Writing for Impact, by Tom Nicholson and Susan Dymock

Writing for Impact, by Tom Nicholson and Susan Dymock (Education)

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Teaching students to write for impact sets them up for success across many curriculum areas.

Tom Nicholson and Sue Dymock analysed research on teaching writing to identify the skills students need to write for impact. Their approach is based on a simple view of writing: it is ideas presented well. The two volumes of this book work together to explain and show  teachers how to teach students these essential writing skills. Nicholson and Dymock offer simple and effective strategies to improve both teaching and learning. The books include templates, plans, and links to videos that support these strategies.              

From: Writing for Impact, by Tom Nicholson and Susan Dymock

CHAPTER 1: Teach our children well

What this book is about

This book is about goal setting, making plans to write, the skills of writing—and the joys of writing, more or less in that sequence.

The practical value of this book

This book tackles an area of huge practical importance, namely the ability to communicate effectively in writing. The ability to write efficiently and effectively to say what you want to say with as much impact as possible is critical for the individual and society. This is because it is the most visible aspect of literacy. It represents and communicates to the world, even more than reading ability (which is less visible), your personality, identity, and potential to succeed (Morrisroe, 2014).

Employers assess written work harshly if the meaning is not clear, if it lacks coherence, and is poor in presentation. This can mean the difference between leaving school with a qualification or not, between being offered a position or not. Writing is a crucial skill in the digital age yet it is the most challenging curriculum area to teach in terms of meeting national curriculum expectations.

Is there really an issue with student writing?

There is if you have expectations and the national curriculum does expect students to reach certain levels of writing. Most students do reach these levels but many do not. Data on Year 4 and Year 8 students (National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement [NMSSA], 2013), show that in 2012, 30% of Year 4 students did not meet the expected curriculum benchmark of Level 2 and 65% of Year 8 students did not meet the expected Level 4 benchmark. The situation has not changed since 2012 (Ministry of Education, 2017).

In short, it appears nearly one in three students are struggling in Year 4 and two in three are struggling in Year 8. This does look like a problem. However, it is difficult to say whether this has anything to do with today’s teachers because such problems with writing may be longstanding. There are not many surveys of writing in previous decades to use as a comparison. What these NMSSA results probably are saying is that the demands of writing in the 21st century are such that students really do need a high proficiency level to cope with these demands and, for many students, they are not yet at that level.

How well prepared are teachers to teach writing? Parr and Jesson (2016) sent an online survey to a national sample of 316 schools, requesting Years 1-8 teachers to complete the writing survey. The response rate was low at 13% (41 schools, 118 teachers). The survey data showed that teachers were confident about their ability to teach writing. They reported using many complex teaching moves in writing instruction including deconstructing a text, modelling the writing process, building vocabulary, teaching sentence combining or grammar, punctuation, spelling, goal setting, ‘roving and assisting’, teaching planning strategies for writing, helping students to brainstorm ideas for writing, and providing feedback. The survey found that teachers spent at least 5 hours per week on writing activities. They also taught writing in an interactive way, working with small groups and with individuals. Thus, the puzzle is that we have a situation where teachers feel they are teaching well but many students are not achieving.

Professional resources available to schools from the Ministry of Education (Ministry of Education, 1996, 2004, 2005) suggest many of the strategies that we cover in this book. The writing approach is child-centred and pays more attention to process than product, though the resource Dancing with the Pen (Ministry of Education, 1996) also states that “the emphasis on the process does not mean that the product is unimportant—the aim of writing is always to produce something that can be read” (p. 7) and that the “teachers’ focus is on helping writers become aware of how and why they write, and on encouraging them to write freely, fluently, and well” (p. 7). Yet many students are not learning to write, so how do we make the case that we need better ways of teaching writing that have more impact than our current ways of teaching writing?

We think one reason for the puzzle is that when you are teaching, you see students responding and enjoying the lessons and they are happy with their writing but you do not ask yourself, “Is this level of writing capable of improvement? Should I aim higher for them?”

