Effective Ways of Teaching Complex Expression in Writing

2007 Department for Children, Schools and Families commissioned  review of the research literature on effective ways of teaching complex expression in writing at secondary school.

D. Myhill
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
University of Exeter
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type
Target Audience

In July 2007 the Department for Children, Schools and Families commissioned a review of the research literature on effective ways of teaching complex expression in writing at secondary school.

Key findings

  • There was very little robust research in complex expression in writing at the secondary phase identified by the review. Consequently, an inclusive approach was adopted for identifying the research to include in the review.
  • Evidence from empirical studies and theoretical papers suggest that complex expression is not synonymous with syntactic complexity.
  • A strong argument is put forward in the theoretical literature for the positive potential of using rhetorical approaches to the teaching of writing, where grammar is explored as the tool by which language can be shaped for particular effects.
  • Strategy instruction has been shown empirically to be a powerful tool for teaching writing.
  • The use of models is already common and its efficacy is endorsed by research.
  • Empirical evidence identified by the review indicates the benefits of collaborative writing in supporting general improvement in writing, and especially the talk that accompanies collaborative writing.
  • Theoretical evidence suggests that fostering writers’ understanding of the writing process and moving beyond simplistic or rigid interpretations of planning, drafting and revising may support the development of more competent writers.
  • Empirical evidence indicates that some teachers’ limited confidence with grammatical terms and applied linguistics may be a barrier to teaching complex expression effectively.
  • Empirical evidence highlights the importance of teachers’ understanding of what constitutes good writing and being able to share the criteria with developing writers.
Benefits and Uses
In addition a comprehensive review of the literature on writing instruction that would lead to complex expression, the authors suggest effective teaching practices and include a glossary of writing terminology. The information contained in this report would be useful and appropriate for teaching any type of writing.  
What the experts say

This is an excellent resource for those who wish to understand the research underpinning why and how to teach complex written expression (specifically grammatical complexity and associated punctuation, which sets this resource apart). The synthesis of studies covers a lot of ground but is highly focused. Although the focus is on secondary students, because studies with participants from elementary, secondary, and post-secondary settings are included, a broad range of writing abilities is represented, which should prove useful to educators in adult education settings. The synthesis takes a critical stance on the research but is balanced in its evaluation of the research included in the review. Although the review relies heavily on Graham & Perin’s (2007) meta-analysis, its focus and coverage are sufficiently different to make it a valuable resource. Educators should find Appendices 3 (glossary of terms) and 4 (instructional practices) very helpful.

The one thing for which readers will need guidance (because this synthesis is situated for the UK education system) is notation about the grade system there, which is not clear in the report itself. A methodological issue with the report is that coding reliability was not established by the authors.

This research synthesis complements and extends other publications that summarize the literature about written language instruction and intervention, such as “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools” (Graham & Perin, 2007). It is noteworthy because it provides a comprehensive summary about several topics that are not specifically addressed in other works, such as developing writers’ proficiency with “complex expression” through the use of varying syntactical and lexical structures and considering “teachers’ perspectives” (e.g., foundational knowledge required to effectively teach writing).

The breadth and depth of this work will likely appeal to both researchers and practitioners interested in learning more about the extant research involving secondary and post-secondary students. The Executive Summary, Extended Executive Summary, and recommended teaching practices list will be beneficial to readers who want to learn more about the findings of the synthesis, without reading the entire 100+ page document.

The only caution I would offer interested readers is that it is important to recognize that this publication is a thematic review of the literature, rather than a meta-analysis. Because of that, the authors do not report effect sizes (a statistic that indicates the magnitude and consistency of an instructional practice)—but rather offer narrative interpretations of the findings reported in previous research.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit lincs.ed.gov, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.