Writing as a Tool to Foster Learning

Writing as a Tool to Foster Learning

Why do your students write?  Students often complete worksheets or construct essays but besides completing assignments, why do they write?  In schools today, we mustn’t only use writing as a way to get students to communicate what they know, we must also demonstrate and encourage the use of writing as a tool to construct meaning and spark inquiry. I recently witnessed a lesson that did just that.

The teacher began the lesson with a projected photograph on the wall and simply asked, “What do you notice? What questions do you have as you analyze this photo?  Take out a piece of paper and write down what you notice and the questions that come to your mind.” I looked at the photo.  At first glance, it looked like a typical picture of a group of people smiling for a camera.  In the photo, there were two men, two women, a young boy, and a young girl.  As I looked a little closer, I noticed the two men appeared to be identical twins which made me realize that the women also looked as though they could be twins. Naturally, I turned my attention to the young boy and young girl and wondered if the children were twins. Maybe this was just a picture of three sets of twins.  As I had all of these thoughts, I looked around the room to see everyone silently doing what the teacher asked.  

They were writing down what they noticed about the photo and also writing down questions that were coming to their mind as they analyzed the possible scenarios represented in the photo.  Were the adults married couples?  Were the children twins? Was the photo just trick-photography? After several minutes of writing, the teacher then shared a little more information about the photo.  She told us that the children in the photo were considered both siblings and cousins!  There was a visible change on everyone’s face and I could feel the questions spinning in everyone’s minds. There was an overwhelming desire to start talking aloud about how this could be possible but the teacher asked them to keep writing and writing they did!

 After several minutes, the teacher told everyone to find a partner and share what they noticed and the questions they generated.  The conversations were deep, on topic, full of wonder and everyone was referencing and revisiting what they had been writing.  The teacher wrote all of their questions on the board as they shared them aloud, categorizing them as she wrote, and then used their questions to introduce the next unit about DNA.  In the end, more questions were generated during this activity than could possibly be answered during a typical unit of study but it was evident that curiosity had been sparked and deep levels of learning was going to take place.

Writing to communicate knowledge is drastically different than writing to create knowledge or generate inquiry.  There is a place for both types of writing in our classrooms but we need to be sure students understand that writing is a tool that can be used to deepen their understanding of any topic or content area.  Writing is not just a way to communicate what is already known but should be used in a way that fosters curiosity and helps piece together and process information.  

Tips for using writing as a tool:

  1. Model for students how you use writing to organize your thinking. You are able to process information much quicker than your students because you have had more practice in thinking, reading, writing, and learning in your content area.  By slowing that process down and explicitly demonstrating with visuals what happens in your mind as you learn,  you are teaching students the types of questions to ask and the moves needed to learn at high levels.   When students can hear you talk through your thinking and see you use writing to help you learn, they will begin to utilize those same strategies to improve their learning.
  2. Provide Feedback But Do Not Grade.  When students are writing to process information and learn new concepts you should provide feedback on their writing.  Your feedback should include recognition of the strategies and moves they are utilizing that move their learning forward.  Do not assign a letter or percentage grade to this type of writing.  Learning is a messy process and assigning a grade at this point often stops learning.
  3. Revisit and Revise Your Writing.  Guide your students to revisit and revise their writing often and model how you revisit your own writing.  As you present new information, read a new article, observe a new demonstration, complete an additional lab, or watch a new video have your students go back to their writing and revise it.  Ask them to add, take away, or reword what they have written.  Have them write answers to questions they had generated and then add new questions that have emerged.  Revisiting their writing will help them make connections between what they used to know and what they now know.

Writing is a powerful tool that can foster learning by making explicit what goes on in the mind of someone who is learning.  As educators, we can demystify learning by modeling our own thinking, providing feedback to our students on their thinking, and guiding students to revisit and revise their writing as they navigate all the information they are inundated with each and every day.

Tricia Kurtt is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader who currently serves as a high school instructional coach in Norwalk, Iowa.  She is a National Board Certified teacher who recently graduated from Iowa State University with a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Connect with Kurtt on Twitter @tkurtt77.