The Key to Content-Area Writing: Short, Frequent, and Shared

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By Nancy Steineke

While we must commend the Common Core Standards for recognizing the importance of literacy in all content-areas, a literacy long overlooked, the Core’s narrow vision of writing concerns us. Yes, of course we want students to be able to write cogent arguments, expositions, and narratives, but where in the Standards is the route that leads to this sophisticated writing? Where is the practice? That’s the bridge we offer in Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Writing.

Interesting Text Leads to Interesting Writing

Like our previous installment, Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading, Smokey and I began by collecting thousands of fascinating nonfiction articles, images, and graphic data. As you might imagine, the final casting call was tough; we had so many good choices! Ultimately, we chose texts that met these criteria: interesting and engaging to kids, sustaining long-term relevance, offering accessible challenge, and short enough to be read, written about, and discussed in one class period.

Although Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Writing still focuses on getting kids to read and interact with text, this book also aims at expanding student writing experiences across the curriculum. We want kids to recognize the fun and community that writing together creates. Thirty-five scaffolded lessons invite students to notice craft as they experiment with writing strategies for digging deeper into this new crop of “one page wonders.” Later, in the text sets, students get to return to some of these previously read pieces, using them now as mentor texts for writing more polished works on intriguing topics such as forgotten diseases, unrecognized heroes, antibiotic overuse, and military dolphins (yes, the U.S. Navy does have trained dolphins; this is not an urban legend). Plus, new in this edition, the articles will be available online for those classrooms that are going paperless!

Making Content-Area Writing Easier for Students

Researching Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Writing, we posed this question: what makes nonfiction writing easier for students? By easier, we mean doable, achievable, and rewarding versus assignments so frustrating, rigorous, or unattractive that students give up. And let’s remember: when kids give up on writing assignments, no writing practice is taking place!

So what does make writing easier? We came up with twenty elements, but here are just a few.

  • STUDENTS engage in short, authentic writing tasks every day, in every class with subject matter content. Writing about content helps students to clarify thoughts, capture reactions, zoom in on confusions, reflect on skills, track reading comprehension, and create purposeful discussion. If students write in each class for only five minutes per period, that adds up to at least thirty minutes of writing per day, two and one-half hours per week, close to three solid weeks of writing practice each school year outside of the writing-intensive ELA classroom!
  • STUDENTS’ WRITING is used during class to advance the lesson. Writing is most purposeful when it is used immediately and focuses on the content at hand. Writing about content enables students to share their thoughts and questions with classmates.
  • STUDENTS’ WRITING is used to build relationships with others. Writing becomes far less threatening when shared in a positive manner. Trust makes sharing fun, gratifying, and interesting. Writing together builds acquaintance, friendship, and community. And, when writers open up to one another, they learn to listen and intuitively pick up successful techniques from peers.
  • TEACHERS assign more writing than they can read; they trust in unmonitored practice. Teachers believe they have to collect and grade everything. This  contradicts the fact that students need to write as much as possible in all of their classes. Therefore, we teachers need to give up the red pen and eliminate that audience of one (us). An audience of peers gives student writing purpose and provides immediate feedback. Plus, there’s nothing stopping us from eavesdropping as student groups read and discuss their content-area writing with others.
  • STUDENTS WRITE with an eye towards voice, creativity, originality, and humor. It’s a sad fact that students often feel their creativity squashed by that genre we like call “writing for the test.” Ironically, few professional authors make much use of the five-paragraph essay because it’s intensely boring. Now we are not arguing to forget teaching kids how to write for those high-stakes tests. What we are strongly suggesting is that we give students the freedom to explore genres and personal style so that they grow into strong, smart, skillful writers who can write to the test but also write confidently for diverse real-world purposes.

Engaged and Frequent Practice is Essential

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of 10,000 hours, the amount of practice it takes to get really good at something. Since then, other academics have taken issue with Gladwell’s pronouncement, but no one is arguing that zero practice leads to skill improvement. 10,000 hours aside, the more you do something, the more likely it is that you will get better at it. And this is doubly true for writing. No one has ever gotten better at writing by not writing!

Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Writing is out now. Click here to learn more.

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Nancy Steineke consults nationally as a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, webinar leader, and literacy coach for K–12 teachers. She specializes in content-area literacy, nonfiction writing, purposeful close reading, literature circles, and student engagement. Using her experiences teaching English, history, and vocational education, Nancy keeps the focus on research-supported manageable strategies that help teachers get the job done in ways that best benefit students. She is the author/co-author of seven professional books, her most recent being Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Writing, a collaboration with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Nancy is active on Twitter, posting links and ideas useful to educators as well as retweeting posts that deserve curation. Find her on Twitter: @nsteineke.

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