Writing across the curriculum has been touted as an essential component of literacy education at every level. Not only is writing a critical communication skill in its own right, it can be used as a metacognitive strategy to help students process their learning, and it serves as a way to authentically assess students’ understanding of the material. One of the greatest ways to engage students in the subjects we teach is to teach them to think like a member of that academic community: Think like a scientist, like a historian, like an artist, etc. It’s like mental dress up!
If a student can use the processes, language, and skills associated with the subject area, they are fully engaging with the content. If they can write like those individuals, it’s an even more immersive experience. Besides the benefits to the content area learning, students’ communication skills improve when they learn to write in a variety of formats about an assortment of topics with a range of voices. The overall impact of writing across all subject areas can be incredible, and what’s more, it’s fun!
English Language Arts (ELA)
One of the best ways to help students write like, well, writers is to expose them to exemplar texts and authors. Reading multiple selections by the same author and then attempting to emulate some characteristic of that writer’s style, voice, or process is a way to help students see themselves as writers.
A teacher in our school recently highlighted the works of Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate. The teacher played examples of Gorman reading her poetry aloud for students, and after discussing her literary techniques including rhythm and imagery, students were asked to apply the same techniques to their own poetry. The relevance of the author, her age, fame, and captivating poetry were highly motivating to students who might have not otherwise felt a connection to writing poetry.
Writing does not need to be a formal assessment in order to be effective. Finding ways for even quick daily writing, sometimes called low-stakes writing, in the ELA classroom can be a great way to keep students excited about writing while taking the pressure off of publishing a finished product. For instance, a rambling autobiography in which students tell their life stories in a stream of consciousness as if it is flashing before their eyes can serve as an icebreaker or a warm up activity.
Asking students to write about math can provide insight into their understanding and possible misconceptions that might otherwise go undiscovered. Again, writing in math classes does not have to be a formal undertaking. Asking students to write a one- or two-sentence explanation or, for the younger grades, draw a picture explaining how they solved a problem is an effective strategy for building their capacity to communicate clearly about math. Alternately, students could be asked to defend their decision to use a particular strategy to solve a problem.
If the teacher is looking for a lengthier undertaking, giving students a real-world “problem” like winning a millions dollars can be a fun application of mathematics and an inspiring writing prompt. Students can calculate the taxes that will be deducted and the manner in which they will receive their payout before being asked to “spend” the money and explain their decision-making process.
As students learn about different scientific topics, they can practice writing like a scientist by creating a website that uses key terms, pictures, and short, factual explanations to show what they know about the topic.
Students can write about real life examples of the science concepts being discussed. A nature walk can provide an opportunity for students to take or draw pictures of science-related items and caption them with what they know.
There is value at every level of social studies in asking Document Based Questions (DBQs). These writing prompts are accompanied by relevant primary and secondary sources. DBQs ask students to make an argument, defend a position, or explain a concept using evidence from the documents to support their ideas. In the younger grades, this can be done using sentence starters and/or by writing aloud (a strategy in which the teacher and students write together on the board). Students can also use the information they glean from primary and secondary sources to write historical fiction in which they create a story about a fictional character using their knowledge of history as the context and backdrop.
For less intense writing integration, students can make posters or social media accounts of historical figures. A teacher in our school did this activity as part of the observation of Black History Month. Students researched little-known African American historical figures, created profiles of these individuals, and then posted them on lockers in the hallway. Students then walked through the hallways gathering information and answering questions using their peers’ writing to complete their own assignment.
Strategies for Administrators
School administrators can take some specific steps to promote writing across the curriculum and create an educational environment that promotes critical thinking and self-expression through writing. Administrators can begin the conversation about writing across the curriculum by sharing a vision and clear expectations with teachers and staff that writing is an essential component of instruction and assessment in all subject areas.
In order to increase teachers’ confidence as writers and writing teachers, administrators should model strategies and provide specific, personalized professional development that targets teachers’ subject areas and their unique professional needs. Teachers should be empowered to lead the efforts to infuse writing across the curriculum. By starting with the ELA and social studies departments where there is often much common ground, a school can begin to build a culture of writing.
Developing a school-wide writing framework that includes common terminology and process steps is also critical to creating a school-wide writing culture. In order to properly monitor the progress of students and evaluate the writing program, teachers and students should be coached on how to interact with their writing data, including building a portfolio that allows them to look back on their writing progress over time and across a variety of genres.
Whatever the subject area, it is essential when developing writing experiences for students, no matter their age, that the writing opportunities students have allows them to create authentic products for an audience about subjects and topics that are relevant not only to their learning, but to their lives.