Writing Across the Curriculum: Strategies for Immediate Integration and Implementation

Spring 2018

By Tim Sheu

As a researcher and a teacher at a large pre-K-12 independent school, I have come to realize that teaching writing is analogous to physical training: There is compelling evidence suggesting that engagement in both activities should be routine, sustained, and deliberate in order to reap the most benefits. While there is little doubt that most teachers recognize writing as a foundational skill for academic success, effectively integrating writing to support content learning across the curriculum has its challenges. Several national studies indicate that the majority of teachers did not receive adequate and explicit instruction in writing pedagogy in their preservice training programs.1 Additionally, subject-area teachers often face high demands in covering content knowledge and, consequently, feel that they lack sufficient time to separately address writing during class.2

Research-Based, Practice-Proven Strategies

It seems clear that the majority of content area teachers would benefit from having additional time and professional development dedicated to writing instruction. However, when these two are not readily available, there are still viable and effective strategies for addressing writing skills that do not require extended class time or extensive training. The following five strategies are relatively easy to prepare for and implement, flexible in method of delivery, and applicable to virtually all content areas to support student learning (see Table 1).
First Quantity, Then Quality. In addition to not receiving enough authentic opportunities to write at school, many students demonstrate reluctance or anxiety toward writing for a number of reasons, including negative experience, fear of making mistakes and being judged, and the perception that writing is a cumbersome task. Teachers can help students overcome these negative feelings associated with writing by deconstructing written tasks into manageable steps and prompting students to write regularly.

In encouraging students to write more, teachers should understand that not every written piece needs to be reviewed and assigned a grade. When students establish a writing routine, they are able to perceive writing as “thinking on paper” and begin to do so more naturally and consistently.

Developing students’ habit of writing requires little more than asking each student to prepare a notebook for journaling. A simple but powerful activity is the Do-Now writing exercise in which students are expected to quietly and individually respond to questions in their notebooks when they first enter the classroom. This five-minute, pre-class activity can build a habit of writing in your students, set the tone of your class, and draw students’ focus to the topic of the day’s lesson.

Journaling can also be a better alternative to the traditional practice of calling on those students who volunteer to answer questions during class. A better use of time is to ask all students to respond to the five questions in their journals before revealing the answers. In addition to ensuring that all students—including the shy and less proactive ones—engage in answering questions, another benefit of journaling is that students practice refining their conceptualizations of content knowledge in writing before they take assessments.
Group Feedback. Providing students with targeted and timely feedback is essential to their learning and improvement.3 However, a common problem is that when teachers actually take time to construct feedback, their feedback addresses too many areas at once and is presented only after an assignment has been submitted and graded.4 Such practice not only overwhelms the students but also reduces their motivation to carefully read and learn from the feedback.

Let’s face it, the traditional method of giving written feedback for each student demands a lot of time and energy from teachers, and it is not always the best return on investment. Alternatively, a more efficient and effective approach is to target and teach a specific aspect of writing as students are working on their drafts; select and anonymously show sample student sentences; and provide feedback to groups of students or the entire class. When students receive feedback before rather than after the submission of their finished work, they have a much greater incentive to make revisions and learn from their prior mistakes.
Model What You Expect. Another effective strategy for helping students understand the expectations for any written assignment is to directly model the writing process. The preparation for this assignment is as simple as projecting a blank Google document or the template of an assignment onto a screen for the class to see. The demonstration can be completed within 10 minutes of class time.

In a “write aloud,” the teacher thinks aloud to the class while demonstrating the process of working on an assignment or a specific part of an assignment. After modeling a particular skill, the teacher can point to key phrases that can become sentence frames for students to use. This step-by-step approach can have a big impact by showing students—especially English language learners and struggling writers—how to craft sentences that are appropriate to a particular text type.
Creating Purpose with Role-Play. Children and adolescents are natural at role-playing, and teachers can leverage this skill to help them understand differences between text types in writing. To begin, I might ask students whether they have noticed that some professionals (e.g., aircraft pilots, police officers, scientists) speak in a certain way because of their roles. Students can usually come up with several examples and enjoy imitating these professionals.

