Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Get Students Writing Right: Tips for the Content Area Classroom

Writing opportunities within the content area classroom can be exciting and motivational, but some content area teachers feel they are not up to the task of "teaching writing." The first step in assuaging this authentic concern is to let content area teachers off the hook. They are not writing teachers. Content area teachers can appreciate strongly supported arguments and easily spot a well-turned phrase, but they should not be held accountable for teaching the skills needed to accomplish these writing goals. Their field of expertise may be science or history or math, and because these teachers have done quite a bit of writing in their own academic careers, they are experts in the type of writing required in their respective disciplines. These rich backgrounds help content area teachers make indispensable contributions to the refinement of writing skills. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions that might encourage more content area teachers to infuse writing into their curriculum.

  1. Writing products let teachers see into the minds of their students.

    Why should students engage in writing activities in every class? An important answer to that question is that student writing, in any classroom, is a window into how students think about the concepts they are learning. Writing assignments make terrific formative assessments. Something as simple as an exit pass, a few sentences written on index cards summarizing the day's lesson, allows teachers to gauge the level of concept mastery students have attained. Written products, whether simple or complex, reveal the extent of a learner's understanding and are a window through which the writer's thinking processes can be viewed. For this reason alone, writing activities are essential learning experiences and should be a part of every teacher's routine practice.

  2. Choose from an array of writing assignments that are relevant to your content.

    Content area classrooms are fertile ground for extending and sharpening writing skills. Solar system web pages, Civil War newspapers, lab reports, immigrant journals, science fair abstracts, play scripts, R.A.F.T. papers, biographies of scientists, interview questions, timeline narratives, response-note taking formats, and storyboards for film or slide presentations are just a few of the infinite and realistic ways content area teachers can help students hone the writing skills that language arts teachers have helped them develop. Websites like ReadWriteThink.org and ReadingQuest are filled with great lesson plans to help content area teachers incorporate interesting and relevant writing assignments into their classroom practices.

  3. Reduce your assessment anxieties. Use rubrics to facilitate a more holistic approach to assessment.

    Content area teachers are always going to value content over style, but there are times when holding students accountable for the elements of good writing is necessary. The most daunting hurdle that many content area teachers must leap is how to assess the "writing" part of any assignment. Should they mark off for every grammar, spelling, and sentence structure faux pas? And what if they miss some errors? These obsessions discourage content area teachers from infusing writing into their classroom practices. A more holistic and focused approach to assessment uses rubrics. A rubric allows teachers to determine the essential criteria of an assignment, describe the various levels of quality, and concisely communicate expectations to their students. Rubrics create a framework to crystallize student understanding of what the teacher sees as superior, acceptable, and inferior work. The rubric reflects the curriculum and the concepts students are expected to master. For example, if students are dramatizing life in Europe prior to World War I, what knowledge does a history teacher expect to see in their script? The accuracy and depth of historic content, the portrayal of multiple points of view, a linkage to present events, and the creation of a correctly constructed "works cited" page would be important criteria for an assessment rubric. Add a category for sound writing style and writing conventions and you have a complete rubric. A sample top scoring descriptor for the writing category might include the following language:
    The writing demonstrates a mature command of language (word choice) with freshness of expression. Sentence structure is varied, and sentences are complete except when fragments are used purposefully. Few, if any, convention errors occur in mechanics, usage, and punctuation.
    -- Excerpted from Florida Writing Assessment Program (FLORIDA WRITES!), Florida Department of Education
    The broad language in this rubric allows content area teachers to use their native appreciation for good writing so that it becomes an expected outcome for all work produced by their students. A scoring rubric which incorporates criteria for identifying the elements of good writing helps the content area teacher hold students accountable for content and literacy skills. This dual accountability fosters both content mastery and the growth of strong communication skills.

    To create a rubric, you can always use the table creator in your word processing program, but if you need help, the Internet has a plethora of websites devoted to making rubrics. A great place to begin with creating rubrics is RubiStar, a free tool used by thousands of teachers, across all curriculum areas, to create and customize rubrics for a multitude of assignments and projects. Another valuable resource for learning about and creating rubrics is Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators. Kathy Schrock is an internationally recognized educator who has pioneered the use of Internet resources with special emphasis on the use of technology in today's classrooms. You will find rubrics and much more at her website.

  4. Form a collaborative partnership with a language arts teacher.

    Middle school teachers have an advantage when it comes to collaborative partnerships. Arranged in interdisciplinary teams, content area teachers have ready access to a language arts teacher. The middle school model was designed to facilitate collaboration and help students make connections between the content areas, and most especially, insure that literacy is infused into all curriculum areas. Effective middle school teams create common literacy practices with the language arts teacher playing the role of a project manager ensuring students are learning to read, write, speak, listen, and critically view information from all the disciplines. Students on these teams know they are expected to apply the writing skills learned in their language arts class to assignments given all across the team.

    With the advent of small learning communities, high schools are beginning to incorporate a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching. This arrangement is making it much easier for high school teachers to receive the support they need from the English teachers in their communities. Building strong partnerships between content area and language arts teachers is a positive way to foster all types of literacy skills in every content classroom.

  5. Teach your students to use tools for making citation pages.

    When content area teachers require a written product derived from research, they should insist on a properly formatted "works cited" page. Learning how to set up and format correct citation pages should happen in the language arts classroom, but content area teachers should require the application of this skill. A "works cited" page is not only an important step in teaching students how to evaluate sources, it also helps them grasp the concept of intellectual property.

    Putting together a citation page is not the nightmare it once was. Citation Machine and Nooblebib Express are both free Internet tools that allow students to create perfect MLA or APA citations. History teachers who have their students create entries for events like the National History Day will love Noodlebib Express. This tool has a place for students to include an annotation about how the source was used to inform the project's conclusions, a requirement for entering the National History Day contest.

  6. Show a model and be a model.

    If you really want students to meet the highest criteria you've set for their writing, show them lots of models of what their finished product should resemble. The more exemplars they see, the more often their work will become exemplary. Teachers must also model the process of creating a finished product. For example, when a science teacher walks students through the steps of creating a lab report, a strategy that works is to show the struggle the teacher has experienced in learning to write in a third-person voice, the hallmark of scientific writing. Another effective technique is to take a student product and guide students in transforming the report into the professional style demanded of this type of technical writing. Depending on the grade level, expect to have to model these techniques more than once. Showing models of the type of work expected and getting in the writing trenches with students are ways to ensure students are learning the essential writing skills needed to succeed within specific disciplines.

Content area teachers are priceless contributors to the teaching of the writing process, and their efforts to produce literate, well-educated students must be supported in language arts classrooms. Collaboration between skills-based classes like language arts and content-based classrooms give content area teacher the support and encouragement they need to infuse writing into their disciplines. These partnerships between teachers allow everyone to be a winner, especially our students.

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Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach and now blogger who is working to define a "new literacy" at her middle school. Click here to read more articles by Debbie Shults.

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