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How to improve student writing

November 16, 2015
Elizabeth Kahn and Thomas McCann

Elizabeth Kahn and Thomas McCann

With help from NIU students, Thomas McCann and Elizabeth Kahn, both NIU English professors specializing in teacher certification, say they have zeroed in on key strategies to improve high school student performance on writing assignments.

Previous research shows, McCann says, that students perform better on writing assignments when given several opportunities to prepare for that task through classroom discussion.

McCann and Kahn began investigating this topic when they were high school English teachers.

In 2006, they published their research with co-authors Larry R. Johannessen and Joseph M. Flanagan in a book titled, “Talking in Class: Using Discussion to Enhance Teaching and Learning,” which highlights the role of critical thinking and “authentic discussion” in improving reading and writing performance.

Authentic discussion encourages students to move beyond recounting facts to making meaningful contributions through supported arguments and counter-arguments – skills required in effective writing, too.

To set up their current study, McCann and Kahn surveyed local high school students to determine culturally relevant and newsworthy topics for case studies that interested them, such as whether schools should replace human teachers with robots or whether the doctor who contracted Ebola and recovered should return to work in Africa.

Using these responses, NIU students in teacher licensure developed classroom activities that required high school students to investigate and defend different perspectives about an issue in conversation and writing.

Photo of red pens on a stack of paperLocal high school teachers then tried out the activities. McCann and Kahn observed the conversations, analyzed student writing samples and reported results to their NIU students. This sequence gave NIU students first-hand experience with professional educational research.

High school “students were immersed in the discussion and facilitating it themselves, which suggests they are deeply invested in what they are talking about,” says McCann, who is one of this year’s recipients of NIU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Distinguished Alumni Awards.

The research by Kahn and McCann will help teachers to interpret the steps students use during conversation to prepare for writing and enable teachers to implement similar activities in the future.

Kahn is a former teacher and department chair at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. After 36 years of teaching, she sought a position where she could train aspiring English teachers. As a visiting assistant professor, she teaches research and methods courses in English Language Arts for undergraduate and graduate students at NIU.

McCann has taught at several local school districts and colleges over the past 25 years but most recently served as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205. His long-time interest in teaching English and mentoring new teachers directed his career path toward becoming a professor of teacher certification. As a professor at NIU, McCann teaches undergraduate and graduate composition and methods courses in the teacher licensure program.

by Lindsey Crane