“Teacher-student interaction in writing exercises contributes to social justice”

Marte Blikstad-Balas

Marte Blikstad-Balas

They show models of how to write, they introduce writing strategies and they give suggestions and support during writing exercises. All in all, Norwegian language arts teachers seem to be doing almost everything right in the classrooms when it comes to sustained writing exercises.

Usually, research on writing skills takes place outside the classroom, asking teachers what the students are writing or analyzing the students’ texts.

“We approached the topic from a new angle and went into the classrooms. We wanted to look at students’ opportunities to write and analyze the interaction between the teachers and the students during writing assignments”, JustEd researcher Marte Blikstad-Balas, University of Oslo, explains.

Blikstad-Balas and her fellow researchers on the LISA-project led by Kirsti Klette, are studying how writing is framed in the classrooms and how often the students get the opportunity to write something, how they spend that time, and what kind of writing they do.

“We have seen a lot of really good writing lessons and we are impressed with many of the teachers in the study. When we see sustained writing, we often notice that the whole lesson focuses on writing, there are clear examples of how students should write, and there is a process oriented approach to writing – which aligns well with research recommendations in the field of writing. It was a positive surprise – they do everything that the literature recommends when it comes to writing. It is nice when school researchers find something that is this positive”, Blikstad-Balas says with a big smile.

Instant feedback
Around 30 years ago, most writing lessons were assignments where you would write individually at home without any help, and then the teacher would read the text and grade it.

“Now what we see is a lot of writing in the classroom and help along the way, while talking to each other about the writing. Teachers are giving suggestions while the pupils write and even help them write a sentence or two. It is collaborative and as stated in research recommendations.”

It is important not only to give writing tasks as homework, but creating an environment for writing in the classroom as well.

“Teachers should provide help while the student is actually working on something, not when they are done. We see that it really helps the students improve their texts when they get feedback during their writing process”, Blikstad-Balas explains.

“Learning to write can be really difficult and a lot of people struggle with it and find it hard. Back in the days, students were sent home to write individually, without any input from the teacher – if you had parents that were good at academic ways of writing, they could help you. Unfortunately, not everyone has that.”

Getting the opportunity to develop your writing in the classroom is therefore very much related to social justice:

“It is unfair to give writing home assignments without spending time talking about writing, providing examples and actually writing, since it only benefits the students who already know how to write well and who can rely on the help of their parents. I think it is very important in a literacy and democratic perspective that students actually are taught how to do what the school is expecting of them.”

Explicit and clear guidance
In order to assess the writing in the classrooms, the researchers use the observation instrument PLATO In addition to content analyses of the different writing assignments.

“What we consider high-quality in the writing assignments would be for example that the task is clearly framed, that the students get some guidance, not only on the content but also on the style. For example we would typically ask: Has the teacher showed a model or an example of writing that way?”

The researchers also look at the goal or the purpose of the writing:

“If the goal is to improve their writing, they talk a lot about genre and different styles and crafts, and the way you could use an argument for example. If it is specific, explicit and clear, then we would typically categorize it as high quality writing instruction.”

When the students are writing for sustained periods of time, they seem to take a very active role and ask for help:

“They are often specific about what kind of help they want. They will typically be writing and then they raise their hand and ask the teacher some question about the text. Very often the question is: what should I do now? I am stuck in my writing! And that’s a really good place to ask for help.”

Room for improvement
All in all, Blikstad-Balas and her colleagues are enthusiastic about the positive results from the study, but there is still some room for improvement:

“First of all, the most positive results relate only to the 33 teachers in our study who spend time on sustained writing. We do not know that much about how the other teachers in the study would teach and guide their students. When it comes to smaller tasks that we see across more classrooms, like writing mind maps, summaries or key bullet points, the teachers rarely talk about how to write or the purposes of writing, they only talk about content. For instance, they do not tend to explain what is a good key word, a good summary? We don’t see a lot of talk or help in those situations, and there is no reason to believe these writing situations couldn’t benefit from clear scaffolding”.

The new curriculum in Norway stipulates that fiction and non-fiction are equally important, and the study shows that students are doing both: they are writing made up stories, short stories, fairytales and poems, but also articles and letters to the editor where they express their opinion on something.

“In the writing assignments we see 50/50 which aligns very well with the curriculum. We have research from the 90’s from Norway showing that students prefer to just make up a story. It seems to be easier for them to write personal, made up stories where they do not have to write in a non-fiction way about factual things in the world. It has been a lot of emphasis on training them to get better at that. Non-fiction texts are what we are dealing with in society at large every day, so they are important texts to be able to handle. Participation in almost all aspects of todays’ society requires writing within different genres and for different purposes, so this is also very much a matter of justice in education.”

Blikstad-Balas and her team are already sharing the results of their study, meeting up with teachers and showing them examples of good student-teacher interaction and good writing instruction:

“We have a bunch of good examples of great teacher-student interaction when it comes to developing writing skills. Positive examples and transcripts of classroom talk have more didactic value because you can share them also in teacher education and show how students are working along with teachers to improve their writing skills.”



  • The research is part of the LISA study, focusing on quality in teaching methods
  • The research team systematically videotaped 178 language and arts lessons in 8th grade classes in 46 schools in Norway.
  • More information about the Lisa study

NAME: Marte Blikstad-Balas

TITLE: Associate professor in Norwegian didactics

PLACE OF BIRTH: 16.05.1982, Bærum Norway

FAMILY:  Sindre (almost 40), Storm (14), Ella (3) and our dog Stockmann (9). My sister and her family live right across the street and my brother also lives close by.

LIVING IN: I have had quite a few addresses over the years, ranging from São Paulo (Brazil) to the small city of Røros (Norway). Since 2008 I have lived in Oslo and I really love it here. I live in a neighborhood called Torshov, fairly close to campus, the library, some good local stores and great parks.

– PhD in Norwegian didactics (2014)
– Vice chair of the Nordic Centre of Excellence QUINT (Quality of Nordic Teaching)
– Project leader for the professional development project VIST (Video to Support Excellence in Teaching)
– Senior member of the research project LISA (Linking Instruction and Student Achievement)

I am interested in literacy and how students use texts in different school settings.

My favorite hobbies are reading (novels, short stories and essays), good  tv-series and Playstation.

Cinnamon buns and hot chocolate. No joke. If that is not an option, I like all kinds of sushi and Italian food and some good wine.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS (relevant for this article):

Blikstad-Balas, Marte; Roe, Astrid & Klette, Kirsti (2018). Opportunities to Write: An Exploration of Student Writing During Language Arts Lessons in Norwegian Lower Secondary Classrooms.. Written Communication.  ISSN 0741-0883.  35(2), s 119- 154 . Doi: 10.1177/0741088317751123

Blikstad-Balas, Marte (2018). Skrivediskurser i norskfaget – en analyse av hvordan norsklærere snakker om skriving på åttende trinn.Nordic Journal of Literacy Research.  ISSN 2464-1596.  4(1)

Magnusson, Camilla Gudmundsdatter; Roe, Astrid & Blikstad-Balas, Marte (2018). To What Extent and How Are Reading Comprehension Strategies Part of Language Arts Instruction? A Study of Lower Secondary Classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly.

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About the Author

About the Author: Charlotta Järf is in charge of the communications and marketing activities for JustEd, The Nordic Centre of Excellence, an international research network with 14 partner universities in 8 countries. With ten years of professional experience in Communications and Marketing, and five years as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, Charlotta has a practical set of skills in strategical communications, PR, social media, graphic design, video and content production. .


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