From Drilling and Testing to Discovering and Thinking: Finding the Heart of Writing in School

By Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks

Arthur Applebee, a leading scholar in the field of writing instruction, shared some new research during his keynote at the Writing Research Across Borders III conference last week in Paris. Applebee and his colleagues have conducted two wide-scale studies — 30 years apart — about the state of writing instruction in middle and high schools in the United States.

We had hoped to hear better news.

The first study, “Writing in the secondary school: English and the content areas” (1981), revealed that most of the writing done in schools was very, well, what Anne Whitney would call “schoolish.” That is, writing for school requires fill-in-the blank answers and one-sentence responses, rarely deep and sustained times for drafting, response, and revision. In fact, only 3% of instructional time was spent on writing that involved tasks that asked students to construct a paragraph or more, and virtually all of this writing was done in English classes. Teachers spent an average of 3 minutes to give the assignment, with little or no instruction, and required the task to be completed for homework.

The 2013 study showed that writing instruction has changed, a little, in the last three decades. Based on data collected prior to the widespread adoption of the Common Core, Applebee noted several positive improvements:

  1. process approaches have increased;

  2. writing across the curriculum in math, science, and social studies has become more commonplace;

  3. the percentage of instructional time spent on tasks of at least a paragraph in length has increased to 8%; and

  4. teachers now provide a variety of instructional supports over a period of time as students complete more complex writing tasks.

Unfortunately, along with these positive improvements, external constraints (namely, standardized testing) have also increased – and these factors are dramatically affecting writing in schools. Applebee summarized four ways that testing shapes writing instruction:

  1. Tests influence decisions to include (or not) writing in the curriculum;

  2. Tests define the kinds of writing that are taught;

  3. Tests contribute to the replacement of in-depth explorations by on-demand prompts; and

  4. Tests influence whether writing is word processed or hand written.

He provided statistical evidence, which you can find in Writing Instruction That Works (2013), that the length of writing tasks assigned (and rated as important by teachers) correlates to the types of writing required on state exams. In short, the vision of writing that Applebee shared at the conference shows us that drilling and testing are the most common uses for writing in school. This kind of writing is not authentic.

Picture of a pencil lying on top of a test answer sheet with bubble in answer options. One of the questions has test as the options instead of the traditional ABCDE

Applebee’s presentation raised many concerns for us. Here are a few to consider.


Most writing in school is utilitarian.

Most writing in school is done only for the purpose of schooling, meant to fulfill the requirements of an assignment. We wonder, if writing doesn’t leave room for “construction of meaning,” is it really writing? If students do not have the opportunity to truly explore what they think, to develop their ability to communicate with a real audience, and to consider purpose and context in their composing, we think it isn’t. And we are concerned that Applebee’s newest data indicates we haven’t come far enough in 30 years in seeing writing as thinking or of writing as a process of discovery. We need to emphasize these authentic elements of writing in school.


Testing limits how we teach writing.

Applebee shared the words of teachers who have admittedly been influenced by pressures to prepare students for tests. For example, one teacher said that she no longer assigns a research paper because it is “too time intensive,” and another said that exams “have made me get rid of writing” in order to focus on what is tested. His talk reminded us that it is, unfortunately, external threats to teachers and schools that informs instruction, and his data suggests (like that of George Hillocks ten years ago) that high stakes tests are a threat that is negatively impacting the instruction of writing. In short, the high stakes exams that have been (and continue to be) introduced into K-12 education are killing inquiry and limiting the kinds of writing that students experience.


Testing permeates teacher education and how teachers learn to teach writing.

When we combine this knowledge of the effects of high stakes testing on K-12 classrooms with the understanding that the edTPA (the new teacher-certification test that is being adopted by states throughout the country) does not address the teaching of writing for secondary teachers, we become even more concerned about the state of writing instruction in middle and high schools. If teachers are not trained deeply to teach writing, which may result from the focus of the teacher-exams, then we are certain that writing instruction will be limited to the kinds of writing that are required on tests. And these kinds of writing tasks rarely require students to think deeply.


Students can pass exams without being able to write at all.

When Applebee asserted, “You can pass all of these exams without being able to write at all,” both of us slumped in our seats. As mentioned above, George Hillocks made this argument over a decade ago, and yet it seems as though the problem has gotten worse. Anne Gere explained how students can easily pass tests in an interview on NPR (October 26, 2013): “Because when you’re writing in only 25 minutes, you don’t have time to develop a clear, complex idea. You don’t have time to think about an audience. It makes students think of writing in the most simplistic, reductive ways.” In short, if we teach them the formulas to complete the exams, students can pass – but passing scores do not actually mean that students can write, especially if we understand that writing is about thinking and connecting with an authentic audience, not just a formulaic response.


The reform movement has reinforced inequalities.

The data that Applebee and his team analyzed came from a variety of districts that included both “poor” and “rich” schools, and it led Applebee to claim, “The changes [the reform movement] has introduced are reinforcing inequities.” As his research team looked at the instructional practices related to writing, the goal of raising writing’s importance in curriculum and instruction has, in fact, been undermined by testing. Poorer districts focus strictly on items tested, the types of “schoolish” writing tasks we noted above. Richer districts incorporate test content into a richer curriculum. Sadly, this is not a surprise, as Alfie Kohn has noted for years, and Diane Ravitch has more recently backed with a historical analysis of trends in test scores and student performance. In other words, the new focus on writing in the Common Core could, inadvertently, create even wider disparities in the ways that writing is taught. This revelation of Applebee’s study is, perhaps, the most troubling to us as we consider issues of social justice in education.


