The authors, a teacher and an experienced school-based language/speech specialist, share a key concern with other educators: At-risk high school students continue to be unsuccessful at writing a basic essay despite the best efforts of teachers. Educators and researchers alike are in agreement that these students lack both the knowledge and the skills to express their ideas in writing. There are multiple ‘school’ factors and ‘student’ factors that contribute to student difficulties.

School factors include:

  1.  New teachers that have minimal experience or training in teaching written expression, and
  2. The lack of instructional materials available that are “new-teacher friendly” and appropriate for, and of interest to, at-risk students.

Research indicates that at risk students demonstrate difficulty with language use and/or cognitive processes that further hamper their ease of learning and writing essays. A review of research also suggests that various instructional techniques improve the at-risk student’s ability to write essays independently and acquire needed academic skills. In addition, all students have skill strengths that can be used to further academic learning.

Consequently, the authors decided to develop a sequenced, research-based program that optimizes teachers’ effectiveness as instructors of written expression and eases the student’s ability to acquire basic writing skills. The authors titled the program “Talk/Write.”

The process of developing the Talk/Write program began with thoughtful discussions, then planning, researching, writing, piloting, and revising. Talk/Write is the culmination of the authors’ own personal experiences, input from other educators, and a review of pertinent research to determine the methods supported by speech/language and educational literature.

The goal was to identify research-based methods that had proven successful with at risk students and that could be utilized by new teachers.  When Talk/Write was completed, the program was piloted and revised. Directly due to the pilot experience, the authors are confident that the Talk/Write program now meets the two fundamental requirements for success:

  1. It is a sequenced, research-based program that optimizes new teachers’ effectiveness as instructors of written expression, and
  2. Eases the student’s ability to acquire basic writing skills.
Teaching the Persuasive Essay:
A Foundation for Classroom Essay Writing

The Talk/Write program focuses on teaching the persuasive essay. Based on experience and research, the authors concluded that persuasive writing is critical to successfully teaching essay writing to adolescents. Models of communication developed and described in literature for language, development, and education psychology support Talk/Write principals that:

  1. Writing skills are mapped onto conversational-verbal language expression skills.
  2. Adolescents often argue as a means to persuade others.
  3. Adolescents, therefore, demonstrate the comprehension and expression skills that form the basis of effective persuasive writing.

In the English language arts and speech language literature, it is noted that people express themselves, in simple terms, for three basic reasons or social functions:

  1. To inform
  2. To entertain
  3. To persuade

If an individual communicates more for one function than another, his sentences and vocabulary, for the primary function, will be more complex and detailed than sentences and vocabulary expressed for less-used functions. Therefore, for example, if a child’s purpose in communicating is primarily to entertain, his jokes or stories will contain more specific vocabulary and be lengthier in terms of content and number of sentences than when he tries to persuade.

Not surprisingly, the consensus among teachers and parents of high school students is that most adolescent communication is in the form of “arguing.”  In the authors’ educational observations, an adolescent’s “arguing” is an attempt to persuade parent, friend, teacher, or other adult. Talk/Write therefore chose to focus on teaching the five-paragraph essay for persuasion as the road map to successful essay writing. As students are told repeatedly in Talk/Write, they already know how to persuade; they just need to learn how to change talking, their strength, into writing.  Piaget tells us that language is mapped onto experience. Talk/Write—and its successful outcomes in an earlier pilot—shows us that written expression is “mapped” onto verbal expression.

In addition, all writers, in some sense, are persuaders, whether they argue the theme or impact of a character in a piece of literature, the best solution to a problem, the presentation of information as accurate, etc. In all expository writing, the writer is required to support or prove the thesis with appropriate ideas and details. Therefore, a principle of the Talk/Write program is that skills in persuasive writing more easily transfer into other forms of expository writing. Whether writing about literature, history, or any other subject, students must have a point of view or a thesis to explain and support. Once students become adept at forming an opinion and developing essays that persuade the reader to agree with a thesis, they find the transition to other forms of expository writing easier.

