ELs Writing in Content-Area Classes

by Carol Salva

Is it really a good idea to spend time having students write in content-area classes? 

The answer is YES!  

Here are some reasons and a few ideas on how to make writing time practical.

I have been a content-area teacher, both with and without in-class support, and everyone will agree that content teachers have a very heavy load. The stakes are higher than ever, and we could run through a very long list of issues facing teachers today, from grading to insignificant planning time. The issues are real, and time is limited! However, the more I work with teachers, the more I see examples of the value in integrating writing in all content areas.  

A Concrete Example from the Field

In our trainings and in our book, Boosting Achievement, Anna Matis and I frequently mention a master teacher, Joseph Maurer. Joseph’s math class was an excellent example of how writing and producing language in content areas can boost achievement of all learners. I was fascinated by Joseph’s class, not only because he had documented years of impressive standardized assessment scores, but also because this was an anomaly for the area. Joseph taught in an area that was predominantly Hispanic and over 95 percent Free and Reduced Lunch (low socioeconomic status). And yet, he was able to close achievement gaps for so many students.

Mr. Maurer was utilizing several high-impact teaching strategies, but the one that struck me the most was writing. The students in Joseph Maurer’s classroom had math journals that were filled with reflective writing about their math learning. There was a great deal of language being used, in class both orally and in writing. I was so thrilled about the learning environment that I requested to have my own son (who is not an English Learner and is gifted in the area of math) placed into Mr. Maurer’s Algebra class. Anthony would tell me that Mr. Maurer was a great math teacher and that he let the students talk about math a lot. I noticed that his homework included fewer calculations and more writing reflection with sentence stems such as “I solved this problem by…” or “I noticed…”  

Mr. Maurer began offering staff development with me, and he strongly recommended that other math teachers incorporate writing into their instructional minutes. In our trainings, he shared that writing is basic to thinking, and according to Fulwiler (1983), writing promotes introspection and speculation. Additionally, in content areas, Fulwiler offers that students can use writing to individualize their instruction. Writing is personalized by nature because the author enters the writing wherever they are in their thinking.

A Practical Approach

Writing to learn in a content classroom need not be time consuming or misaligned with the lesson. For example, students can do a two-minute quick write to reflect or a short journal entry to warm up. Or, a favorite among content teachers is a short writing piece that serves as an Exit Ticket at the end of class. Content teachers have told me that Exit Tickets are valuable for many reasons:

“I get a check for understanding.”
“It’s a great formative assessment.”
“The kids have to think about what we did today.”
“I don’t care how they write it; I want them to reflect on the science we learned.” 
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YES! These are all great thoughts on how Exit Tickets can be powerful for content-area teachers.

As these comments suggest, writing is already happening as part of many content teachers’ pedagogy.

I suggest a simple tweak to the idea of an Exit Ticket to get even more bang for your buck. For any classroom, I suggest that teachers consider framing the lesson so that we begin class by telling students what the Exit Ticket will be and including a sentence stem as part of the Exit Ticket. The sentence starter directs thinking and can help a teacher explain the learning intentions. 

If we review the Exit Ticket with the learning targets, now our Exit Ticket is doing “double duty” for content area teachers. Not only will students use writing to reflect, but they also have an opportunity to understand the learning targets from the beginning of the lesson. Reviewing the objectives ahead of time, including the expected Exit Ticket, is a way to communicate the success criteria. It ties to what John Hattie (2009) calls “Teacher Clarity.” Hattie describes Teacher Clarity as communicating the learning intentions and success criteria for the learning intentions (Almarode, 2017). His work supports that this effort has a significant effect on learning outcomes.

What About the Student Who Can’t Yet Write?

Everyone can reflect. Everyone can put something down on paper.  According to Carroll and Wilson in Acts of Teaching (2007), even pre-literate children have intention when they scribble or draw. We want the learners in a safe space to reflect on what they understand, what they wonder, and/or what they are confused about. So allowing any reflections and minimizing corrections of spelling or mechanics can support both content-area learning and writing ability as students internalize the new writing structures they encounter.

The sentence stem we mentioned in the Exit Ticket example above also gives your English learners an opportunity to write a complete academic sentence. If they are just gaining the ability to write (in English or in any language), you’re offering them a chance to practice forming English words at the same time. So we allow native language to negotiate meaning, we ask everyone to use the sentence stem, and then we set students off to reflect in a way that most supports their learning.

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Am I Supposed to Teach Students How to Write?

Yes, but in a way that makes sense for your subject. Teachers who are unfamiliar with teaching spelling, grammar, and the mechanics of writing need not despair. Spelling, grammar, and mechanics are not the main goal in a content-area classroom. The content is the main goal. Begin with a two-minute quick write, a writing warm up, or the Exit Ticket example above, and be sure to include a sentence stem that includes academic language of your subject. Consider how much language and writing students will produce over the school year if they write just one academic sentence each day. Over 180 days, these structured writing activities will go a long way to teaching the language of any content area…and they should also go a long way in boosting the learning of the entire class.  

Read more about writing to learn with emergent English learners.

 

 

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