Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Emily Isaacs

Committee Member

Melinda Knight

Committee Member

Jessica Restaino


Students from low-income families often perform poorly on formal assessments in language arts. Examining data using the 2008-2009 State of New Jersey Department of Education School Report Cards, a comparison was made between low-income districts and affluent districts in three areas: High School Proficiency Assessment Language Arts Literacy Scores, SAT Verbal Scores and SAT Essay Scores. Students from low-income districts performed significantly lower in these areas than students from the higher income districts and from the average performance rates for the State of New Jersey. This lag in performance affects students’ choices for higher education, for job opportunities, as well as their abilities to communicate in writing, which is necessary in daily life.

Factors that impact this disparity in achievement include that students may not speak Standard English either because they or their parents are from another country or because few, if any, in the family have had formal education, which also affects vocabulary development. There may be a lack of resources available to them at home such as print material, technology and enrichment opportunities. The type and quality of writing instruction students receive and the demands and expectations that are presented to them by the schools they attend may not reflect high standards or rigor. Indicators of this include large class sizes and students being placed in lower track classes where the content of instruction may be less than in other settings.

To address the needs of underprepared students, a comprehensive review was made of the available research on writing instruction to determine effective teaching methods that can help improve the skills of low-income middle and secondary students. An analysis of strategies was undertaken to find those practices that should be incorporated into a program of writing instruction.

From my experience and from the research I reviewed, if middle and secondary students who are from low-income backgrounds are to be prepared to participate effectively in academic discourse through writing, they need to be exposed to writing instruction that takes into account their backgrounds, skill levels and social and emotional needs. Authentic writing assignments from which students can understand their purpose help to develop students’ competencies, as does the critical thinking needed in learning to present cohesive arguments. Direct instruction in writing helps build proficiency, along with the writing process when it is explicitly taught in steps. Teacher questioning and feedback are among the most powerful ways to improve student writing but these are skills that must be developed.

The practices that should be incorporated into an effective program of writing instruction according to Delpit, Hull, Tompkins and others include designing quality assignments which offer students meaningful ways to practice discourse, making instruction explicit through teaching skills, not in isolation, but as part of purposeful writing, providing comprehensive feedback on students’ writing which goes beyond surface errors to address structure and content and ongoing professional development for teachers in best practices in writing instruction. Finally, teachers must be aware of their attitudes toward the students they teach, realizing that poor grammar, lack of spelling skills or use of Non-standard English do not mean that students are lacking in intelligence or do not have valuable things to say. Therefore, a writing program that offers explicit instruction in conjunction with process writing, has assignments grounded in purpose and meaning as its foundation, aids teachers with professional development and recognizes the innate abilities of the novice writers would provide low-income students with the educational experiences necessary to advance their performance with academic discourse.

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