Based on the authors’ experiences, as well as input from other educators and research, to be effective a writing program for adolescents must:

  1. capitalize on student strengths, not just provide them with interesting instructional material;
  2. persuade students that they have the basic skills in their repertory to succeed, and that they only need to learn how to transfer these skills into their writing; and
  3. provide instructional material and methods that are easy to understand.
Conversational Level Instructional Language
and Vocabulary Teaching: Why

Finally, the Talk/Write program’s instructional language is purposely written at the conversational level to ensure that instruction and materials are easier for at-risk students. Why? The authors believe that easily understood language is crucial for rapid understanding of instructional tasks and discussions.

Students do need to understand a limited range of vocabulary words in order to perform instructional tasks for learning written expression, and the required words are directly taught in the Talk/Write program. No more than five new words are taught in any one lesson. Words such as “thesis,” “persuade,” “organization,” and “development” are taught and reinforced so that students are able to cite definitions and identify these in essays.

User-Friendly Features
Why is the Talk/Write program considered “user-friendly?”
  1. Students learn the instructional routines because these are limited in number, and repeated throughout the manual.
  2. Webinars demonstrate the instructional procedures and routines allowing teacher/viewers to run lessons that incorporate: teacher modeling, student collaboration, and student partnership practice.
  • All the skills taught to students use these three instructional procedures and routines.
  • Webinars can also be used for teaching students although most were written to provide teacher training.
  1. Instructional modules include: Learning objectives, rationale, lesson steps (a procedures checklist), a list of lesson materials, and teacher as well as student copies of forms needed to complete each Instructional Module Lesson.

Teachers and staff using Talk/Write in their classrooms will be working toward language arts Common  Core standards as outlined by the California Department of Education (CDE). Similar standards exist in other states; therefore, a Standards chart is provided so that teachers may easily access this information for planning and programming purposes. (See the Common Core Standards Chart below.)

Talk/Write promotes the integration of verbal and literacy skills as described in the CDE language arts standards:

Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are not disembodied skills. Each exists in context and in relation to the others. These skills must not be taught independently of one another. Rather, they need to be developed in the context of a rich, substantive core curriculum that is not only geared to achieving these standards per se but also toward applying language art skills to achieve success in other curricular areas.”

(California Department of Education Language Arts Standards, 1998)

The CDE thus promotes (1) learning through instructional activities integrating listening, speaking, reading, and writing with subsequent improvement of students skills in these areas; and (2) the student’s independent ability to apply skills in a variety of situations. Standards Based

The Talk/Write program teaches skills targeted in California’s Common Core Anchor Standards for Writing in grades 6-12. Skills taught in the program are shown below in bold print.

Skill Area
TW Lesson




Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

7, 8-1, 8-2,

8-3, 11


Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content

7, 8-1, 8-2,

8-3, 9, 11


Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

7, 8-1, 8-2,

8-3, 11





Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Lessons 1 to 6

Lessons 7 to 13


Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach

Lessons 3 to 6

Lessons 7 to 11


Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Lessons 3 to 6

Lessons 7 to 11


The Problem

In this era of rising academic standards when our classrooms contain a diversity of students with a diversity of needs, how can educators teach these students the written literacy skills necessary for academic and future success?

Students need to write to express not only their personal thoughts, but to demonstrate the ability to analyze and understand academic material. Why are some high school students unsuccessful at expressing ideas in writing yet do so well at arguing for their personal beliefs?

Research indicates that at risk students demonstrate difficulty with writing essays for a number of reasons: For some students, weak cognitive processing hamper their ease of learning and writing essays. For students new to English, difficulties may be due to ‘overload:’ Writing an essay requires multiple cognitive and language tasks. Students need to learn and comprehend the language of instruction as well as task requirements. They need to ‘hear’ (when reading their writing) and retain essay ideas encoded in the new language as well as use the new language to express ideas coded in the native first language.

