Using activity theory to understand effective writing instruction with high poverty middle school students

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Education, Health & Human Development


Conveying thoughts, ideas, and solutions through written words has been, and will continue to be, a crucial way to demonstrate thinking and learning in both the academic and professional worlds. Because of its importance, and our students' struggles, writing's place in education has risen to the forefront, leading to more rigorous writing standards and assessment in correspondence with the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards. Thus, this mixed methods study was designed to analyze Montana's middle school Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) English Language writing scores to understand patterns of proficiency in writing across schools and student demographics (gender and socioeconomic status). In part one of the study, quantitative data were analyzed from the 2015-2016 school year and included scores from 338 schools serving grades 6-8 with a total of 29,091 students. In alignment with current literature, findings suggest that Montana's middle school students' of low socioeconomic status, on average, perform lower than their peers on the writing portion of the standardized test. In part two of the study, qualitative data were gathered from a Montana middle school where students achieved proficiency on the Smarter Balanced Assessment English Language Arts Performance Task, to examine the way writing instruction is approached in the school. Engestrom's Activity Theory (1987) was used as a framework to describe the system of teacher instruction used to improve students' writing. Findings illuminate the complex facets of writing instruction from the lens of Activity Theory and provide practical applications for administrators and teachers in navigating a dynamic learning system.




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