Strategies and Activities to Improve Students' Writing

Based on Research by Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, Jane E. Pollock, Rick Stiggins, Theodore R. Sizer, and Grant Wiggins


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Research-Based Strategies and Activities

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The following strategies are listed in order of effectiveness.

1. Identifying similarities and differences (percentile gain = 45)

2. Summarizing and note taking (percentile gain = 34)

3. Reinforcing effort and providing recognition (percentile gain = 29) It is surprising to many teachers, but research has shown that many students must be directly taught that effort is part of success. Some students believe that luck or friendship is more connected to success than effort. Use the two methods below to teach students the value of effort.

  • Pause, prompt, and praise! (the teacher asks the student to stop working for a moment, provides a suggestion for improving the student’s performance, and then praises the student when he/she implements the teacher’s suggestion) (Marzano qtd. by Columbia, MO Public Schools.
  • Show students how to graph their own assessment scores by using the rubric, chart, and graph available at Assessments Chart.htm
4. Homework and practice (percentile gain = 28) Tell students the purpose of the homework - whether it is necessary practice to become fluent in a skill or required to deepen knowledge of a topic that will be developed over one or more units.. A student's homework in total per night should not exceed 10 minutes multiplied by the student's grade level. It must not be a matter of policy, but have real purpose such as practicing a skill which has been introduced but not mastered, researching a topic of interest, or deepening the student's knowledge base. Research collected over decades and continuing to the present day shows that homework is necessary, especially if American students hope to catch up with their peers in other countries. An article by Marzano and Pickering on this subject is available at

5. Nonlinguistic representations (non-linguistic representation [percentile gain = 27) Marzano et al. state that  "According to research, knowledge is stored in two forms: linguistic and visual. The more students use both forms in the classroom, the more opportunity they have to achieve. Recently, use of nonlinguistic representation has proven to not only stimulate but also increase brain activity." Read more from this research at

  • Creating graphic representations
  • Making physical models (pictoral)
  • Generating mental pictures
  • Drawing pictures and pictographs
  • Engaging in kinesthetic activity
    • Math Example: In a geometry class a teacher can ask students to think of ways they can represent what they are learning in “body math.” During a lesson on radius, diameter, and circumference of circles, Barry uses his left arm outstretched to show radius, both arms outstretched to show diameter, and both arms forming a circle to show circumference. During a different lesson on angles, Devon depicts obtuse and acute angles by making wide and not-so-wide "Vs" with her arms as other students yell out the degrees. Students or groups of students can be asked to come up with ways to show fractions, and mixed numbers ( 2010). When students truly understand a concept, they can write explanations for themselves and others.
    • English Example: When studying literature, students can act out key scenes. When studying grammar, students can act out the parts of speech and punctuation. Nouns can be touched. Adverbs can control the speed of someone walking. Verbs can be acted. Action must stop when a student acting the part of a period interrupts, etc.

6. Learning groups (percentile gain = 27) - According to Marzano, pairs and triads are most effective in processing information.

  • Think-Pair-Share - The teacher poses a question to the class. The students think about their response, and then students pair with a partner to talk over their ideas. Finally, students share their ideas with the class.
  • Rallytable - Students are working in pairs, within their teams. Students will take turns writing on one piece of paper or completing a task.
  • Numbered Heads Together - Students within the team number off from 1-4. The teacher poses a question and the students put their heads together to discuss the answer. The teacher randomly calls a number and from each team the student with that number writes the answer on the team response board.
  • Showdown - Each student writes his answer on his individual response board. When everyone in the group is ready, the leader says "Showdown" and team members compare and discuss their answers.
  • Teammates Consult - Students all have their own copy of the same worksheet or assignment questions. A large cup is placed in the center of each team, and students begin by placing their pencils in the cup. With pencils still in the cup, they discuss their answers to the first question. When all team members are ready, they remove their pencils from the cup and write their answers without talking. They repeat this process with the remaining questions.
  • 4S Brainstorming - Students in the group have roles: Speed Captain (prompts more ideas), Super Supporter (encourages/recognizes all ideas), Synergy Guru (encourages members to build upon one another's ideas), and Secretary (writes ideas). Members carry out their respective roles while the team generates a variety of possible responses (Kagan, 1994 quoted at

7. Setting objectives and providing feedback (percentile gain = 27)

8. Generating and testing hypotheses (percentile gain = 23)

  • Systems Analysis – ask students to generate hypotheses that predict what would happen if some aspect of a system were changed.
    • Explain the purpose of the system, the parts of the system, and the function of each part.

    • Describe how the parts affect each other.

    • Identify a part of the system, describe a change in that part, and then hypothesize what would happen as a result of this change. 

    • When possible, test your hypothesis by actually changing the part.

Example: In an English class, ask students to read a story and change an aspect of the story: a character, a plot element, or a setting element. Have students write a paragraph using the bulleted items above. Students could then write a new story based on the original.

Other types of analyses can be found at
Cues, questions, and advance organizers (percentile gain = 22) - Agreeing with Marzaon, the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium, recommends using questions and advance organizers. They emphasize using higher level questions that ask students to analyze information. See more at

     Sizer and Wiggins are the leaders in the area of using effective questions to motivate students to deepen their knowledge base through effective discussions and writing. Essential questions is a term used by Theodore Sizer at Brown University (Sizer 1992). The questions engage students. Cheryl M. Jorgensen gives the following example:

Consider the question a 10th grade science teacher wrote on the board: “If we can, should we?”

The teacher asked the students to get into groups of four and gave each group a large sheet of newsprint paper and some markers. She then asked them to divide the paper into two columns, listing in the first column all the dilemmas or issues to which this quotation might refer, and in the second, their answer to her question for that issue. One group thought the question might refer to the atomic bomb—“If we have the atomic bomb, should we use it to stop another country from invading an innocent neighbor?” They wrote “No. Atomic energy is too dangerous. You should use diplomacy or conventional weapons instead.”

Finally, the teacher told the students they would in fact be studying human genetics for the next several weeks. Every student would have to answer an essential question through a performance-based exhibition: “If we can influence the incidence of birth defects through genetic selection and prenatal diagnosis, should we?”

How to Create Essential Questions

  • They have no one right answer.
  • All students can answer them.
  • They enable all students to learn.
  • They involve thinking, not just answering.
  • They make students investigators.
  • They are provocative—they hook students into wanting to learn.
  • They offer a sense of adventure, are fun to explore and try to answer.
  • They require students to connect learning from several disciplines.
  • They challenge students to demonstrate that they understand the relationship between what they are learning and larger world issues.
  • They enable students to begin the unit from their own past experience or understanding.
  • They build in personalized options for all students.

Read more at and