Achieving Equity in School Writing

Causes and Cures for Opportunity and Achievement Gaps in a Key Twenty-First Century Skill

by Paul Deane (Author)
©2023 Monographs XIV, 174 Pages


Writing is a critical skill people need to survive and prosper in the modern economy. But most people fail to become competent writers. Those who succeed (at least, in English-speaking countries) are predominantly White, upper middle class, and female. These achievement gaps are primarily the result of opportunity gaps – in other words, they represent the failure of our educational systems to provide equitable instruction. This book examines why so many students fall behind and analyzes what teachers and schools can do to help them succeed. It is for anyone who wants to know, in detail, what modern educational research tells us about the causes and cures for writing achievement gaps, and presents a theory of action designed to help educators and policymakers understand what needs to happen if all students are to become competent writers. Educational statistics demonstrate an ongoing tragedy, in which boys, students from poor families, and members of minority groups are often discouraged, provided substandard education, and then treated as failures. However, there is no magic bullet. Equitable writing instruction happens when schools motivate all students to excel, provide them the knowledge they need to succeed, give them time and space to think and to write, teach them effective strategies to manage their work, and make sure that they master foundational reading and writing skills.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Lists of Figures
  • Lists of Tables
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Why Writing is Hard
  • The Cognitive Complexity of Writing
  • The Sociocultural Complexity of Writing
  • The Complexity of Learning to Write
  • Chapter Two Writing as Purposeful Action: Motivation for Writing as Cause and Effect
  • Overview
  • Group Differences Mediated by Motivation
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Beliefs and Attitudes
  • Goal Orientation
  • Cost/Benefit Analysis
  • Chapter Three Writing as Self-Regulation: The Mediating Roles of Reading Fluency and Working Memory
  • Overview
  • Group Differences Mediated by (Re)reading
  • Group Differences Mediated by Attention and Working Memory
  • Group Differences in Working Memory Associated with Gender
  • Group Differences in Working Memory Associated with Race and Socioeconomic Status
  • Chapter Four Writing as the Formulation of Ideas: The Mediating Effects of Prior Content Knowledge
  • Overview
  • Group Differences Mediated by Prior Content Knowledge
  • Gender Differences in Prior Content Knowledge
  • Socioeconomic and Cultural Differences in Prior Content Knowledge
  • Chapter Five Writing as Verbal Self-Expression: The Causal Role of Oral Language Skills
  • Group Differences Mediated by Oral Language Skills
  • Gender-Based Similarities and Differences in Oral Language Skills
  • Differences in Writing Achievement Mediated by the Stigmatization of Dialect Features and the Cost of Code-Switching
  • Differences in Writing Achievement Mediated by Second Language Status
  • Differences in Writing Achievement Mediated by Socioeconomic Differences in Linguistic Knowledge
  • Chapter Six Writing as Getting Words on the Page: The Effects of Transcription Skills on Writing Development
  • Overview
  • Handwriting Fluency
  • Spelling and Other Orthographic Skills
  • Keyboarding Fluency
  • Group Differences Mediated by Transcription Skills
  • Group Differences in Handwriting
  • Group Differences in Spelling
  • Group Differences in Keyboarding
  • Chapter Seven How to Achieve Equity in School Writing
  • Improve Writing Motivation
  • Provide Real Audiences and Authentic Purposes for Writing
  • Make Writing Social and Collaborative
  • Encourage Students to Adopt Mastery Goals
  • Provide Supportive Feedback
  • Give Students Greater Agency and Choice of Writing Topics
  • Welcome Linguistic and Cultural Diversity
  • Improve Writing Self-Regulation
  • Develop Deeper Knowledge about Writing and Writing Strategies
  • Provide Models to Emulate
  • Explicitly Teach Students How to Write in Multiple Genres and Disciplines
  • Improve Idea Generation by Making Time for Prewriting
  • Develop Deeper Content Knowledge
  • Implement Writing to Learn
  • Incorporate Inquiry Learning into Writing Tasks
  • Increase Effective Working Memory Capacity
  • Provide Frequent Opportunities to Practice Writing
  • Support Process Writing
  • Support Alternate Input Formats
  • Strengthen Language Skills
  • Increase Vocabulary Knowledge
  • Develop Syntactic Flexibility
  • Develop Code-Switching and Code-Meshing Abilities
  • Cultivate Metalinguistic Awareness
  • Improve Transcription Skills
  • Improve Reading Skills
  • Conclusion
  • Index


