Writing to Learn

Do you remember what it was like to write an essay that was intended to demonstrate to a teacher everything you knew about one topic?

Do you recall what it was like to write that paper?

Did you struggle at all to meet the requirements of that assignment?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there must be a reason that you remember the assignment, what you went through to produce the writing, and whether or not you struggled. You probably also remember exactly why you struggled.

There is no one way to approach a writing task in a way that is fitted to every student for every content area at every level of learning and at every age. Knowing that writing is a fluid process, educators try to accommodate student needs in writing. The reality is, though, that students learn content differently. So, why would they all express their knowledge of that content in the same way, using the same steps to write? The writing process in itself requires learning of all kinds and no two students will take on that learning in the same way.

When we approach “writing to learn,” what exactly are we expecting of our students? Do we expect that they are learning about writing or about content?  I would argue that we are expecting both types of learning to result every time students write.

There are multiple cognitive processes going on during writing. The expert writer crosses back and forth between a focus on the logistics of producing written text and the meaning of the text. The novice writer struggles with writing structure and form, and finds it very difficult to focus on the writing while trying to express knowledge and understanding of content. These writers are often stifled in their expressing of understanding on a topic simply because they have difficulty “getting started” with an essay.

As we move into what will be the second semester of the school year for most public school learning communities, maybe we can take on a new philosophy around writing. Let’s stop and consider what the goals of writing really are for each essay we assign. Try asking just a couple of questions:

  1. Do students know how to organize and structure a composition to express what you are expecting?
  2. Is the assignment about the content or about the essay?

These two questions alone should begin to put us on a better track in helping students write. They may be writing to learn about content by recognizing what they don’t understand as they try to put their knowledge into words. On the other hand, they may be writing to learn the best way to express what they know through trial and error and good coaching about language usage and choices in written discourse.

Again, happy coaching!