I would then connect my opening question to writing and use a “translator activity” to develop students’ awareness of the linguistic features of different text types, which is a process also known as “mode switching.”5 Using a page with two columns, students write down their verbal response to a question or task in the left-hand column. Then, with my assistance when needed, students reformulate their responses in a language register or style that is appropriate for the task, situation, and discipline. In this activity, modeling a few examples can also be very helpful for students. After “translating” the sentences in the right-hand column, I ask the students, "Does this sound like it’s written by a scientist [or historian, etc.]?”

For longer writing tasks, another well-known strategy often employed by language arts teachers is called the RAFT, which stands for Role, Audience, Format, and Topic.6 Instead of having teachers serve as the primary audience, the RAFT framework leads to more creative and engaging writing prompts and ensures that students clearly address these four dimensions of writing. This strategy has existed for more than two decades, and you can easily find numerous online examples for your content area.
Be-the-Rater Bingo Activity. Rather than have students guess what you want, why not invite them to play the role of the teacher? In fact, to become more independent writers, students have to learn to evaluate their own work.

One writing evaluation activity that students often greatly enjoy is what I call Be-the-Rater Bingo. After selecting six anonymous student samples that reflect a range of writing abilities, I form small “panels” of students and ask them to review and rate each sample using a rubric. Because I typically use a six-trait rubric, I give the students a blank 6 × 6 matrix to record their scores (see Figure 1 for an example). Finally, I reveal the scores that I assigned for each sample, and the teams whose scores consecutively match mine in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line get a bingo (and thus a small treat). When I introduced a little incentive and competition, my students studied the writing rubric more intensely than I have ever seen them do. Of course, this activity usually requires more time than the other strategies, but you can choose to assign the task of reviewing samples for homework or give students only one or two samples to rate instead.

Another effective strategy for analyzing writing requires no more than three highlighters of different colors. When I teach specific language features or literary devices (e.g., figurative language, sensory words, transition words), I ask students to use different colors to find and highlight evidence of each feature or device in mentor texts. This activity usually enables my students to see a holistic and colorful view of the rich language and various techniques that proficient authors use. When I ask students to repeat the highlighting task with their own writing, they usually see a stark contrast in colored content between their own work and the mentor text. Without receiving a word of criticism, students see what they need to do to enhance their writing.

Figure 1
Example of Be-the-Rater Bingo

Note: Students’ scores that match the teacher’s are highlighted in light blue.

