Want Students to Succeed in College? Teach Them to Write in K-12

June 2, 2014

A new nonprofit has the potential to profoundly improve educational outcomes —including college completion— for low-income students. Called The Writing Revolution, the organization exists for one simple and powerful purpose:  to teach K-12 children to think and write clearly.  

Teaching kids to write seems like a universal goal of our educational system. Yet it is not being met. Millions of students are graduating from high school lacking this fundamental skill.

In fact, 3 out of 4 U.S. high school seniors cannot write coherent sentences or paragraphs, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). More specifically, NAEP results show that only 24 percent of 12th graders demonstrate “the ability to accomplish the communicative purpose of their writing.”

The fact that 76 percent of our high school seniors cannot effectively communicate in writing is inextricably linked to our nation’s abysmally low college readiness and completion rates.

In 2013, the ACT foundthat 74 percent of U.S. high school students did not know the bare minimum they needed to pass college courses in English, reading, math, and science. Statistics from the College Board echo this, finding that less than half of SAT-takers hit the benchmarks necessary to succeed in college.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that3 out of 5 entering college freshmen must take remedial courses before they can start earning credits toward a degree. Between 20 and 30 percent of students enter college needing remediation in English, according to estimates. Time spent in remedial education is closely associated with college attrition. Students in remedial classes lose valuable time and spend tuition dollars not earning credits, and as a result often feel like they are spinning their wheels and lose motivation.  

Whether you look at NAEP, ACT, or SAT scores, or the percentage of students entering college needing remedial help, students from low-income families fare far worse than their higher income counterparts.  The achievement gap between high and low-income students has its roots in the well-documented literacy and linguistic skills gap that exists between these two groups.

Closing the Achievement Gap Means Closing the Literacy Gap

The Writing Revolution is already closing the literacy skills gap by training K-12 teachers in a specific method of writing instruction called the Hochman Method.

The Hochman Method has been used in hundreds of classrooms over the past few decades. The method helps teachers and their students better grasp how words and phrases go together to create well-formed, logical thoughts -- thoughts that can be used to explain, analyze, and summarize information.

Beyond offering an easily understood breakdown of how written language "works," the Hochman method is incredibly adaptable across K-12 grade levels, learning abilities, and course content.  

In every academic subject, students must process information and respond to questions with answers. These interactions happen in sentences, whether we write them or speak them. The Hochman Method harnesses the power of the sentence --whether written or spoken -- as the basic unit of instructional interaction.  

Through constant practice across subjects -- whether during story time, science lab or social studies class-- the Hochman Method trains teachers and students to choose their words wisely.  

This sounds abstract, but what it means inside an actual classroom is that students learn that what words they use matter, and so does the order in which they use them.  With enough practice, virtually every student who uses Hochman’s method gets better at turning words into meaningful sentences. Students then learn to use conjunctions and clauses to expand those sentences and make them more information-rich.

Over time students learn to combine these information-rich sentences into paragraphs, and their paragraphs into essays.  In that process, students learn to recognize what information is most salient to an argument, to take effective notes on what they hear and read, and to create complex outlines of their ideas.  The Hochman Method enables students to constantly hone skills that are extremely relevant to academic success in K-12 and in college classrooms.

Transforming the Classroom

The Writing Revolution was founded by Judith Hochman, first and foremost a classroom teacher whose experience spans decades.  For a long time, Hochman was head of the Windward School in White Plains, New York, a well-respected school for students with learning disabilities. She also was superintendent of the Greenburgh Graham Union Free School District in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a day and residential public school district serving students age 5 to 21 with behavioral, emotional and learning disabilities. Hochman's method was extremely effective in helping students at these schools learn to read and write, in many cases even better than their peers without any disabilities. 

Hochman had a strong hunch that the same things that made her method so effective for learning-disabled students could also help students from lower-income families. Both groups often lack the rich linguistic skills needed to inform their written expression. As such, both groups can benefit immensely from consistent and structured exposure to the building blocks of language use.  

As chronicled in a 2012 Atlantic article, Hochman's hunch was put to the test in 2008, when New Dorp High School in Staten Island, New York, began to use her writing instruction strategies across every subject and grade level.  New Dorp, which serves many low-income students, was underperforming at the time.

The effect on New Dorp was dramatic. Between 2008 and 2011, New Dorp's passing rate for the New York State English Language Regents rose from 67 to 89 percent. The number of students enrolling in college-level courses grew by 178 percent, and the school's graduation rate grew from 64 to 79 percent. New Dorp continues to use the program today. Its national reputation as a model school is growing. For the first time in the school's history, its students are entering, and winning, national writing competitions.

As a nonprofit organization, The Writing Revolution seeks to create as many New Dorps as possible.  The organization is already bringing its techniques to Washington, DC's troubled public schools.  Last summer Hochman and master trainers from The Writing Revolution trained teachers in 4 public schools in the DC district to pilot the Hochman Method in the 2013-2014 school year. Based on the results these schools have seen this year, the district made the decision to expand to 6 additional public schools in 2014-2015.

A teacher at one of the DC schools participating in the pilot says that bringing the Hochman program to her school has “transformed” the way she and her colleagues think about literacy instruction and “profoundly impacted” their implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Anyone who has spent time in classrooms knows that educators do not use words like “transform” and “profound impact” lightly.

The teacher has further praise for the results of the program:

“Before piloting the Hochman program, we recognized the importance of writing instruction, but we did not have a clear sense of which path to follow.  Where do you even begin?  With the Hochman approach, we are taking the direct route to transform our students into independent thinkers and writers…“

A teacher from a different DC uses the word “transform” as well, explaining:

"The emphasis on strong sentence creation -- expanding sentences, using appositives, creating complex sentences -- has transformed my students' writing. ... The Hochman Method is more than a writing program -- it's a way to increase students' critical thinking skills and realize how pieces of a puzzle fit together.”

The Writing Revolution is gaining momentum.  David Coleman, president of the College Board and author of the CCSS, is on the organization's board of advisors. Esther Klein Friedman, executive director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services for the New York City Department of Education, is another board member.

But the most compelling reason to back The Writing Revolution lies in the stories of students themselves.

From 4th Grade Reading Level to College Success

The Atlantic articleabout New Dorp (written by Peg Tyre, another national education expert and also a Writing Revolution board member), tells the story of Monica DiBella, a student from a low-income family who entered high school reading at a 4th-grade level. Monica told Tyre that before being taught using the Hochman Method she “wasn’t really about writing” and “couldn’t even write a paragraph.”

Monica’s teachers told Tyre that before they started using the Hochman Method they had not expected Monica to graduate from high school.

Tyre explains that, after 2 years of instruction in the Hochman Method, Monica "began writing clear essays, which enabled her to excel in her coursework and also to pass her statewide exams. After three years, her speaking grew more complex and her reading comprehension improved as well.”  

At that point, “Monica started to wonder for the very first time if college might be in her future."  Monica told Tyre that the explicit writing instruction using the Hochman Method taught her “what words were important.”  

She also very pointedly asked:  “How are you supposed to know how to write unless someone teaches you?  My only question is—why don’t all students get this?” 

Monica just successfully completed her freshmen year in college. I spoke with one of her former New Dorp teachers recently. The teacher proudly told me the grade Monica earned in the college writing course she took this past semester: B+.

Jen W
Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization, and the co-founder of First to Finish College, a joint project of Demos and SparkAction. She is a first-generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. FTFC logo


This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction.

Jennifer Wheary





great article. Thanks so much. Wish more people realized that the achievement gap is really a literacy gap.

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