When teachers think of teaching writing, they typically begin with the type of writing they want their students to compose—persuasive pieces, personal narratives, academic essays and the like. They think of following the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing—and conduct mini-lessons during writers’ workshop. Others teachers begin diagraming sentences, discussing subject-verb agreement or distinguishing between nominative and objective case pronouns.
All too often, however, little attention is given to the cognitive skills of writing. And that’s a shame, because cognitive skills are the building blocks upon which writing depends.
The Cognitive Building Blocks of Writing
Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, sequencing, and processing speed underlie all composition. It is generally presumed that by middle and high school, students have mastered these basic cognitive skills, and, as such, mainstream writing curricula for secondary students rarely explicitly address the cognitive skills of writing. Nonetheless, research evidence is mounting that many middle and high school students who continue to struggle with writing have not mastered the underlying cognitive and linguistic skills on which written language depends (Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996)
To write cohesive, readable, and understandable text, the writer must not only have a firm linguistic foundation in order to select the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structure to convey the meaning intended, but must also hold the concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical form of sentences and paragraphs in working memory while formulating each new sentence.
The writing process itself places considerable demands on real-time verbal working memory, as writers construct and hold in mind the ideas they wish to express, inhibiting the irrelevant and attending to the relevant details of what they are presently writing. Simultaneously writers must keep in mind what they have already written, and plan for what they are about to write to complete their thoughts (Torrance & Galbraith, 2008).
Another cognitive skill that has been shown to affect writing is focused and sustained attention (Ransdell, Levy, & Kellogg, 2002). A writer’s full attention is consumed in thinking about what to say and applying correct spelling, punctuation, and syntactical rules to what is written. Sentence generation involves consciously reflecting on and manipulating knowledge that needs to be retrieved rapidly from long-term memory or actively maintained in short-term working memory. Writers must toggle their attention between formulating their thoughts to be written and the transcriptional demands of actually recording these thoughts in written form, all the while inhibiting distractions from the environment.
Sequencing and Processing Speed
Writing also places heavy demands on both perceptual and motor sequencing. Writers must process their thoughts sequentially as they compose letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs that conform to the rules of any language. Applying language rules during writing—from recalling the correct sequence of letters within words, to recalling the proper order of words within sentences (such as, in English, nouns precede verbs and adjectives precede nouns), to building multiple paragraphs within a composition—also places particularly heavy demands on the writer’s sequencing abilities.
As the writer translates this mental process into a motor process of composing each word in a sentence, all preceding words in that sentence must be kept in working memory while words and sentences are strung into paragraphs. The writer needs to coordinate these cognitive tasks almost simultaneously, placing heavy demands on processing speed. The significance of processing speed is felt most heavily in the classroom, where students who cannot process rapidly enough are often times left behind.
What the Research Says
Because of the heavy cognitive demands that writing places on attention, sequencing, working memory, and processing speed, Robert T. Kellogg, a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University suggested (Kellogg, 2008) that explicit cognitive skills training programs—especially ones that emphasize deliberate practice—might prove particularly beneficial in improving student’s writing skills.
In two separate studies conducted by the author (Rogowsky, 2010; Rogowsky, Papamichalis, Villa, Heim, & Tallal, 2013) a significant improvement in students’ writing skills occurred after their participation in a computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training. In the first study, a pretest-posttest randomized field trial was conducted in a public middle school (Rogowsky, 2010). The study compared the writing skills of sixth-grade students who either did or did not receive individually adaptive, computer-based cognitive skills instruction (Fast ForWord) in conjunction with their standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum for one school marking period (45 days). The writing skills of students who received the cognitive training, in addition to the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum, improved significantly more than those who received the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum alone, with a large between-group difference.
In a second study, Fast ForWord training was shown to improve college students’ writing (Rogowsky et al., 2013). College students with poor writing skills participated in 11 weeks of computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training, and were compared to a group of college students from the general population of the same university. Results from this study showed the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training, but exceeded the writing skills of the comparison group after training. Although writing was not explicitly trained, the individually adaptive, computer-based training designed to improve foundational cognitive and linguistic skills generalized to improve writing skills in both middle school and college students.
What it Means for Writing Instruction
Based upon these two studies, there is clearly a link between writing and the foundational cognitive skills upon which writing exists. Learning to write is one of the most cognitively demanding academic activities a student must perform. It is not surprising that so many students struggle to perfect and improve their writing abilities throughout their academic years. In addition to the traditional writing methodologies, the future of writing instruction calls for the inclusion of cognitive skills training.
Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Swanson, H.L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin. S., Gould, L., Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word- and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, forth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, 179-193. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0002)
Berninger, V.W., Fuller, F., & Whitaker, D. (1996). A process model of writing development across the life span. Educational Psychology Review, 8(3), 193-218. doi: 10.1007/BF01464073
Kellogg, R.T. (2008).Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26. http://www.jowr.org/articles/vol1_1/JoWR_2008_vol1_nr1_Kellogg.pdf
Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R.T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2(2), 141-163. doi: 10.1023/A:1020851300668
Rogowsky, B.A. (2010). The impact of Fast ForWord® on sixth grade students’ use of Standard Edited American English. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3432348)
Rogowsky, B.A., Papamichalis, P., Villa, L., Heim, S., & Tallal, P. (2013). Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 137. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00137
Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2008). The processing demands of writing. In C.A. MacArthur S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (67-80). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
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