MSU researchers are creating a tool to improve students’ writing. Here’s how.

August 17, 2021

What if there was a tool for teachers to determine exactly what support students need to improve their writing?

Enter the Writing Architect, a web-based instrument developed to bridge the gap between student writing skills and instructional decision-making.

Michigan State University’s Adrea Truckenmiller, creator of the Writing Architect, will use a more than $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences* (IES) to test the evidence-based mechanism in Michigan classrooms.

Adrea Truckenmiller headshot

“In addition to supporting student needs and learning, we want to provide a useful resource to teachers to help them feel more confident in their writing instruction,” said Truckenmiller, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education. “We want teachers to have a tool so they can discover where their students are at in development of writing and then provide evidence-based interventions to help students improve.”

Truckenmiller and colleagues will begin their work with a focus group of 10 4th-5th grade educators to explore how the Writing Architect influences teachers’ decision-making processes and shifts student test scores for writing. The educators themselves will play a pivotal role, providing feedback on how the tool and interventions are working. In addition, the scholars will assess what professional learning supports are needed and potential costs for implementing the tool more broadly.

Measuring success

Truckenmiller created the Writing Architect in 2017 because she saw a need for improved, evidence-based writing instruction. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011) indicates a majority—72%—of 8th and 12th grade students do not perform at a proficient or advanced level of writing.** The Writing Architect, which to date has only been utilized in upper elementary and middle school settings, will be a tool educators can use to help more students get to those levels.

Thus far, previous research has explored if the Writing Architect could predict writing achievement and identify areas of needed improvement. The short answer: Yes.

A 2019 study showed the power of the Writing Architect: predicting, with high accuracy, how students would perform on the M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress). The results told researchers they were “measuring something important,” said Truckenmiller, but the Writing Architect, as it was then, only looked at overall writing scores and ability. In an upcoming paper, Truckenmiller and colleagues proved the capacity of the tool. They found WA can be used to identify specific elements—such as spelling and syntax—individual students need help with to improve their writing ability.

The new IES grant takes the work one step further, exploring the context of the tool in classrooms.

“Now that we know what areas students need help with,” Truckenmiller explained, “let’s give teachers evidence-based instructional strategies in those areas and use the Writing Architect to measure progress.”

The research team’s goal by the end of the project (2025) is to work with more than 40 teachers and 800 students to produce a web application in which:

  • Schools can have students take a brief (<20 minutes) written composition assessment.
  • Teachers can evaluate students’ writing on a set of predefined, high-leverage skills.
  • Teachers can access a digital repository of research-based instructional materials—matched directly to their students’ needs.

The scholars—including MSU’s Gary Troia and Eunsoo Cho, and Megan Perreault serving as a school-based partner—hope the assessment will be key to helping students in Michigan and, ultimately, nationwide.

“The project will capture teachers’ experiences around their successes and obstacles in the teaching of writing,” Perreault said. “This vital information will allow the development of a tool that will clearly identify and support teachers in intentional, focused instruction targeted to students’ needs—a critical and needed component for our teachers.”

*The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A210061 to the Michigan State University College of Education. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

** 2011 is the most recent, complete report available for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Writing). An update—the 2017 edition—is being finalized. A technical summary of preliminary analyses of NAEP 2017 Writing Assessments is available.