Harris and Graham honored with AERA award


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Writing can be difficult. Teaching writing can be even more difficult. Steve Graham and Karen Harris, both Mary Emily Warner professors, have explored the teaching of writing for decades. Their recent publication, "Practice-based professional development and Self-Regulated Strategy Development for Tier 2, at-risk writers in second grade" (co-authored with Mary Adkins at Goucher College) was recognized with the 2016 American Educational Research Association Division K Award for Exemplary Research in Teaching and Teacher Education.

For Graham and Harris, this work is part of a body of influential research showing that educators feel inadequately prepared to teach writing. Their latest trial was an investigation of one teaching method, Self-Regulated Strategy Development, in story-writing among students at risk for academic failure. Graham said there is not yet a lot of research on whether early success and interventions to support better writing will have a long-term impact on students. In the short term, however, teachers gave positive feedback on the professional development they received and reported higher motivation and effort among students.

SRSD instruction, which Harris developed in 1980, includes the use of specific interactive learning strategies for each type of writing a student is completing and requires students to set goals and assess their work. The method incorporates small group work and many discussions. The SRSD method has been replicated and reported on many times and, Harris says, has the largest impact on student outcomes of any evidence-based practice designed to improve writing.

"Writing has taken a back seat to reading in recent years," she said. "Teachers report a major area of need for professional development is in teaching students to write." She said that very few universities have courses on teaching writing in their teacher education programs. "Most teachers in training may spend one day on learning how to teach writing while in a course about reading and literacy."

Harris has spent more than 20 years creating an evidence base on the topic of teaching writing and what works. She said most teachers find tools to teach writing, but if students are not taught to write in specific genres, or to write with a purpose in mind, they do not succeed in writing. Most teachers are trained in teaching handwriting, spelling and grammar, as opposed to how to teach students to write informative or persuasive pieces.

Harris developed a series of steps to teach SRSD to educators. She met Graham, who had studied writing and was familiar with the various genres of writing. They began to collaborate on implementation of SRSD and measurement of its success at improving writing as well as its impact on teachers' confidence and effectiveness at teaching writing.

Originally, all of the research on SRSD was conducted with high school students and adults. Graham said, "Karen developed SRSD, and I modified it for use with the different genres. Not many people, even those who do it for a living, will tell you that writing is easy." He described an old-fashioned method of teaching writing that was once very popular. "People were told they should learn to write by writing, but that doesn't really work."

Graham did not become interested in the research on writing until he was a doctoral student. Then he met Harris and became intrigued with applying and testing SRSD. They've been collaborating on research related to SRSD since the 1980s and have planned more investigations.

Graham and Harris have been married 33 years and have taught and conducted research in various institutions, including Purdue University, the University of Maryland and Vanderbilt. They are also each actively engaged in research that is separate from the SRSD work in this award-winning publication.