For Kyle Pahigian, a 10th-grade math teacher at University Park Campus School in Massachusetts, a lesson on congruent triangles doesn’t start with calculators and protractors. Instead, she hands her students a treasure map and asks them to write detailed directions—using landmarks as a guide—to the buried treasure.
“I won’t tell the kids right away, ‘Today we’re going to learn about triangle congruence theorems,’” said Pahigian. “I want them to instead view it as them experimenting with something and doing something that they feel like they’re really good at.” Students often feel intimidated by math, and transforming the activity into a writing exercise eases some of the anxiety of introducing difficult concepts, she said.
In Pahigian’s math class, writing is regularly used as a learning strategy, one that gives her a window into her students’ thinking. “I like to do low-stakes writing when we’re coming up with definitions,” said Pahigian. Instead of telling her students what a polygon is, for example, she’ll show them a set of polygons and a set of non-polygons, and ask them, “What do you notice? What differences do you see?” Students spend a few minutes writing down their answers, and then join groups to compare responses.
“It’s really interesting and fun for me to read what they’ve written, because I can see all the questions. I can see the process,” said Pahigian.
A recent study sheds light on why writing is such a beneficial activity—not just in subjects typically associated with writing, like history and English, but across all subjects. Professor Steve Graham and his colleagues at Arizona State University’s Teachers College analyzed 56 studies looking at the benefits of writing in science, social studies, and math and found that writing “reliably enhanced learning” across all grade levels. While teachers commonly ask students to write about a topic in order to assess how well they understand the material, the process of writing also improves a student’s ability to recall information, make connections between different concepts, and synthesize information in new ways. In effect, writing isn’t just a tool to assess learning, it also promotes it.
Why is writing effective? “Writing about content material facilitates learning by consolidating information in long-term memory,” explain Graham and his colleagues, describing a process known as the retrieval effect. As previous research has shown, information is quickly forgotten if it’s not reinforced, and writing helps to strengthen a student’s memories of the material they’re learning.
It’s the same cognitive mechanism that explains why practice tests are effective: In a 2014 study, students who took low-stakes practice tests in science and history classes scored 16 percentage points higher on their final exams than students who simply studied the material. “Practicing retrieval of recently studied information enhances the likelihood of the learner retrieving that information in the future,” the researchers of the 2014 study said.
Writing about a topic also encourages students to process information at a deeper level. Answering multiple-choice or short-answer questions may help with factual recall, but putting thoughts on paper encourages students to evaluate different ideas, weighing the importance of each one and considering the order they should be presented in, Graham and his colleagues write. By doing so, students may make new connections between ideas, ones they may not have made when initially learning the information.
A Metacognitive Tool
Students often believe that they understand a topic, but if they’re asked to write it down—and explain it—gaps in their understanding may be revealed. One of the most effective writing strategies that Graham and his colleagues found was metacognitive prompting, in which students are asked not only to recall information but also to apply what they’ve learned to different contexts by thinking about multiple sides of a position or making predictions based on what they currently know. For example, instead of simply reading about ecosystems in a textbook, students can write about their own impact by examining how much trash their household produces or the environmental impact of producing the food they eat.
5 Writing Strategies to Use in Any Subject
Here are a variety of ideas teachers have shared with Edutopia in recent years on incorporating writing into a variety of subjects.
“I wonder” journals: At Crellin Elementary School in Oakland, Maryland, teachers encouraged students to ask “I wonder” questions to push their learning beyond the classroom. After visiting a local barn and garden, for example, Dave Miller realized his fifth-grade students had more questions about animals and plants than he had time to answer, so he had them write down anything they were confused or curious about, which helped him plan future lessons and experiments.
“If they don’t wonder, ‘How would we ever survive on the moon?’ then that’s never going to be explored,” said Dana McCauley, Crellin’s principal. “But that doesn’t mean they should stop wondering, because wonderings lead to thinking outside the box, which makes them critical thinkers. As they try to figure it out, and reflect on what they’re doing, that’s where it all ties together for them. That’s where all that learning occurs—where all the connections start being made.”
Travel journals: Every student at Normal Park Museum Magnet, a K–8 school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, created a travel journal to chart their learning. These journals included not only charts, drawings, and graphic organizers, but also writing and reflection pieces that capture students’ learning about a topic.
When fifth-grade teacher Denver Huffstutler began a unit on earth science, he asked his students to imagine they were explorers looking for a new world that could sustain life. In their travel journal, they kept track of everything they were learning, from the impact of man-made disasters to their designs and calculations for a manned rocket that could reach distant planets.
Low-stakes writing: Writing can be daunting, so teachers at University Park Campus School used daily low-stakes writing activities to foster student voice, self-confidence, and critical thinking skills—a school-wide strategy used in every subject.
“The most important thing about it for me is that it’s not censored, and it’s not too highly structured,” said seventh-grade science teacher James Kobialka. “It’s about them getting their own ideas down, and then being able to interact with those ideas, change them, and revise them if they’re not correct.”
For example, when Kobialka’s students were learning about the conservation of mass, he didn’t start by defining it—he showed them a picture and asked, “What do you notice about the atoms on both sides? How can you explain that?” Students wrote down their observations, and the entire class came up with a definition. “From there,” he said, “once that consensus is formed, I’ll ask somebody to write it on the board, and we’ll talk about the key concepts.”
Student-created magazines: In Alessandra King’s algebra class, students created a magazine with dozens of articles about real world applications of math. For each article, they selected a primary source—an article from Scientific American, for example—read it closely, and then wrote a summary. Students wrote about a range of topics, from gerrymandering to fractals in Jackson Pollock’s paintings to invisibility cloaks.
“Effective writing clarifies and organizes a student’s thoughts, and the slow pace of writing is conducive to student learning because it allows them to reason carefully to make sure they’re correct before they state their thoughts,” King wrote. “Studies have shown that writing is valuable specifically for the math classroom—for example, it seems that a student’s ability to explain concepts in writing is related to the ability to comprehend and apply them.”
Creative writing: Former teachers Ed Kang and Amy Schwartzbach-Kang incorporated storytelling and creative writing into their after-school program’s science lessons. For example, they asked students to imagine a creature that could survive in a local habitat—the Chicago River, in their case. What color would it be? What features would help it to survive and defend itself? How would it hunt its prey? Students then wrote a story about their creature that combined science concepts with creative storytelling.
“There’s brain science to support using stories to help kids engage with content and create personal meaning,” explained Kang, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. “Listening to facts mainly stimulates the two language-processing areas of the brain. However, when we listen to a story, additional parts of the brain are also activated—regions involved with our senses and motor movements help listeners actually ‘feel’ the descriptions.”