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The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has awarded Lara Costa, the project director for the Writing Skills Development Program, $1.4 million over three years for an initiative spearheaded by the UNC School of Medicine Department of Allied Health Sciences. Stephen Hooper is the co-principal investigator for this new project and principal investigator of the Preschool Writing Project, an initiative of the writing skills development program.

Costa’s research team will explore an empirically-based conceptual framework for understanding writing in elementary school students in the general education setting, with the goal of improving assessment and instruction for writing. The proposed study is designed to create a conceptual framework for writing by exploring alternative models of the structure of writing. These alternative models could include the differences in writing performance from one grade level to the next and across genres. The team also hopes to examine the relations among factors of writing performance and writing quality.

A better understanding of these structural models will provide evidence for a conceptual framework of measuring and teaching writing, as well as progress monitoring, which will help teachers, diagnosticians, and researchers better assess students’ growth, provide specific and appropriate feedback and guidance, and engage in appropriate instruction and targeted interventions.

To develop this framework, the researcher team will model malleable factors of writing performance (conventions, productivity, and syntactic complexity) and examine relations with writing quality (text organization and text development) for two genres at each grade for grades one through five. Goals of the research include providing much-needed guidance as to what effective writing instruction and performance feedback should be included at each grade level.

“It’s clear that writing skills change with development,” Costa said. “But what changes and when those changes occur remains unknown.”

Costa said writing is a critical skill that’s necessary for success in school, in the workplace, and in society. However, data show that only about one-quarter of students across the nation are able to write at or above a proficient level.

“It’s important that we explore the relations among writing skills, the factors of writing performance, and writing quality, to lay the groundwork for future studies, particularly with respect to assessment and instruction for all students,” Costa said.

Lara Costa, PhD, holds degrees from UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Chapel Hill and is a research specialist for the Department of Allied Health Sciences.

Stephen Hooper, PhD, is associate dean and chair of the DAHS, a role he has served since 2013.