5 ways to use writing in the disciplines to support learning

One day, while working with the interdisciplinary team at my middle school, my colleagues and I were discussing upcoming lesson plans, what had been working well in our classes, and where we were facing challenges.

The math teacher described one lesson that was a huge success: her students would create a word problem with a corresponding visual representation of ratios and proportional relationships. She showed us how one student drafted a restaurant menu with different servings while another designed a map with driving distances to the beach. The science teacher echoed that excitement and told us about how her students would explain their conclusions of how an igloo made of blocks of cold snow could keep people inside warm by writing a picture book for younger students. The social studies teacher chimed in with details on an engaging lesson that allowed her class to choose an ancient civilization to research and then present about to the class.

As I sat listening to all the enthusiasm, it occurred to me that these were all examples of how writing in the classroom can support learning across all content areas. The students’ clear engagement with the content, their ability to think and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways, and the incorporation of those skills across the disciplines made me feel encouraged that my language arts students were becoming better writers and thinkers in all their classes.

Why teach writing in my class if I don’t teach language arts?

Not all math, science, and social studies teachers feel the same enthusiasm for incorporating writing into their lessons as my colleagues do. But writing is one of the most powerful tools that students can use in a classroom. As the NWEA stances on writing state, “Writing is a … process that serves as a tool for learning and critical thinking, stimulating the writer to think more deeply about a text, topic, or concept. In this way, writing doesn’t just show thinking; it is thinking, and it is an essential practice across disciplines.”

Writing provides a way for students to not only express their thinking but also promotes their thinking. As a result, writing can also help make the learning process more personal for each child. As students process what they’re learning, writing becomes a channel for them to see what they do and don’t understand. Such individualized expression is vital in classrooms that are increasingly diverse. Emergent bilingual students in particular can use their native language to think through new content and demonstrate their knowledge in multiple languages. (My colleague Kayla McLaughlin talked about this process, called translanguaguing, in her post, “Translanguaging as part of the writing process.”) For all students, processing via writing can help build their self-confidence. The self-confidence that students gain as they find their voice reinforces the benefits of writing itself and increases their enthusiasm for future writing.

Writing also has practical implications for teachers. Think about a classroom of, say, 30 students, each child a vessel of ideas and aspirations. Writing can become a convenient way for teachers to assess comprehension. Does a student really understand the Pythagorean theorem? Have them write about it and then you’ll know. You don’t always have to require an overly formal writing process, either. Short writing activities—tweets and other social media posts, short blogs, charts, diagrams—are all beneficial ways to expose students to the synthesis of writing and thinking. These types of writing exercises serve multiple purposes: engagement with writing, exposure to real-word applications of the written word, and interaction with academic language without the need for traditional writing formats.

How can I teach writing if I am not a writing teacher?

Since students are writing to think, we must provide authentic, compelling reasons for them to write. Writing assignments should be related to content you’ve recently taught and allow for multiple forms of writing, such as reflection and displaying knowledge of the topic, even if they may not yet have the academic language to convey an idea.

You may be asking yourself how you can support writing in your classroom without dedicating a ton of time to writing and grading. You may feel like you are not qualified to teach writing. Here are a few tips that can help:

  1. Remember that the act of writing is a tool for thinking. Since the goal is to use writing to communicate ideas and support those ideas with evidence, any teacher is qualified to help guide students in critical-thinking skills. Don’t worry about correcting grammar or spelling when using writing to promote thinking; that can come later when students are polishing a final product.
  2. Cultivate a classroom culture that values writing. Research has shown that writing impacts students’ learning of content only if it takes place within a classroom that values writing. For tips on how to build a classroom community of writers, check out “Ask a teacher: How to create a classroom community of empowered writers.”
  3. Integrate short, daily writing activities throughout your lessons. You do not need to have a highly formalized process to support writing as thinking in your class. Writing can be in the form of notes, a graphic organizer, a few sentences, or even a diagram. And because the goal is to promote learning and thinking, the short activities do not need to be graded.
  4. Reflect on the types of writing that professionals in your discipline do. For example, mathematicians write proofs, scientists publish their research findings in journals, and historians write interpretations of historical events. Provide opportunities and support for your students to engage in these types of authentic disciplinary writing so they can engage in the type of critical thinking and habits of mind required for the discipline.
  5. Be flexible. Students demonstrate thinking in diverse ways. Perhaps a multilingual student thinks better in their native language, so allow them to write in whichever language gets the ideas out. Some students may prefer to demonstrate their thinking in more creative ways, like creating visual representations or writing lyrics to a song. Allow for multiple modes of thinking and demonstrating those ideas.

All content areas require thinking

By doing social studies, students learn social studies. By doing math, students learn math. By doing writing, students learn to write—and to think. When teachers give students a safe space and something compelling to write about, they can support writing across the disciplines.

Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Carolyn Frost and Jason Rainey for their contributions to this blog post.

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