Three Easy Strategies for Tying Writing to Learning
Writing is a subject to be taught. In fact, writing well is difficult and requires the focused attention of educators and their students. You cannot simply assume that students will acquire writing skills naturally as they mature. WriteAtHome’s online writing courses exist for this very reason–to help students develop skill as writers through regular practice and professional coaching on writing.
But writing isn’t simply an end in itself. It is a content area of sorts, but more than that, writing, like reading, is itself an educational tool. Learning to read enables students to learn across all subject areas. In the same way, writing is an instrument of education that can and should be used across various subjects. Unfortunately, teachers and home educators tend to use writing this way too rarely.
Write to learn is a catch phrase among educators that captures the idea of employing writing activities across academic content areas to stimulate and facilitate learning. Informal writing activities have the added benefit of providing teachers with a means of evaluating student comprehension of a subject.
Too many of us think of writing in the formal sense. We assign papers — essays, reports, term papers, etc. and grade them formally. There is an important place for this practice, of course, but there are also countless ways to integrate informal writing into a student’s daily learning activities. Making writing, like reading, a normal part of a school day forces students to engage actively with the material while building writing fluency at the same time.
Below are three easy-to-apply and informal write-to-learn strategies that can be used in almost any subject.
There are numerous ways to use journals in fostering learning. One strategy is what is known as Double-Entry Journals or Learning Logs. Any kind of journal will do — a spiral-bound notebook, a composition book, or a three-ring binder works just as well as a leather-bound diary. Whatever you choose to use, students should create two columns on each page by drawing a vertical line down the center. The left column should be titled Notes and the right titled Reflections and Questions.
Students should be encouraged to take notes during lectures, reading assignments, videos, and so on in the left-hand column. In the right-hand column, students should write any thoughts or questions that arise as a result of the information they have recorded. Reflections and questions often begin with phrases like “I wonder…” or “Does this mean…” Encourage students to consider the implications of what they are learning, how the information matters to the subject as a whole or how it might apply to their lives personally.
Here’s an example of what a Learning Log might look like:
There are many varieties of learning logs. Another way to do it is to write a direct quote in the left-hand column and the student’s thoughts in the right. Here’s an example of that kind of log.
However you use them, having students interact thoughtfully with whatever they are studying in a journal is an excellent way to improve comprehension and retention of the material while helping students develop facility with the written word.
Another popular write-to-learn strategy is summary writing. This is particularly effective with individual reading assignments. Ask students to read a chapter and then write a summary.
Once students get used to writing summaries, little else is necessary, but younger students and students new to the idea of summaries will require some extra help. Here are a few ideas.
- Show examples. It’s easy to find summaries online. Sparknotes.com provides free summaries of a wide variety of literary works. Wikisummaries.org has summaries of all kinds of books contributed by readers. The Harvard Business Review website posts summaries of books and articles written about business.
- Write one together. Before you assign a summary to your student/s, work on one together. Form an outline of the article, chapter, or short story you want to summarize, deciding together upon the most important information to include. Then you can either write the summary sentence by sentence, or write separate summaries individually, comparing them later.
- Give some structure. When students are just getting started, you should provide some structure or scaffolding for them. There are various graphic organizers available for free online to guide them. Here’s one example:
Admit Slips and Tickets Out
These strategies are often used in school classrooms, but they can work in a homeschool as well. The idea behind an Admit Slip is for students to write quickly and informally about what they already know about a subject before studying it. This not only prepares students to engage meaningfully with the subject and gives practice with informal writing, but it also provides the teacher with important information about what the student already knows.
You can use pre-designed slips for this, or simply ask students write what they already know about the topic on a sheet of paper.
Prompt: What do you know about Greek mythology?
Quickwrite: I know the Greeks thought there were lots of gods who lived on a mountain called Olympus. The leader of the gods is Zeus. I know the goddess of love is Aphrodite and her kid is Cupid. The god of the sea is Poseidon, but I think they call him Neptune too. There was Apollo and Athena and Hermes was the god who sent messages. He had wings on his shoes. I know a lot of this stuff because of the Percy Jackson books.
Give the student a time limit or a sentence limit for the Admit Slips.
Tickets Out are similar, but they are used after a lesson to assess what students got out of the experience. A Ticket Out asks students to summarize in a few sentences what they have learned. You might even ask for a single sentence about the most important thing they learned that day.
These three informal write-to-learn strategies can be integrated into any subject on any school day. They are excellent for spurring students to engage actively with the text, making learning less passive. It’s important that you see this kind of writing as a tool for learning and not as a writing development exercise in itself. In other words, don’t correct or grade these exercises. Focus on the content. If you must point out errors, do it casually.
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