Writing to Learn

Writing gives students an opportunity to express thoughts, communicate ideas, be creative, and demonstrate mastery of concepts. Writing to learn is a process that promotes learning to think and is not content-specific. It helps students to think aloud and develops expressive language skills and fluency as well as trains students to process information. It is a tool that will allow students to reflect on what they know, develop thoughts about the content, and pose questions they may have about the content or process used to uncover the content. Writing to learn (WTL) techniques will be used in all courses.

There are three levels of “Writing to Learn” in the Common Instructional Framework: Low-stakes, Mid-Stakes, and High-Stakes Writing. Most teachers will begin with low stakes writing that demonstrates good thinking and scaffold it to mid and high stakes writing.

* Low-stakes writings will not be graded for spelling, grammar, punctuation, or content mastery. They will be assessed for completion and thought.

* Mid-stakes writings may be graded for content as well as grammar, punctuation, timeliness, and organization. Most often there will be a rubric.

* High stakes writings will be assessed for various aspects of content, grammar, organization, and possibly more. Most often there will be a rubric.

Low-Stakes Writing: Writing to Learn, Not Learning to Write

Low stakes writing involves students writing down their ideas about a topic, the day’s class, what they expect will happen next in the story, etc. It can serve as prewriting for high stakes writing assignments. In- class brainstorming activities might lead to brief paper proposals that might lead to a formal paper. In short, low stakes writing is not a substitute for high stakes writing, but research seems to indicate that it improves student performance on high stakes writing assignments. Teachers will not grade these writing samples for grammar, spelling, or correct content. Instead, completion, depth of thought, and other elements will be assessed, but not necessarily graded. Strategies include, but are not limited to:

* Entrance/admit tickets: Entrance slips, taking only a couple of minutes at the beginning of class or completed before class, are ways to focus students. They may be collected and read anonymously as a way to begin class.

* Exit tickets: These are done at the end of class and they give teachers a quick way of assessing what students know about a topic. They also give students an opportunity to process new ideas, identify trouble spots, and review.

* Dear Absent/Confused Student: Students will write a letter to a confused classmate or an absent student explaining what happened in class and the basics of what the content is about.

* Quick Write: The teacher will present a topic and the student will write all he knows about the topic. Students will then share their ideas with one another. Along the way, students may correct faulty ideas, adding new ideas to their own list, or delete ideas that are not related. Students will share with one another before the teacher resumes focus on the day’s lesson.

* Aha! Statement: What was your aha moment in class today? What did you learn, see differently, or in some way make you say, “Aha, now I get it”?

* Self-assessments: Students briefly comment on a project they are currently working on or are about to turn in: What was the most difficult part of this assignment? Why? What part are you most satisfied with? What will this project show me that you have learned?

* Journals and Learning Logs: Probably the best-known of the WTL strategies, journals and learning logs ask students to explore course content in writing. An ongoing collection of writing that can be designed to achieve multiple purposes, journals are often used to summarize newly-learned information, dialogue with peers or teacher about areas of confusion, and generate questions for further investigation. A common use of learning logs in math and science classrooms is to have students explain problem-solving processes in writing.

* Scrapbooks: Scrapbooks are another low-tech twist on learning logs that can be done either individually or

collaboratively. In addition to their own writing about course material, students weave in pictures, excerpts from fellow students’ writing, teacher and peer feedback, and other “artifacts” of the learning process. Like class portfolios, they provide multiple opportunities for review, reflection, and revision, ostensibly helping students to monitor learning strategies and develop stronger metacognitive skills (collaborative group work)

* “Blogs,” chats, and online discussion forums: students may use web-based learning platforms to post comments to online discussions, brainstorm ideas for group projects, generate and exchange review questions for tests, or provide one another with written feedback on drafts of assignments.

* Crystal Ball Predictions: Students take a few minutes at the beginning of class to predict what they think will happen next in the novel, scientific study, or historical event under investigation. Students share their ideas with the class. At the end of the class, students will realize the extent to which their predictions were correct.

* RAFT: The teacher will provide students with a perspective from which to write so that he knows his role. Secondly, you will be told for whom you are writing, or the audience. Next, you will be given a format. Finally, the teacher will give you a topic. For example, “From the role of the British soldier, write to your family a letter detailing the geographic conditions of where you are fighting.”

Mid-Stakes Writing

Mid-Stakes Writing occupies a middle ground. Assignments are more demanding than low stakes assignments, and they take more time to complete. Students usually write them as homework, and they may be asked for a more polished final product. A good middle stakes assignment often calls on students to exercise creativity, or offers an element of choice. The goal of middle stakes assignments is to help students make a transition to more formal writing by encouraging them to focus their thinking and to take care in presentation. These assignments work very well when they lead to more formal, high stakes assignments, though they need not function in this way. Strategies include:

* Write full-sentence responses to structured reading questions.

* Short essays, summaries, and critical responses.

* Summarize a reading or key portion of a reading.

* Choose a particularly striking passage from a reading, quote it exactly (with quotation marks), and write a paragraph explaining what the passage means and why it was chosen.

* Relate ideas in two or more readings.

High-Stakes Writing

This is usually formal, structured writing that is assigned a grade. The writing might be take-home or timed, and the grade is usually a significant part of the course grade. In general, high-stakes writing is supposed to demonstrate what students have learned; follow the conventions of formal academic prose (as well as discipline specific conventions); and be relatively error free (when written outside of class). Things to consider when addressing a high stakes writing assignment:

* Consider the basics. What is the topic or question; the due date and penalty for lateness; the required length; the documentation style; and formatting requirements? Is there a rubric?

* Test the clarity of your understanding by asking questions, or investigate what a "successful" product looks like.

* Do you have any low or mid-stakes writings upon which you can build?

* If possible, ask the teacher to show examples of an "A" paper from a prior semester.

* Plan your time wisely. Make sure you complete an outline of how the paper will flow. Brainstorm key ideas you want to include. Check spelling and grammar. Leave plenty of time for polishing and revising.

The attached PowerPoint walks through the implementation of "Writing to Learn" as part of a Common Instructional Framework. This provides resources and strategies for writing at any level and in any classroom.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour