A young author reads a story he wrote about his family’s Fourth of July cookout. His lively narration fills the classroom with the sound of fireworks. When he finishes, his classmates offer feedback, mostly praise.
The students were assigned to write narratives describing a memorable meal. To complete the assignment, they used the training they received from a program called the Writers’ Express (WEX), which takes students step by step through the writing process and helps them develop the skills they need to become good writers.
WEX teaches students in grades 3–12 to write in such genres as personal narrative, response to literature, short stories, and informational writing. EDC is conducting a research study of WEX to learn whether the WEX program—including its curriculum, materials, instructional practices, and embedded professional development—is effective for students in elementary schools. EDC’s study centers on fourth graders in approximately 50 Massachusetts schools that are randomly assigned as either WEX or status quo schools. In WEX schools, teachers use the program’s curriculum and materials, and both teachers and administers receive professional development. Teachers in the status quo schools implement their usual writing curricula.
“For years, there has been a large focus on improving student reading, but little has been done on writing,” explains EDC’s Andrea Winokur Kotula. “We are determining how well WEX works. Other studies of the program have been done, and the results look promising, but we will give it a rigorous look.”
According to WEX, the program was used by 40,000 students across the country last year. In addition to learning about subjects such as topic development and editing, the students receive instruction on more technical aspects of writing, such as punctuation and subject-verb agreement. The program also provides teachers and school administrators with professional development opportunities through workshops and coaching.
For EDC’s study, the performance of students taking part in WEX will be tracked over two years and compared to that of students who did not use the program. Students’ performance will primarily be measured by using results from the writing portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), an annual exam given to fourth graders in the state.
“We chose to study fourth graders in order to catch any problems as early as possible,” says Kotula. “Fourth grade is also the first year that the MCAS administers a writing test, and we wanted to measure the program using the state assessment.”
EDC will administer a series of surveys to measure students’ and educators’ attitudes of and knowledge about writing, and will also monitor student growth by collecting three writing samples during the course of the year. The research team will follow the students through fifth grade to study how well they retain the skills they learned in WEX.
The team is also recruiting additional schools for next year. In addition, half of the fifth-grade teachers—in both the WEX and status quo schools—will be trained so that they can provide the program to their students.
EDC’s research study of WEX is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Preliminary results are expected in summer 2011.
Originally published on January 24, 2011