“I don’t know what to write about.” This was the sentence I most dreaded and, unfortunately, heard too often in the classroom.
For some time, like many elementary school teachers, I taught writing in a way that invariably led to that response from my students, which made me think there had to be a better approach.
At the time, I used a common instructional approach that emphasized sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling—but didn’t spark joy in writing, connect it to what we were reading, or build knowledge on important topics. Skills were taught as stand-alone topics, devoid of meaningful content.
During a typical writing block, I’d give students a prompt like “Write about a small moment in your life or something that took place over the weekend.”
I taught in a diverse school in Washington, D.C., and for some of my students, the question was easy. They might write about a museum visit, a day at the beach, or an outing with their dog. But for other students, often those from low-income families, the question failed to elicit comparable answers. Instead, it simply highlighted inequities among my students and led to gaps in their performance.
Building Knowledge and Skills
I eventually became an assistant principal, but the problem stuck with me and continued to trouble my teaching colleagues. We knew there had to be a better way, and together we began doing some research. We looked into knowledge-building curricula—materials that help students learn about important topics while developing critical skills at the same time. Research shows that increasing students’ background knowledge on important topics supports their understanding of texts and ability to absorb and retain information.
So, with a literacy approach that explicitly emphasizes the development of knowledge and skills, writing and reading lessons are deeply intertwined, rather than being taught as two separate and disconnected blocks. Writing assignments are rooted in the texts that students are reading, and texts connect important topics like history, science, or art.
I’m grateful that my school went on to adopt this kind of knowledge-building approach. What a difference it made. To give you a sense of the change, in a fourth-grade class, students studied the American Revolution and read engaging, complex texts, like Liberty! How the Revolutionary War Began and excerpts from A Young People’s History of the United States. They enthusiastically participated in thoughtful discussions on what they read and dove into related writing assignments; for example, they took the perspective of someone who lived in the period and wrote an essay on whether the colonists were or were not justified in declaring independence from Britain.
The result? Over time, our learners improved in literacy. We saw improvements in the quantity and quality of student writing. The experience they gained in answering text-based questions and supporting their work with text evidence also helped prepare them for standardized tests. We used rubrics to measure growth, and we took notes on how students responded to writing tasks and monitored and recorded their progress.
Specifically, we saw growth in students’ use of academic vocabulary in both speaking and writing. For example, when studying a unit on food, students became adept at using words like esophagus, intestine, and villi. They were also able to answer more in-depth questions and apply their deeper knowledge to their writing.
Anecdotally, we saw that they were more eager and excited to write, and their confidence grew. Thankfully, we rarely heard a student say they didn’t know what to write about. On the rare occasion that did happen, we guided them toward the texts we were reading as a source of inspiration. The approach was both effective and equitable.
6 Steps to Build Knowledge and Improve Literacy
My colleagues and I made the switch to this approach as a team. We worked together to research curricular options, adopted a program we liked, and implemented it well. If you’re in that position too, count your blessings. You can check out independent reviewers like EdReports.org for write-ups of programs and study a curriculum closely before selecting it.
If you’re not in a school taking up a new adoption and want to try some of the approaches I’ve recommended here, it’s still a good idea to engage colleagues who are also interested in this work.
And whether you’re working on your own or with peers, here are some suggestions for trying out the practices I’ve recommended:
- Pick a topic that’s worthy of study, meaning it might anchor teaching and learning over the course of several weeks.
- Develop an essential question around your central topic that sparks student inquiry and fosters critical thinking and deeper learning. Come back to the question in discussions and during lessons.
- Find grade-level texts that fit in with that topic. Look for books that have received literary awards or that former students have loved and wanted to savor.
- Layer fiction and nonfiction, introduce primary sources, and even weave in a study of fine art like paintings or photography.
- Listen to audio clips, and watch excerpts from films to offer access points for students with different backgrounds and language skills.
- Share this knowledge-rich approach to literacy instruction with your school’s specialists, like art, music, dance, and physical education teachers. I loved how our second-grade students, when studying the American West, were so inspired by the text, The Buffalo Are Back, that they worked with our music teacher to write a song about the buffalo.
As an assistant principal, I often heard my teachers rave about our new approach to English language arts. They particularly noted how much more fun students were having in class and how much more they were writing. That’s a far cry from the days when I had to hold my breath and hope I didn’t get that dreaded response when giving my students a writing assignment.