Writing In All Subjects

Writing Is a Beneficial Activity
Across All Subject Areas!

Writing in all subjects: Over the past two weeks, we’ve explored writing and ways to encourage reluctant writers to simply get words on paper. Now that your students/children are writing, what comes next? Writing can be used as a learning strategy, too. 
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When used effectively, writing improves student learning by consolidating information into long-term memory. Research has shown information is forgotten if it’s not quickly reinforced. Writing can help to strengthen a student’s memories of material they’re currently working with.

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Writing also improves a student’s ability to recall information, to make connections between unlike concepts and to synthesize information in different ways. In effect, writing isn’t only a tool to assess learning. Writing also promotes learning.


What the Heck is
Retrieval Practice, anyway?

Retrieval practice is a strategy in which bringing information forward to mind enhances learning. Purposefully recalling information forces us to pull knowledge out and then to assess what we know.

For instance, recalling an answer to a geometry question improves learning more than simply looking up the answer in a textbook. Taking this a step further, having to recall and then write down an answer improves learning that much more. Even if a person thinks they know an answer, moving past it prematurely will fail to reinforce it.

Often, we think we’ve learned some bit of information, but then struggle to recall it. When trying to recall this same bit of information, we in turn strengthen our memories. Through this exercise, we can also identify gaps in our learning.

This cognitive mechanism explains why practice tests can be highly effective. Practicing retrieval of recently studied information enhances the likelihood of the learner retrieving that information in the future. This was confirmed in a 2014 study.

Thus, retrieval practice is a beneficial activity when writing in all subjects. 


What the Heck is
Low-Stakes Writing, anyway?

Low-stakes writing is the technique of using short, daily writing activities to encourage critical thinking skills, self-confidence and student voice. Low-stakes activities should not be too highly structured. They should also allow for students to revise their ideas if what they wrote down was not correct.

Let’s consider the areas of geometry and math, which happens to be two of my favorite subjects to teach. As a Montessori teacher, I try to work math and geometry into most lessons throughout the day. This can be easily done by exploring history timelines, looking at etymologies of words (when was this word first used and where?), considering architecture or asking how old was such and such when they died?

A simple way to encourage low-stakes writing is by showing students a picture. Say, you display a picture of Pythagoras working with right angle scalene triangles. They have had previous lessons about the Greek mathematician. As a group, I am certain by asking the right questions we can extract some of that previous knowledge. 


Who was Pythagoras?

I might ask, “Who is this individual? Do you remember where or when he lived? What does he have in his hands? What is a triangle? What do you notice about the triangles? What evidence do you see in this picture to support that?” Writing about the topic encourages students to process information at a deeper level.

Students write down their observations. After a few minutes, the entire group shares their observations. Through this discussion guided by me, we will come up with a definition or two about triangles together. From there, the group is asked to write down our newly formed definitions or to modify what they have already written. This is a smooth segue into the key concepts being introduced in the new lesson.


What the Heck is
Metacognitive Prompting, anyway?

Metacognitive prompting is asking students to not only recall information but to also apply what they’ve learned to different contexts. This is done by thinking about different viewpoints or making predictions based on what they currently know. 

A great example of writing in all subjects I’ve seen used is that of environmental science. Instead of simply reading together about ecosystems in a textbook, students can write about their own impacts on our ecosystem. They might examine how much trash and recycling material their households produce weekly. Or they might look more closely at the environmental impact of producing the food they eat and subsequently the food they throw out as waste.


I Wonder?

“I wonder” journals are a great resource for metacognitive prompting. Encourage students to ask “I wonder” questions to push learning beyond the classroom. After exploring a new concept, students might have more questions than there is time to answer. Set aside a few minutes and ask them to write down anything they were confused or curious about for future discussions, lessons and experiments.

Wonderings lead to creative thinking, which in turn leads to critical thinking. As students reflect on what they’ve just discovered and try to put the puzzle pieces together, that’s where connections are made. It will allow them to see the bigger picture.


What is a Travel Journal?

Travel journals are exactly as they sound. When traveling to new or historical places, it is a journal for writing and reflecting on what a student has just experienced. It might also include charts, drawings and graphic organizers.

Before a field trip, nature walk, family or class trip, ask them to imagine they are explorers discovering a new world. In their travel journal, they can keep track of everything they see and observe. This can be as simple or complex as the children are ready to handle. They can simply describe the flora and fauna. Or, they can more closely analyze the human impact in that specific environment.


When in Doubt,
There Is Always Creative Writing!

Creative writing incorporates creative writing lessons and storytelling. There is evidence to support using stories to help students engage with content and create individual meaning and connection. Listening to stories stimulates the brain differently than just listening to facts. When we listen to a story, our senses and motor movements help us to actually ‘feel’ the descriptions. No better way to get kids writing in all subjects than via creative writing!

For me, the bottom line is I love to write. And, I hope to help my students discover that they love writing as much as I do. This means I am always walking on a tightrope; a fine line between encouraging content or encouraging technique. As we know, there is a time and a place for both. In my experience, I find gentle nudges in either direction to be more effective than a red pen, a graded paper, or an inflexible deadline.

I didn’t always consider myself to be an effective writer. In fact, to the contrary. Like most of us, I too continue to carry writing scars inflicted at earlier ages. Over the years, I have found ways to help heal myself as best I can. In time and with proper guidance, I have encouraged myself to look at writing as a highly cathartic act. I also try to engage in it daily. With soft encouragement, low risk creative writing can become a part of your student’s every day, too.


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Read More:

Edutopia: Why Students Should Write in All Subjects
By Youki Terada, January 7, 2021

What is Retrieval Practice?
by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D.

Edutopia: How to Support Vocabulary Building in Science Classes
By Hayley Hutchinson February 2, 2021

2014 Study: Both Multiple-Choice and Short-Answer Quizzes Enhance Later Exam Performance in Middle and High School Classes