to not answer any questions you choose. Additionally, if you would like to stop the interview at any time, you are free to do so.

I also want to make sure you know that the point of this interview is to get an authentic picture of your thoughts about teaching writing and the types of pressures placed on you as you do so.

I would like to tape record this discussion. Tape recording allows me to concentrate on talking with you and not on taking notes, although I will sometimes write things down. All audio files and transcripts from this interview will be kept on a password-protected computer. Do you agree to be recorded?

Great. Before we get started, do you have any questions for me?



Can you tell me about your background as a teacher? How did you come to be teaching high school English here?


Where did you do your credential?


Do you have a Masters Degree? If so, where did you do that? When?


How long have you been teaching here?


Have you taught anywhere else? Where?


What classes are you teaching this year? Have you taught these before? When? For how long? What else have you taught before?



Can you tell me a little bit about the school where you teach?


How would you describe the other teachers in your department? How would you describe your administration? How would you describe your district?


Is there a set curriculum at your school for teaching writing or particular expectations for how or what you teach? Can you tell me a little bit about that?


Are there any particular writing assessments that youre expected to give? Can you tell me about those?


Who writes the prompts?


Who scores the writing?


What happens to the scores?


How much flexibility would you say you have in how or what you teach? What guides your decisions?


Have there been any significant changes in your students/department/school/district in the last few years? If so, what are these changes? How have these impacted your teaching?


Is there anything else about your school that you think I should know?



Can you tell me a little bit about the students at your school? How would you describe them?


What would you say are your students strengths as writers?


What would you say are their biggest challenges as writers?

Teaching Writing:


Can you tell me a little bit about what your teaching of writing looks like?


Do you think its changed in any way since you first started teaching? How so? What brought about those changes?


Do you remember learning much about how to teach writing in your credential program? If so, what did you learn? How do you use that knowledge now?


Have you had any professional development since then that has helped you in your teaching of writing? When? What kind of pd? Do you remember anything specific that you learned? How has that helped you?


When it comes to teaching writing, what would you say your philosophy as a teacher is?


What sorts of things do you try to emphasize to your students as you teach writing during the year? Can you give me an example of how you do that?


Is there anything in particular that guides your teaching of writing?


What would you say is your strength in teaching writing? And your biggest challenge?


Is there anyone or anything in particular you seek when youre struggling with your teaching of writing?


Is there anything else about your teaching of writing that youd like to tell me that I havent asked?


End-of-Year Interview Protocol:

Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me.

Just so you know, youre free to not answer any questions you choose. Additionally, if you would like to stop the interview at any time, you are free to do so.

I also want to make sure you know that the point of this interview is to get an authentic picture of your thoughts about your teaching of writing this year and the kinds of pressures you were dealing with as you did so.

I would like to tape record this discussion. Tape recording allows me to concentrate on talking with you and not on taking notes, although I will sometimes write things down. All audio files and transcripts from this interview will be kept on a password-protected computer. Do you agree to be recorded?

Great. Before we get started, do you have any questions for me?

End-of-Year Questions:

General Teaching of Writing

" So, thinking about your teaching of writing this year, what sorts of things did you emphasize?


Why did you choose to emphasize those?


Can you give me some examples of how you emphasized [XX]?


What do you think was the biggest influence on what writing you taught and how you taught it?


Can you talk me through some of those particulars?

Successes & Challenges:

" What would you say went really well in your teaching of writing this year?


Was this different from in years past? Why do you think that was?


What triggered the changes in your thinking this year?

" What would you say were your greatest challenges this year teaching writing?


Why do you think that was? Was that a different challenge than youve had in the past?


Do you think youll change anything next year because of this? How so?


" What different genres did your students write in your class this year?


Why did you choose to focus on those genres?


Which genres would you say students had the least trouble with? Why do you think this was?


Which genres do you think they struggled with the most? Why do you think this was?

" During this year, were there things you did to teach writing that were specifically in preparation for a certain test?


District Assessment?









" Do you have any other reflections on your teaching of writing this year or changes you made to what and how you taught writing?

School Context:

" Were there specific policies in place at your site or in your district that impacted how you taught writing this year?


Can you explain what those were and how you addressed them?


If those hadnt been in place, what would you have done differently?


[probe with specific info have about each district]


" Thinking about the students you had this year:




First thinking about your highest performers, what did you find were their strengths as writers?


And now thinking about your kind of mid-level students, what did you find were their strengths as writers?


And finally, thinking about your struggling students, what did you find were their strengths as writers?




 Again thinking about your highest performers, what did you find were their challenges as writers?


And now thinking about your kind of mid-level students, what did you find were their challenges as writers?


And finally, thinking about your struggling students, what did you find were their challenges as writers?


Was there anything in particular you did to try to address those challenges?


Overall, how do you think the students you had this year compare with students youve taught in the past?

" Thinking about your students, what type of writing do you think they will be expected to do in college?


What do you think college professors are looking for when they assign a piece of writing?


Do you feel like your students are prepared to do that kind of writing? Why or why not?


What do you do to prepare them for this type of writing?

Teacher as Writer:

" Thinking about yourself, do you find that you do much writing?


What kinds of writing do you do?


So would you consider yourself a writer? Why/why not?


Can you think of any links between your own experiences with writing and the types of writing situations you try to set up for your students?


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 1, 2018, p. 1-60
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21983, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:13:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Juliet Wahleithner
    California State University, Fresno
    E-mail Author
    JULIET MICHELSEN WAHLEITHNER is an assistant professor of literacy in the department of Literacy, Early, Bilingual, and Special Education at California State University, Fresno. She is also Co-Director of the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project. Her research focuses on preservice and inservice teacher development, particularly in the areas of literacy instruction. Additionally, she is interested in the literacy development of secondary and postsecondary students. She recently coauthored articles in Journal of Literacy Research and Action in Teacher Education.
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