Teaching Strategies for Content-Area Writing

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

All subject areas are required to incorporate writing in some form. This lesson offers strategies for teaching content area writing in two ways - learning to write and writing to learn.

Writing in the Content Areas

At one time, writing instruction was only completed in a language arts classroom. These days, teachers of all subjects are required to weave concepts of reading and writing into the content areas - social studies, science, and even math. Content area writing, then, is writing that is completed in these and other subjects. There can be two ways to look at this.

One way is what is referred to as learning to write. Just as it sounds, when teachers use instruction to teach the mechanics and craft of creating writing, they are using this method. Teachers use what is called writing to learn, as a time when students use writing to better understand content area material. Though similar, different strategies are used for each. Let's take a look.

Learning to Write

Think back to when you were taught writing skills. You probably started off learning the basics about writing conventions, or those things students do to make what they write understandable, such as grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. You may have been taught the craft of writing as well - how to hook an audience with a great lead, or how to write in different genres depending on your purpose. These are all examples of learning how to write.

It's also likely you learned these skills in language arts or classrooms dedicated to writing instruction, not science or math. With more emphasis put on integrating subject matter and higher level thinking skills being used, writing instruction is now required across the curriculum. How do teachers accomplish this?

Though the bulk of instructional writing still remains in the language arts classroom, content area teachers can scaffold students in several ways:

  • Demonstrate how and when different types of writing are used. For example, most content area writing is nonfiction, or instructional. Why is this? Teachers can show students how different genres are used for specific purposes, such as an autobiography on Abe Lincoln in social studies or a report on the solar system in science.
  • Teach and reinforce the steps of the writing process, or prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and publishing. Going through these steps is important when producing most types of writing.
  • Instruct the specific skills necessary when writing content area pieces. Students will likely need to research and collect data to write the informational texts found in content area writing. Teachers will need to spend instructional time dedicated to teaching students how to use a variety of texts as resources, and check the reliability of facts.

Writing to Learn

Have you ever made a list of errands to run? Or created a pro and con list to make a decision? These are examples of writing to learn - organizing your thoughts in writing to make sense of the content. Content area writing also includes opportunities for students to use their writing to help them better understand the content. As we see in our everyday lives, writing can be a tool used to help us think. When teachers use writing to learn strategies in their classrooms, they are teaching students to use writing to think more deeply about the content.

How does this look? While most learning to write experiences are longer, centered around an audience, graded, and use the writing process, writing to learn is shorter, ungraded for the writer, and informal. Typically only one draft, it is a personal tool students use. Here's how it looks:

Writing breaks are times teachers stop and allow students to use writing to reflect on the lesson. These breaks are short and sweet - typically about two minutes.

  • Extension - Teachers can use the accumulated writing break pieces to help students prepare for and study work. For example, a science teacher can ask students to go back and look over all writing break material and create a list of the five most important concepts learned in the chapter. The teacher can then fill in the gaps of information students may not have grasped.

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