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UCI aims to help middle and high school students’ writing through new center

UCI aims to help middle and high school students’ writing through new center
UCI professor Carol Booth Olson says the new WRITE Center’s goal is “bringing together teachers, researchers, policymakers all to one place where they can see the latest ... in what we know about how to improve the writing of the secondary students across the nation.” (Steve Zylius / UC Irvine)

It’s spelled “b-e-c-a-u-s-e” instead of “c-u-z" and “b-e-f-o-r-e" rather than “b-4.”

Every claim should be supported with evidence. And not all authorities are good authorities to cite.

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Those are some of the lessons that teachers in Tustin will be relaying to their students using strategies from a new writing research and development center at UC Irvine — the first of its kind in the country, according to the university.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences recently awarded UCI a $5-million grant over five years to create the Writing Research to Improve Teaching and Evaluation Center for Secondary Students, or WRITE Center.

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The grant is geared toward improving the written arguments of middle and high school students, which center director Carol Booth Olson said have slipped significantly over time.

“If we want our students to succeed academically, become college-bound or … go into careers — even technical careers — they’re going to need really strong writing skills,” said Olson, a UCI professor of education. “And most of the evidence that we have is that students just simply aren’t prepared.”

According to a 2011 study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 27% of students surveyed in eighth and 12th grades scored “proficient” or better on writing. About 80% of those surveyed wrote at or above the “basic” level.

The WRITE Center will first run an exploratory research project analyzing thousands of writing samples from students in Tustin and from classrooms where teachers have received training from other UCI writing projects. Researchers will analyze middle and high school students’ writing to identify problems and note successes that provide evidence of effective teaching strategies.

“The hope is we learn from this and contribute to our scientific understanding of what makes good writing possible,” said Elizabeth Albro, commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences.

The WRITE Center will take results from the study to design a professional development pilot program to give to middle school science and high school history teachers in Tustin.

Olson said recent Common Core standards have emphasized the need for strong literacy and argumentative writing across several subjects, not just English language arts. But teachers need specific training for how to improve students’ writing, she said.

“There’s not a lot of preparation for teachers of other subject areas to be real strong teachers of reading and writing,” Olson said. “They see themselves as primarily delivering the content. And also, teaching writing is very labor-intensive. It’s kind of hard to get people to step up to the plate and ask kids to do a lot of extensive writing.”

While the WRITE Center is researching and designing its pilot program, it also will develop a website with webinars and other resources on writing education research.

“The goal of this is ... bringing together teachers, researchers, policymakers all to one place where they can see the latest, most cutting edge in what we know about how to improve the writing of the secondary students across the nation,” Olson said.

UCI has sought to improve students’ writing through teacher training with other programs, including the National Writing Project, an organization with nearly 200 sites across the country offering professional development for teachers.

Trevor Hershberger, who teaches English literature and composition classes to sophomores, juniors and seniors at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, participated in a summer institute with UCI’s chapter of the National Writing Project.

He said he learned various strategies that have translated into the classroom, such as an exercise called “writing into the day.” Every day, students began class by reading about a specific stance on a subject, from social justice issues to space-related topics. By the end of the week, they had a variety of perspectives to support a written or an oral argument.

“It was kind of a cool way to develop some habits of mind, to retrain students to think about argument in a new way,” Hershberger said.

Other strategies he learned during the training helped him teach students to evaluate the credibility of their sources. When he started, only one student had done the “authorizing move” of discussing the relevance of a source. Three months later, 95% of his students had adopted the practice in their writing, he said.

Teaching young people to write well is crucial for developing a generation of critical thinkers, Olson said.

“Writing is a vehicle for thinking. Like E.M. Forster once said, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’

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“Writing is a way to not only express what you know, but it’s actually a way to think out loud on paper,” Olson added. “If you can’t express yourself well, you’re probably also not a very clear or critical thinker.”

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