Content Area Teaching Ideas, Part II

New Trend Rationale:
My focus for this project is analytical writing. With the increased focus on constructivist approaches, inquiry-based learning, and differentiation, I am not surprised to find among vetted educational resources many ways to rethink writing in the classroom. Many of those ideas are quite counter-conventional, suggesting alternatives to the traditional “5-paragraph” essay, by allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in different modalities. While these alternatives address both the affective domain and a consideration for multiple intelligences, they repackage summative writing assessment without re-imagining the purpose of writing—and, therefore, the need for re-envisioned writing instruction. Indeed, though each of the methods I researched provided models and step-by-step instructions for the final product, they all, in essence, conceived the end product as just that—a final codifying of the meaning made from the unit of study. I wanted to re-purpose writing, in a sense, to challenge the conventional idea of “(mostly narrative) text in-analytical text out,” and leverage writing as a way of supporting critical thinking. What were the assumptions I needed to check?

The basic premise of summative writing is for students to demonstrate knowledge or master of a concept. In general, though, because direct writing instruction usually means teaching how to organize summative thoughts at the point of summation, it’s no wonder that many students find difficulty organizing those thoughts or even drawing conclusions, as they have not cultivated that way of thinking throughout the process. The “new” trend I wanted to employ is actually an “oldie, but a goodie”—writing to learn (“WTL”), which is the formative use of writing to augment the thinking and discovery process, as opposed to being focused on the product of learning. In essence, WTL prescribes that writing—i.e., thinking—is taught through the incorporation of several short, informal, and quickly feed-backed writings during the learning process. This can take the form of journaling, quick-writes, and even journaling, but it is used intentionally as a metacognitive component for students to reflect on how they’re learning, before they write an essay on what they know. Although these strategies may seem commonplace to English teachers, the idea is really well-suited to teaching writing—i.e., thinking—across the curriculum.

Instructional Strategies:
Because the WTL method can be used for teaching writing and reinforcing metacognition connected to any topic, I will detail here suggested instructional strategies for how to use the method at different points in any lesson.

“Before” Lesson Start (Preparation)
– Journaling to access prior knowledge: Ask students to write about what they already know—or questions they may have—about a topic before introducing it
– Quickwrites to build on prior knowledge: Ask students to write a quick summary of a preceding concept
– “Most Important Thing” to generate interest: Ask students to write the most important quite/concept/etc. from the previous night’s reading
– “Big Questions” to clarify misconceptions: Ask students to write 1-3 of the most pressing questions from the previous lesson (students can then pair-share-regroup to discuss, and choose the most pressing question of the entire class)

“During” Lesson (Scaffolding/Assistance)
– Note-taking for understanding: Ask students to not only record important information, but to explain why the information is important
– Annotating for understanding: Ask students to highlight important information from texts, and reflect critically on the information by responding to analytical and metacognitive prompts (i.e., “What surprised you in the information? Did anything contradict what you already knew?”)
– Mid-class quick writes for assessment: Ask students to summarize, on index cards, after manageable chunks of content
– Problem Statement/Problem Solving for critical thinking: Ask students to respond in writing to hypothetical situations, scenarios, or case studies by suggesting solutions; or, to create problems to be solved
– Learning Log for metacognition: Have students quickly catalogue what they’ve learned, and what questions they still have
– “Think Pieces” for affective domain: Ask students to write a short (1-minute!) personal response to a question, problem, issue or concept. The reflection is meant to highlight their own perspectives and beliefs.

“After” Lesson (Reflection/Assessment)
– “Micro-themes” for reflection and assessment: Short, informal writings of one page or less at the end of a lesson to check for understanding
– “Exit tickets” for assessment: A quick summary and/or question generated at the end of class to gauge student understanding
– “Terminal pieces” for metacognition and assessment: Summative pieces
– Portfolios for assessment and evaluation: A selection of student writing over time, including student pieces selected for revision and a cover letter

5×8 index cards
Class blogs or digital portfolios
Timer (optional)

Elbow, Peter (1994). “Writing for learning–not just for demonstrating learning.” University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1-4. National Teaching and Learning Forum. Retrieved from

This article details the various occasions for writing with the WTL method, as well as a detailed section on feedback and grading.

Kiefer, Kate (1997). “What is writing to learn?” The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University [Website]. Retrieved from

This resource, a compendium published by Colorado State University’s WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Clearinghouse, defines the “Writing to Learn” method of short, informal writings used for formative assessment. The site provides example WTL activities, evaluation/assessment materials, and teacher commentaries on the method. The site also supplies a list of print and online resources for the topic.

Smit, David (2010). “Strategies to Improve Student Writing.” Idea Paper #48, The Idea Center. Retrieved from

Smit give an overview of the so-called “writing crisis,” then suggests Writing to Learn—and Writing Rhetorically, as a solution. He suggests that if we adjust our expectations—as a result of direct writing instruction, as opposed to an assumption of students’ writing skills—we can move from subjective expectation to objective standards, and, therefore, marked improvements. (Be basically suggests a method for articulating critical thinking in writing.)

Young, Art. (2011). Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, Fourth Edition. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies: Originally Published in Print, 2006, by Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, a Prentice Hal manual for writing instructors, is comprehensive outline of the concept of integrated writing instruction, or teaching writing across the curriculum. The text covers a variety of topics, including a chapter on the WTL method. The entire textbook has been made available online.

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