What comes through in the NMSSA (2013) survey is that many students understood the writing process but did not know how to organise the process or how to improve their work. Students may be interested and excited about writing and have something to say in their writing but they may not have a good understanding of how to structure their writing or be able to recognise what needs revising. Proficient writing is not something that happens in one draft. The first draft is the start. After that, the writer has to revise to make the best impact possible. Many students do not go past the first draft. They do not know what to do to make their writing better. Alternatively, they may not be able to organise what to say in a first draft, so they write nothing.

That is why in this book we focus very much on organising and managing writing, teaching students how to structure their writing, and to use organisational strategies to make sure that their work is cohesive and complete. We also explain use of self-regulation strategies to monitor their work and check they are achieving their goals. We will also attend to surface features of writing, not just the content but the way students present the content, the sentences they use, the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and handwriting. All these things are part of the bigger package of teaching writing.

An overview of the rest of the book

Chapter 2 on finding the best way of teaching writing

An innovative aspect of this book is Chapter 2 which summarises much of the research on the teaching of writing. It shows the effectiveness of 10 different writing strategies that have much research on them. Some approaches are more effective than are other strategies; for example, teaching about text structure is far more effective than teaching grammar. The technique that has made this comparison possible is meta-analysis. What a meta-analysis does is it surveys all the studies done on a particular way of teaching writing, calculates the effectiveness of each study, and then calculates average effectiveness across all the studies.

The studies included in a meta-analysis have to be well controlled. Usually, it means that the studies have to have an experimental group receiving the different writing approach and a control group that receives the usual classroom approach. This enables the researchers to compare the effect of the experimental approach with the effect of receiving normal writing instruction. It involves calculating how much difference in learning occurs due to the new approach. To do this they use a metric called effect size (ES). Hattie (2009) argues that by using ES, we are able to make the learning that occurs in the classroom more ‘visible’.

In Chapter 2, we explain ES in more detail but, put simply, some studies have small ES and others large ES. By comparing ES, we can see differences in effectiveness. The short message of the chapter is that some ways of teaching are more effective and ES shows which is which. This chapter has ES information on each approach so that the teacher can choose one or a combination of approaches that maximise teaching effectiveness (Gillespie & Graham, 2014; Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012; Graham & Perin, 2007; Hattie, 2009; Koster, Tribushinina, de Jong, & van den Bergh, 2015).

Chapter 3 on two approaches to writing

In this chapter, we first discuss the costs and benefits of making changes in your teaching of writing. The benefits are that students will write with more impact. Any change, however, has potential risk. School leaders, parents, and your students have to be on this journey with you. They need to know the new direction you will go in and be happy to try it.

We explain two options the teacher might want to consider to change their approach to writing. First, there is the READ-WRITE Inquiring School model (Calfee & Patrick, 1995). This approach focuses on the connections between reading and writing, encouraging the teacher to start with an exemplar text and use this as a springboard for writing. It wants to do more than this as well. It wants to teach students how to deconstruct published text, to understand the structure of the text, and learn the structure as a template to guide their own writing. It tries to demystify the writing process. Many young writers feel overwhelmed by the task of writing effectively. They do not see the structure in the writing of a published author or that the writer has used many strategies to produce their work. The READ-WRITE approach shows students how to deconstruct texts to see that they have a simple structure and that they can use this structure for their own writing.

The other approach in the chapter is Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD). SRSD uses many different strategies. Some strategies are the same as in the READ-WRITE approach. Some strategies are the same as in the process writing approach. It is very eclectic, using a wide range of strategies known to work. A point of difference from other approaches is that it teaches self-regulation skills; that is, setting goals and monitoring that you have achieved them. The goals can be many, including writing more words, using more powerful words, using more powerful sentences, or using text structure (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Saddler, 2002; Santangelo, Harris, & Graham, 2008; Troia, 2013). By setting goals and monitoring that they are completed, students can dramatically improve writing quality.

Chapters 4-6 on writing of narrative, information, and persuasive text

These chapters focus on explaining the structures that writers use to compose these texts. They also explain strategies for writing effectively. There are examples of different kinds of texts covered in each chapter. The book is supported by sample video lessons on the book’s website showing how to teach these different kinds of writing. Students can watch the videos in class and discuss them with the teacher. The book also has lesson plans for each chapter. There is one lesson plan at the end of the chapter as an example—but there are further downloadable plans on the book’s website: www.nzcer.org.nz/writing-for-impact.

