The first step to improving the percentage of our kids who are capable writers is to increase how much writing they do. Typically, the classes with the greatest opportunities to do this are the non-ELA ones.
Unfortunately, content area teachers are often given the impression, when a writing initiative comes into town, that writing is more important than content knowledge. This is typically because us literacy folks tend to vastly underestimate the critical nature of content-specific knowledge and skills.
But consider: there is no other place in the school day that students will learn the knowledge and skills taught by a science teacher than in a science teacher's classroom. When we communicate to science teachers that the most important skill is writing and that “we're all writing teachers,” what they hear is, “Do someone else's job because yours doesn't matter.” That's not what we're trying to communicate, but it's what gets received — so it is what we communicate. Communication is what's received, not what's sent.
If we want science teachers to have students write more, the place to start is:
- We want to graduate the strongest science students possible.
- Writing is a means through which our students can strengthen both their scientific thinking and their scientific content knowledge.
In words and in truth, writing in science needs to aim at increasing mastery of science. If writing is done just for writing's sake, a lot of the potential gains of the initiative are left on the table because it seems so disconnected, to both the teacher and the students.
In short, if we want more writing in science (or social studies, or health, or business, or band), we need to ask, “How can writing strengthen student performance in ______ course?” instead of “How can you non-ELA teachers get your kids doing more writing?” Writing in the content areas — math, science, social studies, business, health, and so on — only makes sense when it reinforces discipline-appropriate knowledge or skills. If we don't approach the task of increasing the quantity of writing our kids do from this angle — the angle of improving student mastery of the content areas — then things get confusing for both us and our kids.[hr]
My all-day literacy workshop treats these ideas in greater depth. Learn more here.