Table 1
Examples of Writing Strategies Applied Across the Curriculum
  English/Language Arts Science History/Social Studies
First Quantity, Then Quality
Examples of Do-Now writing activities
After reading the first chapter of the novel Holes, students respond to the following journal entry: Think about a time you experienced an unlucky event. Describe the situation, and use at least five specific adjectives. Prior to teaching a unit on pressure in physics class, ask: Do you think it would be more painful to be stepped on by an elephant or a woman wearing high heels? Explain your answer.
Show a picture of an interesting Mayan artifact and ask: Imagine that you are an archeologist who just unearthed this artifact in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. What do you think this item was used for?
Group Feedback To address the comma splice error, the teacher selects and displays three to five sentences from anonymous student work that contains such an error. As a class, the students identify and fix the comma splices. The science teacher shows sample student responses from a lab report assignment to explicitly address common problems, such as vague language, sentence fragments, and incomplete responses. The history teacher displays four example thesis statements of varying quality and engages the students in a discussion about which thesis statements are the most and the least successful. The teacher then explains why.
Model What You Expect For a small narrative piece, the English teacher demonstrates multiple ways of writing an interesting hook or opening sentence to introduce the reader to a topic. The science teacher projects a lab report template onto a screen and demonstrates how to write a lab report using the appropriate conventions, verb tense, and voice. The history teacher models how to cite a website, an article, and a book in MLA format by showing students how and where to find the key information. The teacher thinks aloud throughout the demonstration.
Creating Purpose With Role-Play Using the RAFT framework, the teacher gives students several options to engage in a persuasive writing task. One of them includes writing a persuasive letter (format) as a concerned resident (role) to the city mayor (audience) about a proposal to address the problem of littering in the community (topic). Translator activity: In pairs, students orally share the steps they took to conduct an experiment. While one is speaking, the other transcribes key phrases of what is said on the left of two columns. Then, the students exchange notes, and the teacher moves around the classroom to help students “translate” their verbal response in the left-hand column into the appropriate written form in the right-hand column. In pairs, students write and act out an interview script about a history topic. One student serves as the interviewer while the other plays the role of a famous historian. In addition to providing factual knowledge, the historian must also respond to the interview questions using a scholarly tone.
Be-the-Rater Bingo Activity Highlighter activity: To understand the rich language used in narrative writing, students use three highlighter markers of different colors to identify and highlight (1) action verbs, (2) precise and vivid adjectives, and (3) figurative language devices in a mentor text. Then the students discuss why the mentor text is successful in using rich language. They may also repeat the task with their own writing. Using a checklist or rubric provided by the teacher, each student evaluates whether a classmate’s science blog post has met all of the requirements. Next, the evaluator must post a comment containing at least one compliment and one lingering question. Be-the-Rater Bingo: The teacher divides the class into groups of three or four students and gives each group a set of four anonymous reports from another history class with varying areas of strengths and weaknesses. Using a four-trait rubric and a 6 × 6 bingo sheet, the students review and score each report. Finally, the teacher reveals the scores, and the students look for bingo matches.

Concluding Thoughts

As an essential mode of communication in academic settings, writing is critical to the access of curricular content and demonstration of complex and critical thinking. Therefore, there needs to be a collective effort among teachers of all subject areas not only to present rich and purposeful opportunities to write but also to explicitly teach writing skills and use strategies that support content learning.

Moreover, instructional strategies for writing do not need to contain buzzwords from the latest educational trend or involve intricate steps in order to be effective, just as expensive, state-of-the art equipment is not necessary to get a solid workout. Instead of allowing institutional and personal barriers to prevent you from addressing critical writing skills in your class, focus on ways to embed and consistently implement effective instructional practices that do not require a significant amount of time and preparation. Much akin to physical training, a little writing exercise each day can go a long way.
1. Jennifer Gilbert and Steve Graham, “Teaching Writing to Elementary Students in Grades 4-6: A National Survey,” Elementary School Journal 110, no. 4 (2010): 494-518; Steve Graham, Andrea Capizzi, Karen R. Harris, Michael Hebert, and Paul Morphy, “Teaching Writing to Middle School Students: A National Survey,” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, no. 6 (2014): 1015-1042; Joy Myers et al., “What About Writing? A National Exploratory Study of Writing Instruction in Teacher Preparation Programs,” Literacy Research and Instruction 55 (2016): 309-330.
2. Susan Chambers Cantrell and Hannah K. Hughes, “Teacher Efficacy and Content Literacy Implementation: An Exploration of the Effects of Extended Professional Development With Coaching,” Journal of Literacy Research, 40, no. 1 (2008): 95-127.
3. John Hattie and Gregory C. R. Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2013).
4. Lisa Lucas, “Write More, Grade Less: Five Practices for Effectively Grading Writing,” Clearing House, 85, no. 4 (2012): 136-140.
5. Pauline Gibbons, “Mediating Language Learning: Teacher Interactions With ESL Students in a Content-based Classroom,” TESOL Quarterly, 37, no. 2 (2003): 247-273.
6. Carol M. Santa, Lynn Havens, and Shirley Harrison, “Teaching Secondary Science Through Reading, Writing, Studying, and Problem Solving,” in Content Area Reading and Learning Instructional Strategies, ed. Diane Lapp, James Flood, and Nancy Farnan (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1996), 165-179. 
Tim Sheu

Tim Sheu ([email protected]) is a teacher and department leader at Taipei American School, an overseas American independent school in Taiwan.