How a Focus on Writing Across the Curriculum Can Help Boost Writing Skills
In the February 2017 issue of the Educational Leadership journal, California teacher Kelly Gallagher made a straightforward declaration: “Wide swaths of students are not developing their writing skills.” Gallagher, who works with high school students, based this conclusion on workshop sessions he has held with teachers from around the country. What’s more, Gallagher and his fellow teachers know that these lagging writing skills are “foundational” to their students’ “literate lives.”
To further underscore the basis of his concern, Gallagher cited a 2015 study by Education Trust. According to Gallagher, when the nonprofit advocacy group asked middle school teachers whether they thought their classroom assignments “reflect today’s higher standards,” the answer was overwhelmingly “no.” In particular, teachers reported spending little class time on “rigorous” writing tasks. Highlighted statistics from the report include:
Only 9 percent of assignments required students to write more than one paragraph at a time.
Students were asked to write only one- to two-sentence responses 17 percent of the time.
Close to 20 percent of assignments required students to do no writing whatsoever.
Less than 10 percent of science and social studies assignments involved written work longer than one paragraph.
Addressing the problem
In the remainder of the article, Gallagher described how teachers in his district have turned a problem—students’ declining writing skills—into a collaborative opportunity. For the past three years, the district has embarked on an ongoing “Writing Journey” in an effort to “raise the volume and quality of student writing across the curriculum.” The first step was to ask a fundamental question: Why is writing “crucial to students’ literacy development”?
According to Gallagher, “Students—and some teachers—think that the only reason kids are asked to write in school is to demonstrate what they already know.” However, research from Langer and Applebee (1987) found that the purpose of writing goes beyond allowing students to share their knowledge. Indeed, it is also “a tool that generates new thinking,” and “the very act of writing leads students to new ideas that they would not have produced had they been simply asked to listen or talk.”
Writing across the curriculum
Moreover, Gallagher contended, enhancing writing skills can bring about “deeper thinking in any content area.” This notion is backed up by another February 2017 Educational Leadership article that explores why writing is a good fit for math classes. According to the authors, keeping a math journal can encourage students to “work out their solutions and confusions” on paper and find ways to explain their thinking to others. Further, writing about math is a way for peers to evaluate one another’s work from a different angle and provide evidence and counter-evidence related to their classmates' mathematical conclusions. Writing can also encourage what the authors termed “mathematically creative thinking” while simultaneously nurturing students’ budding literacy skills.
For the teachers at Gallagher’s high school, deftly integrating writing into all curriculum areas—including math—started with a clear directive that writing would take place in “all classes” to underscore the idea that it could truly be integrated school-wide.
Since then, teachers in the Anaheim Union High School District have engaged in continuous reflection and information-sharing about the “Writing Journey.” Three years into the process, principals and department chairs at every school reported “significant increases in the quantity and quality of student writing.” Looking to the future, a continuous reflection process will allow the district to revisit its plans with the aim of better supporting teachers as the journey continues.
In the end, the ultimate goal is to give everyone—teachers, administrators, and parents—a “bigger picture of students’ literacy development.” Along the way, the district has concluded that emphasizing writing cannot be a short-lived initiative. Instead, as Gallagher phrased it, this is simply “good teaching.”
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