Chapter 7 on assessing writing

One of the things that comes through in research on writing is the importance of assessment, especially if it is constructive and supportive to the writer. No matter what they say, negative assessment and feedback hurts writers. It is like an arrow to the brain and can be totally demoralising. Even the smallest of negative remarks, such as ‘improve your spelling,’ can hurt. It is much better to give advice on how to get better than simply to point out what is wrong. It helps the writer to make progress. The tough love approach to assessment is not much fun for the recipient and it does not work. Assessing student work should never be critical. It should give the student information on what to do next to improve their work. We look at the research on assessing writing and suggest some ways to improve how we give feedback to students about their writing.

Chapter 8 on vocabulary

Writing quality is associated with diverse and interesting vocabulary, using words that have ‘sparkle’, that lift the quality of the writing. In this chapter, we give ideas on how the teacher can encourage students to use words effectively; not simply rare words for the sake of it, but words that are right for that piece of text.

Chapter 9 on grammar and punctuation

These two topics go together because punctuation is about grammar. Punctuation marks represent grammatical forms. Poor punctuation has a negative effect on writing quality in that pieces of writing with mechanical errors like these are marked more harshly (Graham & Weintraub, 1996). At the end of Chapter 8, there are lesson examples to follow in teaching punctuation in the context of reading the exemplar stories that come with this book.

Grammatical errors can also affect the credibility of a piece of writing. Teaching about grammar has been ineffective in many studies (in Chapter 2, shows a negative ES) because it is often done in isolation from actual writing and students did not see any connection between the two activities. However, research suggests the teaching of grammar can be effective if it involves students in analysing real text material and the writing of other students (Feng & Powers, 2005). Students can improve their writing if they combine several sentences into a sentence that is more cohesive and informative (Saddler & Asaro-Saddler, 2010). In other words, strategies such as clarifying the meaning of unfamiliar words in the sentence, and using connectives such as ‘because’ to combine sentences will improve the quality of your writing. Teaching grammar not in isolation but in the context of writing can be helpful.

Chapters 10-13 on spelling

The ideal for the good writer is to have spelling skills automatised so that they require very little mental energy, so that the writer can focus on what to write (Graham & Santangelo, 2014). In the book, we have chapters on spelling because many students right up to Year 6 and into secondary school struggle with spelling. English spelling is much more systematic than is often thought, and students can make more sense of spelling when they know that the English language is not just one language but is a polyglot, which accounts for the complexity of spelling (Dymock & Nicholson, 2017).

Chapter 14 on handwriting and keyboarding

Although computer technology is ubiquitous, handwriting still takes up much of the school day (McMaster & Roberts, 2016). Written products that are hard to decipher are marked more harshly than those that are easily readable (Graham, Harris, & Hebert, 2011; Graham & Weintraub, 1996; Hoy, Egan, & Feder, 2011). Attention to handwriting as early as possible will produce legible writing (Graham & Harris, 2006; Santangelo & Graham, 2016) which is crucial for effective writing. We spend some time explaining the nature of basic script and cursive writing, and how best to teach these. We also suggest some resources for learning keyboarding.

Volume 2 - Lesson plans

Volume 2 of Writing for Impact provides you with everything you need to enable your students to write with impact:

15 practical lessons that teach narrative and non-fiction writing

54 practical lessons that teach the ‘Big 10’ spelling rules

18 reproducible stories and articles to give your students ideas for writing.

3 reproducible graphic organisers for planning writing

The Fiction and Non-Fiction Library and the lesson plans to go with them will prepare students to write and spell well through primary school and beyond.

Video resources

An innovative aspect of the book is that it is supported by a number of short video lessons showing how to teach writing based on research we have done (see www.nzcer.org.nz/writing-for-impact). We do not know of any other book on writing that has done this. There are videos on how to teach narrative writing, information text writing, and persuasive writing. The video also has an array of different spelling lessons to share with your class (and with parents). The aim of the videos is to give examples of writing and spelling lessons so that the teacher can see examples of instruction. Students and parents will find the videos helpful. We have made the videos so that they are fun. Teachers, students, and parents will be able to watch them and learn from them.