So, what can we do?

Classrooms may look a little different between the 1981 and 2013 studies — especially the classrooms that have some access to laptops or iPads — but the results are disturbingly the same. Applebee summed up his speech simply by stating, “There is a great deal more work for us to do.”

So, what can we do? As concerned parents, teachers of writing, and citizens, we have a few ideas about how to refocus our attention on individual writers — our sons, daughters, and students — and to shift away from a limited view on just “schoolish” writing. We need to refocus on writers, not just writing.

First, as parents, talk with your child’s teacher about his/her writing curriculum and daily practices. When and how are students writing? For what purposes? How can you become involved in responding as a reader to your child’s (and classmates’) work? Also, ask your children to see their writing and have them read it aloud with you. Ask questions such as:

  • Can you tell me what you are working on here?

  • What do you like most about your writing? Why?

  • What could you do to revise this piece of writing? What other details might you add? What do you think your reader might like to know?

  • What will you be writing next? What would you like to write next?

You can find more ideas for inspiring your young writer at home in Cathy Fleischer’s blog post.

As teachers of writing and as teacher educators, we suggest that we, as Kristen has argued before, “fight the fear of failure.” We cannot allow the Common Core — and the tests associated with it — to alter what we know and believe about the teaching of writing. We know that there are many examples of teachers pushing back and holding on to authentic writing instruction. Here are a few ideas that you might consider:

  • Incorporate 20% time or Genius Hour so that at least once a week students read and write about their own passions and inquiries.

  • Connect with real readers (via blogs, social networks, Twitter, other classes) outside the classroom to give students an authentic audience.

  • Find resources via the National Writing Project or Digital Is to help design tasks that provide authentic contexts.

Finally, there is a growing backlash against standardized testing as a whole, including the ways that students are asked to write. This movement generally falls under the umbrella of United Opt Out, though individual states have various parent groups and other organizations that are working on ways to reduce or eliminate standardized testing. A new documentary, Standardized—Lies, Money, & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education, is now showing across the country (trailer via YouTube). Given the new laws on teacher evaluation and the elimination of tenure, we understand that it is crucial for parents to take the lead on this movement from outside of school, rather than teachers from inside.

However, we think a united front is in the best interest of our children. So parents, talk with teachers and administrators in your child’s district. Teachers, reach out to parents to let them know how external pressures are affecting what you do in the classroom. Work together to resist the effects of testing and corporate reform of public education. This is the work that we have yet to do, as Applebee indicated in his talk.

It is through this work that we will be able to realize positive instructional change: making thinking and discovery, not passing a test, the heart of writing classrooms everywhere.


Kristen Hawley Turner (@MrsT73199) is an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University. A former high school English and social studies teacher, she directs the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative. She is also the mother of 6-year-old twins, and she blogs about her multiple roles in life at Twin Life: Having It All.

Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is associate professor of English at Central Michigan University. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. He directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project.

Some of the language from this post comes from Troy’s notes on Applebee’s presentation, as well as our tweets from the #wrab conference. We are also grateful to Arthur Applebee for sharing his slides with us so that we could compile this post.


8 thoughts on “From Drilling and Testing to Discovering and Thinking: Finding the Heart of Writing in School

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the State of Writing Instruction | Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

    • Thanks, Harry, for the link. Are there any examples of writing assignments on the Purdue OWL website that you think are particularly useful?

  2. The importance of writing is one reason I am very much *against* iPads in school; you just can’t type anything substantial on a virtual keyboard. When authors start writing their novels on devices without real keyboards, then we can talk about iPads, etc. (Not that there’s anything wrong with writing by hand, but long-form writing usually isn’t.)

    • Thanks, J.M. for your thoughts here.

      As a writer yourself, I am curious to know more about your stance on using iPads in particular. With Bluetooth enabled keyboards as well as speech-to-text capabilities, I have found that my own children have been able to use iPads as a smart tool for composing written text. In addition, the iPad can open up other possibilities for multimodal composing as well.

      Is your concern mostly with the limited amount of real estate that a virtual keyboard allows (it seems to be, as your suggest most long-form writing is done via computer)? Or, do you have other concerns about using the iPad as a writing tool?


  3. This information is important (and disturbing) on so many levels. As a member of a writing center at a university, the writing instruction students are receiving prior to enrolling in college is important because it directly impacts their success or the support they will need from places like a writing center. I often lament the lack of writing skills at the undergraduate or even graduate level, but in the light of the lack of emphasis on writing instruction many students are experience in middle and high school, it is easier to understand.

  4. Pingback: Resisting High Stakes Testing: Advocating for our Students and Children by “Opting Out” | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  5. This post succinctly lays out the negative impact that standardized testing has on student writing and proposes some practical ways to counter these unfortunate challenges. I’m saving this piece in Evernote to share with my methods students next fall.

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