Teacher training could help English learners write

A study from the University of California, Irvine has found a correlation between teacher professional development and improvements in academic writing by English learners in seventh through 12th grade.

Students of teachers who participated in the Pathway Project—46 hours of training in the “cognitive strategies” instructional approach—scored higher on an academic writing assessment and had higher pass rates on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) than students whose teachers did not receive the training.

The academic writing assessment, in which high school students composed timed, on-demand essays interpreting themes from fiction and nonfiction texts, was designed for the Pathway Project to measure analytical literacy skills. The high school exit exam gauges California students’ competency in reading, writing and mathematics, although the test has been suspended by California’s state education department.

Carol Booth Olson, professor of education, creator of the Pathway Project and director of the UCI Writing Project, is lead author of the two-year study, which appears in the January issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

“On average, students of the Pathway teacher group showed moderate improvement from pre-test to post-test the first year, and students in the second-year Pathway group showed high improvement,” Olson said. “These robust findings demonstrate the impact of teacher training on student outcomes. There is stronger growth in student achievement after two years of teacher participation, highlighting the importance of sustained professional development.”

The study, conducted in 2012–13 and 2013–14, involved 95 teachers in 16 Anaheim Union High School District schools. They and one of each participant’s classes were randomly assigned to either the Pathway group or a control group. Before the beginning of school each year, the Pathway teachers learned how to integrate cognitive strategies into their existing language arts curriculum, while instructors in the control group did not.

“Cognitive strategies are tools and resources that help students improve their academic literacy and writing skills,” Olson explained.

“Reading and writing are taught as a process that includes pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities that enhance students’ abilities to summarize, make inferences, interpret, draw conclusions, evaluate, assess, revise, and reflect as they read and write about complex texts.

“We use a toolkit analogy and visual aids that identify the different techniques for reading comprehension and analytical writing,” she explained. “Students are encouraged to think of themselves as craftsmen who reach into their mental tool kit to construct meaning from, or with, words.”

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