Feedback, research, and professional development

There are specialists who can advise you about teaching writing, especially RTLits and RTLBs. There will be knowledgeable teachers and leaders within your own school and in other schools, and they are sure to be of help. Not every school will want to do research on writing necessarily but we would love to help with this if you do. If your school would like to carry out an inquiry on something we have covered in the book or would simply like some mentoring, please send us an email. We can give help and encouragement and perhaps point out some of the fishhooks to look for in doing your own investigations. If you do carry out some research and have quantitative data, we can help you to analyse it and interpret it. If the results were interesting, we could publish them together. Let us know!

Please let us know your reactions to the book. We would love to hear from you.




The aim of the book is to show you how to teach writing in the classroom so that students will create better texts, more quickly. If your students use the strategies suggested, the quality of their writing will improve. The goal is to give students effective strategies for writing and confidence that they can write well. Writing is a process, and the journey is the best part.


Calfee, R. C., & Patrick, C. L. (1995). Teach our children well: Bringing K-12 education into the 21st century. Stanford, CA: Stanford Alumni.

Dymock, S., & Nicholson, T. (2017). To what extent does children’s spelling improve as a result of learning words with the look, say, cover, write, check, fix strategy compared with phonological spelling strategies? Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 22(2), 171-187.

Feng, S., & Powers, K. (2005). The short and long term effects of explicit grammar instruction on fifth graders’ writing. Reading Improvement, 42(2), 67-72.

Gillespie, A., & Graham, S. (2014). A meta-analysis of writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 80(4), 454-473.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2006). Preventing writing difficulties: Providing additional handwriting and spelling instruction to children in first grade. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(5), 64-66.

Graham, S., Harris, K., & Hebert, M. (2011). It is more than just the message: Presentation effects in scoring writing. Focus on Exceptional Children, 44(4), 1-12.

Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879-896.

Graham, S., & Perin, S. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools—A report to the Carnegie Corporation. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers: A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27, 1703-1743.

Graham, S., & Weintraub, N. (1996). A review of handwriting research: Progress and prospects 1980-1994. Educational Psychology Review, 8(1), 7-87.

Harris, K., Graham, S., Mason, L, & Saddler, B. (2002). Developing self-regulated writers. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 110-115.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Hoy, M., Egan, M. Y., & Feder, K. (2011). A systematic review of interventions to improve handwriting. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 78(1), 13-25.

Koster, M., Tribushinina, E., de Jong, P., & van den Bergh, H. (2015). Teaching children to write: A meta-analysis of writing intervention research. Journal of Writing Research, 7(2), 249-274.

McMaster, E., & Roberts, T. (2016). Handwriting in 2015: A main occupation for primary school-aged children in the classroom? Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, and Early Intervention, 9(1), 38-50.

Ministry of Education. (1996). Dancing with the pen: The learner as a writer. Wellington: Author.

Ministry of Education. (2004). Effective literacy practices in Years 1-4. Wellington: Author.

Ministry of Education. (2005). Effective literacy practices in Years 5-8. Wellington: Author.

Ministry of Education. (2017). Writing/Tuhituhi: Primary schooling. Wellington: Education Counts. Retrieved 23 March 2018, from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/indicators/main/education-and-learning-outcomes/writing-tuhituhi-primary-schooling

Morrisroe, J. (2014). Literacy changes lives: A new perspective on health, employment and crime. London: National Literacy Trust.

National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA). (2013). English: Writing 2012. Dunedin: Author.

Parr, J., & Jesson, R. (2016). Mapping the landscape of writing instruction in New Zealand primary classrooms. Reading and Writing, 29(b), 981-1011.

Saddler, B., & Asaro-Saddler, K. (2010). Writing better sentences: Sentence combining instruction in the classroom. Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 23-37.

Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016). A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 225-265.

Santangelo, T., Harris, K., & Graham, S. (2008). Using self-regulated strategy development to support students who have “trubol giting thangs into werds”. Remedial and Special Education, 29(2), 78-89.

Troia, G. A. (2013). Writing instruction within a response to intervention framework: Prospects and challenges for elementary and secondary classrooms. In S. Graham, S. A. MacArthur, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction (2nd ed., pp. 403-428). New York: Guilford Press.

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