This book started its life as part of a research project led by Randy E. Bennett at ETS, focusing on causes and cures for group differences in educational outcomes and benefited greatly from his leadership and advice. I would particularly like to acknowledge the generous contributions made by Norbert Elliott, who read and provided detailed commentary on an early version of the manuscript. Any gaps or inaccuracies are, of course, entirely my responsibility.

Lists of Tables

Table 1.1Classification of writing processes by activity type and mode of cognitive representation

Table 2.1Causal Mechanisms Associated with Writing Motivation

Table 3.1Causal Mechanisms Associated with Working Memory

Table 4.1Causal Mechanisms Associated with Group Differences in Content Knowledge

Table 5.1Causal Mechanisms Associated with Group Differences in Working Memory

Table 6.1Causal Mechanisms Associated with Group Differences in Transcription Skills


Writing is important.

Writing is hard.

Which means that skilled writers have an advantage in school, on the job market, and in their chosen professions.

Writing is a critical 21st-century skill (Yancey, 2009; Perin, 2013). The ability to write well is a crucial in a variety of professional roles (College Board, 2004; Rios, Ling, Pugh, Becker, & Macall, 2020). In college applications, students commonly submit admissions essays. When candidates apply for professional positions, they typically provide application letters. resumes, and often, professional writing samples. On the job, they will draft emails and memoranda, write reports, and create other written products. In short, writing can smooth or hinder entry into the upper tiers of American society.

This fact makes writing an important educational goal. In a democratic society, all citizens should be able to learn the skills they need. And yet many students are not making adequate progress in writing. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides a snapshot of U.S. student performance. On the 2011 NAEP writing assessment, only 24 % of students were classified as “Proficient”, and 3 % as “Advanced”, in either 8th or 12th grade. The rest demonstrated at best partial mastery of the writing skills expected at their level (NCES, 2012).1 In fact, much of the U.S. population (even graduates from 2- and 4-year colleges) appear to enter the workforce inadequately prepared as writers (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006; Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto, & Sum, 2007; Stewart, Wall, & Marciniec, 2016).

Evidence of Group Differences in Writing Achievement

However, some student groups demonstrate lower levels of writing proficiency than others. In the 2011 NAEP writing assessment, very few students achieved proficient or advanced standing if their families had low socioeconomic status (SES). For instance, in 8th grade, only 12 % of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch scored as proficient or advanced, versus 37 % of the remaining population. This gap—about 30 points on the NAEP scale—is almost one full standard deviation below the mean for the higher-scoring group.

Similar effects can be observed for racial and ethnic groups likely to be poor or suffer from discrimination.2 Compared to the White population, Black and Hispanic students had lower mean NAEP writing scores. In 8th grade, there was a 26-point gap between White and Black students and a 22-point gap between White and Hispanic students. In 12th-grade, there was a 29-point gap between White and Black students, and a 25-point gap between White and Hispanic students. While some groups (in particular, Asian and multiracial students) performed comparabaly with White students, the general pattern was for students from minority groups to demonstrate lower performance on NAEP writing. This pattern develops early and persists. Many students from disadvantaged groups fall steadily behind not only in writing but in other academic subjects (Kuhlfeld, Gershoff, & Paschall, 2018).


XIV, 174
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (September)
Writing equity pedagogy assessment achievement gaps gender race ethnicity socioeconomic status SES Achieving Equity in School Writing Paul D. Deane
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 174 pp., 3 b/w ill., 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Paul Deane (Author)

Paul D. Deane (Ph.D., Linguistics, University of Chicago) is a Principal Research Scientist at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ. He has published extensively in linguistics, computational linguistics, and educational measurement and twice received the NCME Bradley Hanson award for his contributions to educational measurement.


Title: Achieving Equity in School Writing