A review of research suggests that various instructional techniques improve the at-risk student’s ability to write essays independently and acquire needed academic skills.

Research on At-Risk Students

Teachers and administrators cite a number of well-known causes to explain why at-risk students fail at writing: poor attendance, lack of language experience, lack of home support or assistance, lack of student interest or motivation, poor attention or study skills, delayed academic skills. Years of instruction from a multiplicity of teachers with a multiplicity of techniques have not succeeded in overcoming these obstacles.

Research tells us that writing is a “recursive” activity requiring the student to perform multiple functions at the same time that he is “putting pen to paper” and writing down his ideas (American Speech-Language–Hearing Association, 2001). The student needs to: (1) identify the purpose of the essay prompt (to persuade, entertain, inform, etc.) and comprehend its language and directions; (2) develop a thesis; (3) create a plan of ideas to explain his thesis; (4) remember his ideas and plan while formulating and writing sentences; (5) as necessary, mentally revisit his plan, his ideas, and the conventions for writing, (Flower & Hayes, 1980); and (6) “hear the words“ as the reader will (Nippold, 2000).

The at-risk student requires a different methodology to achieve these skills. These students may have difficulty attending to task and teacher (Simon, 1993), or have weak study skills. Students may also have difficulties (1) performing two or more tasks at the same time; (2) mentally retaining information; (3) completing tasks; (4) using problem-solving skills (Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000); and (5) reversing mental perspective (Nippold, 2000).

Also, students of limited English language experience, who may not be strong readers of English, do not comprehend writing prompts or easily formulate ideas into sentences (American Speech-Language–Hearing Association, 2001). These students, who struggle with essay writing, are the population that Talk/Write targets.

At-risk students, however, do demonstrate strengths that—when used—can ease the writing process. These students do, for example, have conversational or “talking” skills functional for social situations. In addition, it is easier for most of us to understand words and sentences when listening than to retrieve words or sentences for talking. Consequently, we can judge whether words or sentences we hear sound “right,” because we can compare what we hear with words and sentence forms stored in our memory. Furthermore, many students who have difficulty with processing auditory information often demonstrate stronger visual perception and retention skills.

Research indicates that teaching students metacognitive strategies—i.e. the “how to’s,” that capitalize on students’ visual as well as receptive and expressive language strengths—promotes ease and effective learning of written expression skills.

Talk/Write Methods: Research-Based

Research has shown that methods in Talk/Write have been effective for teaching students who are low achieving and/or have learning disabilities. Talk/Write combines these successful methods into a writing program that teaches a sequenced, scaffolded, series of skills with a set of strategies that, once mastered, do transfer.

Gersten, Russell; Baker, Scott; and Edwards, Lana (1999) completed research studies to answer the question: Which interventions and components are found to be most effective … in improving the writing of students? The authors concluded that the successful components were: (1) adhering to a basic framework: teaching and student practice of the writing process (planning, writing, and revision); (2) using semantic maps to help students organize and remember main points; (3) explicitly teaching critical steps in the process: instructors “think aloud,” explaining and modeling the steps, the “how-to’s” or strategies in the writing process; and (4) using student scribes or peer editors.

Techniques That Work
  1. Use of peer editing where there is a student-writer and student-editor(Wong, Butler, Ficzere, and Kuperis, 1996): The use of student scribes eliminates the need of students to perform at least two mental tasks at the same time, i.e. apply appropriate mechanics while formulating sentences to express ideas. This technique also helps students to “develop a sense of audience for their writing.” The writer switches roles from “talker” (writer) to “listener” (reader) before finalizing his end product. The “talker” (writer) says aloud his ideas to his partner scribe. In this way, the student writer can “hear” how his essay will sound to the person who reads it.

In almost every aspect of the Talk/Write program, students are taught to “say” it (ideas/sentences) aloud so they can “hear” how it (ideas/ sentences) “sounds” as another student listens, tracks ideas, and responds.

