3 tips for teaching writing across the curriculum
Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, Co-Founder & CEO
Nearly every jurisdiction and every curricula at every grade has some learning outcome related to writing goals. There are various "writing across the curriculum" goals, and it can sometimes be overwhelming. As educators, we know that the best way for students to improve their writing is by practising more and more. Yet, how many of us have time to provide feedback on a daily or weekly basis on student writing? What if we aren't the English teacher? Do we still have to help with writing outcomes? What other ways can we help students improve their writing, especially if we aren't the English teacher?
Why does writing across the curriculum matter?
Universities and schools in a variety of contexts - likely yours as well! - are asking teachers and students to ensure that they are writing in all their classes, not just their English classes.
"Writing Across the Curriculum is a movement that began in the 1970s and is gaining a lot of attention these days. It is designed to boost children’s critical thinking skills by requiring them to write in all of their classes—from math to social studies to science—and not just in language arts."
While that aim and objective might make a lot of great sense for students and the requirement that contemporary learners be well-versed in writing in a variety of disciplines, it doesn't help teachers who may not be experts in teaching composition.
But first, why does it matter?
In addition to often finding cross-curricular writing objectives as standards and directives to which you must adhere, you might also want to get your students writing in non-English classes because:
- Writing helps students retain information.
- Writing helps students develop critical thinking skills.
- Writing helps you assess all your students (even the quiet ones).
- Writing helps you to see if students do or do not understand the crux of the material.
So what are some easy ways to teach and incorporate writing in non-English classes, or even some tricks of the trade for English teachers?
Three tips to incorporate writing in your classes
Here are three easy ways to get students writing in your classes. Each step takes the student's writing and exploration a step deeper into the subject-matter that you teach.
1. Identify the problem in your own words
Having students in any class write out the main issue in a class in their own words can be a powerful way to get them writing, but also owning the course content that you want them to master. For instance, if students are memorising a formula in a Physics class to determine the velocity of something, have them write a few short sentences saying why it matters. It not only gets them writing, but also gets them internalising the "why" of the course materials in your class. Asking "why" questions and eliciting answers works in nearly every subject matter:
- Why does it matter that we learn what temperature various oils boil at compared to water?
- Why should we compare and contrast the relative ages of men and women in media representations of the same occupation?
- Why do we look at conditions leading up to the outbreak of World War 2?
- Why should we know where our country is relative to our largest trading partners?
- Why does it matter to learn about our GDP?
- Why should we learn about human health and nutrition?
- Why would we want to cross multiply and divide to solve for x?
In some classes, a written answer to one of these "why" problem questions might be enough. But in others, you might want to expand the restatement of the fundamental problem (or "why") into a longer answer. If so, move on to Step 2:
2. Expand the problem statement with some analysis
Once they've identified the "why" of the main problem that you are studying, regardless of the discipline, you can ask them to think of some real-world examples where solving or addressing the problem or the "why" matters. How can they apply the knowledge?
A first step in this is to get them to think about applications for the information that you are teaching from their own lives. Can they think of reasons, examples, or illustrations of how the information can be helpful? Have them write those out as examples.
In some classes, you might stop here. You've gotten them to think about why the problem you are studying matters and to think about some real-world examples of that particular information. And you've had them write something that either you can mark and provide feedback on, or you can have them share with a partner in a "think-pair-share" activity that gets them writing and also working with their classmates.
However, you can even go further, should you want. If so, move on to Step 3:
3.Engage in some independent research
Once students have written about the problem that they're studying in your class and provided some examples that they were able to think about on their own, you can extend the assignment further and have them engage in some research beyond their own thinking.
Depending on the grade or level and depending on the subject matter, you may choose to have them research the topic further. What is the scholarship on the field? How are the findings applied elsewhere? What are some other examples of research like that which you are doing? What have other scientists or historians said about the topic? Are there blog posts that take opposing views or pose different questions related to your field?
Giving students the opportunity to research beyond your classroom can help them to see not only the applicability of what they are studying in their own lives, but also how the discipline or the subject matter as a whole applies more broadly. As well, by doing a bit of extra research, you are building additional critical thinking and research skills over and above whatever curricular component was the main focus of your lesson.
With these three easy steps - stating the problem in their own words, thinking up examples, and doing a bit of research - any teacher in any subject can participate in "writing across the curriculum" initiatives. Whether you have your students compile the materials from these three steps into a more formal, summative assignment, or whether you simply have them do some of these steps as part of their formative work along the way, the more writing you get your students to do, the better it is for everyone!
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