Reconsidering Calkins’ Process Writing Pedagogy for Multilingual Learners: Units of Study in a Fourth Grade Classroom

WCER Working Paper No. 2021-4

Ruslana Westerlund and Sharon Besser

June 2021, 50 pp.

ABSTRACT: Lucy Calkins’ curriculum Units of Study for Writing is a process approach to writing pedagogy used in thousands of elementary and middle schools in the United States and internationally (Teachers College Reading Writing Project, 2020). Process approaches have been highly influential on writing pedagogy for the past 30 years (Brisk, 2015; Hyland, 2003) and continue to be popular in the United States today, particularly in the context of culturally sustaining pedagogy (Alim & Paris, 2017). However, as with all movements in education, we need to step back and critically examine the role of process approaches in promoting equity in the present context. Do this approach and curriculum still meet the needs of today’s learners, in particular multilingual learners? Most importantly, do they promote and maintain equitable learning outcomes for all students? This paper examines how Calkins’ curriculum conceptualizes the teaching of writing in the disciplines; how one teacher made sense of the curriculum; and what is missing from the curriculum that may limit its curricular and pedagogical appropriateness to promote equity. We focus on one of Calkins’ units, Bringing History to Life (Calkins & Cockerille, 2013) and one elementary school teacher. We found that in this unit, writing was conceptualized as a cognitive process of thinking, imagining, planning, and noticing. The main writing activities were drafting and free writing, without explicit attention to language. The privileged pedagogy promoted by this unit of study was discovery-led, with achievement based on students’ prior knowledge of language and exposure to the genres. As a result, access to the knowledge necessary for achievement was not equally distributed. In this way, we found the Bringing History to Life script to be potentially complicit in both creating and maintaining opportunity gaps in writing development, as the students who made progress did so because they did not need help from the teacher, and those who needed explicit language teaching to make progress, did not get enough support. We conclude with recommendations for teaching writing with a more visible pedagogy that makes the rules for being a successful writer explicit, visible, and accessible to all.

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keywords: process writing, multilingual learners, English language learners, disciplinary literacy, equity, underachievement in writing, systemic functional linguistics, Calkins Units of Study