  1. Adhering to a basic framework, i.e. teaching, and having students practice(Gersten & Baker, 1999): The three basic tasks in the writing process are planning, writing, and revision. The primary purpose of Talk/Write is to improve student writing fluency as well as independent ability to write an organized and developed essay. Talk/ Write teaches students to plan and write an essay in a series of workshops or skill units. Essay planning and development are taught in Units 1 and 2, and mechanics and editing (revising) lessons are available in a separate Editing Program.

Talk/Write emphasizes teaching students a sequential but limited series of steps that they can use to write their own essays. Editing and revision in regard to mechanical errors is not a focus, though lessons are available to guide and give students practice in self-editing common errors.

In each unit, skills taught are scaffolded. For example, when the student learns to develop supporting points for the thesis, he begins with a map, develops a thesis, and then creates his supporting points. For every new step learned, the student repeats practice or demonstrates knowledge of all prior steps, ensuring recall of the series of steps once he begins work on his own. In short, the student “habituates” the writing process.

  1. Teaching planning via use of semantic maps: Semantic maps help the student organize and remember main points eliminating the need to simultaneously perform two mental tasks, i.e. remembering main points and mentally formulating sentences to express and explain ideas (Gersten & Baker, 1999; Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000).

Talk/Write teaches the use of a graphic organizer that can be expanded for use in other kinds of essay writing beyond the persuasive essay. Students, in a Southern California pilot, were able to modify the organizer to respond to teacher writing prompts for literature analysis and to produce an autobiographical incident essay.

  1. Explicitly teaching critical steps in the process:Instructors “think aloud,” explaining how to do a task while modeling the steps and methods in the writing process (metacognition). Teaching the “how-to’s” or strategies has been found effective by more than one study (Graham & Harris, 1989b; Englert & Mariage, 1991; DeLaPaz & Graham, 1997; The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, 1999).

Talk/Write teaches the students a limited set and sequence of strategies. Lesson activities are provided so that students say the steps to each strategy, write the strategy steps, and apply the strategy when writing an essay.

  1. Teaching for transfer:Gersten and Baker (1999) found few studies on the transfer of writing skills to other classes. Wong, Butler, Ficzere, Kuperis (1996), however, highly recommended efforts for transfer of skills, since only then can transfer be greatly improved.

Talk/Write makes transfer a key objective. During skill reviews (completed at both beginning and end of sessions), students verbalize steps taught; and during class-time activities, students practice steps taught. Independent ability to recall, state, and use strategies improves students’ ability to transfer these to other classes and situations.

A pilot of the Talk/Write program was conducted in Barstow, California with high school students who participated in the high school’s English language learner program. The home language of all students was Spanish and all students had scored above a CELDT (California English Language Development Test) Level 3 on CELDT testing. An English teacher and one aide participated in Saturday training sessions as well as two day a week collaborative teaching/evaluation sessions for most of the 7 week training program. The students participating in the pilot program also received instruction in writing a persuasive essay, a literary analysis essay, an autobiographical essay, and writing essays for a variety of prompts.

Nine students completed the afterschool program. Their scores on pre-post testing as well as total point gains are shown in the charts below. A panel of three educators scored students essays pre and post program instruction. The workshop instructor did not participate in pre and post assessment scoring.

How do we know students learned?

Improvements were dramatic. More than two thirds of the students achieved almost double the scores they received on pretest essays when these were compared with final post-test essay scores.

Week 1 Pre-Test and Week 6 Post-Test: Persuasive Writing

Students improved essay

  • Organization: An average of 6.5 points (of 10 total)
  • Development: An average of 5.3 points (of 10 total)

Students rated program methods/training with‘4’s and ‘5’s (on a scale of 1 –not helpful, to 5-very helpful)
Students reportedly (by an administrator from a staff meeting) expressed opinions more in class and supported these opinions with examples, etc.
How do we know our students learned?  The students told us they did.


How do we know our students learned?  The teachers told us that they did.