Writing to Teach: A Need Assessment

Today’s teachers are confronted with student populations that are increasingly diverse and a dizzying array of demands and challenges: academic content standards and English language proficiency (ELP) standards, achievement tests, and classrooms of students with different backgrounds and needs. Among the challenges for teachers across the disciplines is the need to instruct students on the rules of grammar and writing conventions.  

While it is important for all teachers to have a strong grasp of English language skills, it is essential for English language development (ELD) teachers to have a strong grasp of language skills because they are charged specifically with teaching English language learners, a growing population among American students. ELD teachers use the English language in modeling English for students, providing direct instruction on English to them, and communicating in English with parents and others. As such, it is critical that ELD teachers have the grammatical knowledge and writing skills in order to provide appropriate instruction to their students. Arguably, ELD teachers have demonstrated their competency to teach English language skills through successful completion of a baccalaureate degree, a teacher certification program, and specialized professional workshops and seminars. Click here to read our full research project description.

Since teacher preparation programs are designed specifically to help prospective teachers develop and master the competencies, including writing competencies, they will need in order to function effectively in the instructional setting, it is tempting to accept completion of such programs as evidence of mastery. However, as Fillmore and Snow (2000, p. 3) emphasize, “teacher preparation programs often do not make time for substantial attention to crucial matters, …” Fillmore and Snow argue persuasively that ELD teachers in particular would benefit from additional preparation in educational linguistics. They point to oral and written language topics about which they argue teachers should be conversant.  Included in their listing are topics such as English spelling rules, structuring narrative and expository writing, judging the quality and correctness of a writing product, and the limitations of a readability index approach to understand the comprehensibility of texts. Fillmore and Snow (2000, p. 29) say: “Partly because teachers feel insecure about their own knowledge of grammar, and partly because teachers of writing are sometimes reluctant to correct students’ writing, students may not get the kind of information feedback they must have in order to become more effective writers.” 

This observation led us to ask several questions: How well do ELD teachers grasp grammar rules and writing conventions, skills critical to their teaching mission? Are ELD teachers’ perceptions of their writing knowledge and skills consistent with their demonstrated performance? What areas of grammar and writing conventions do ELD teachers think are most important? To what extent are these areas aligned with grammar and writing conventions that ELD teachers are most insecure about? This study is designed to address these questions and examine the state of ELD teacher writing knowledge and use. Initially, the research will focus on ELD teachers at the middle school level—grades 6-8.

Research Plan 

As part of an inquiry-based descriptive research study, the researchers have developed a comprehensive research plan aimed at: 1) describing the specific grammar and writing conventions ELD teachers must teach their students in grades 6-8; and 2) identifying the ELD teachers’ knowledge of these grammar and writing conventions. As part of the literature search, the researchers will investigate the extent to which other work has been done in this area. 

At the outset, the researchers will conduct a literature review to identify research and data sources related to grammar and writing conventions ELD teachers are responsible for teaching their students and the extent to which these teachers have demonstrated mastery of these language skills. Attention also will be given to data that links teaching success in these areas with student outcomes.  As part of the literature review, researchers will look at grammar/linguistics courses included in TESOL  graduate programs, grammar support services, and grammar materials available for teachers. In addition, the researchers will organize a research team comprised of ELD teachers, language acquisition/second language experts, psychometricians, and other educators with strong experience in grammar, writing, and education issues. The researchers anticipate that the research study will focus on the following five research strands: 

Strand 1: Analysis of selected state ELP and academic content standards related to grammar and writing conventions. This research will focus on the types of language learning and content area objectives students are expected to achieve with regard to grammar and writing conventions. In this strand, researchers will analyze state and national ELP standards, as well as state content standards (e.g., language arts/reading, science, math, and social studies) for grades 6-8 in 11 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. 

Strand 2: Analysis of ELD teacher perceptions of their expertise in grammar and writing conventions.  The researchers will create and administer a survey to ELD teachers, which is designed to identify teacher perceptions of their expertise in grammar and writing conventions in terms of content knowledge and in their ability to relay this knowledge to students. 

Strand 3: Analysis of ELD teacher writing samples. The researchers will analyze examples of ELD teachers’ writing, including written notes to parents, written instructions to students, and other samples of real-life writing ELD teachers produce in the academic context. 

Strand 4: Analysis of the results of ELD teacher knowledge of grammar and writing conventions as reflected on a writing proficiency test. The researchers will identify or create a writing proficiency test and administer it to ELD teachers. Subsequently, they will analyze the results and compare them with the results of the survey of teacher perceptions of their expertise in grammar and writing conventions. Researchers intend to involve the same teachers in Strands 2-4 and then to link the data.  

Strand 5: Analysis of data from ELD teacher focus groups. The researchers will conduct focus groups with ELD teachers to cross-validate the results of the other four strands of research and fill in any gaps. 
The researchers will analyze the data from the five strands of research as the basis for the research report and recommendations.