Teaching Writing Across Curricula

Reading and writing are things we expect our students to be able to do in every subject. Our curricula are full of phrases like “Describe…, Explain…, Compare…”, which all require students to organize their thinking in a certain way. The non-fiction text in our math, science, social studies, and PAA courses require our students to break down complicated information. So how do we teach our students who are struggling with taking information in and/or communicating their understanding? 

What? I Have to Teach Writing, Too??

Reading and writing are learning tools that exist across curricula. We often have our students read technical information in our science, social studies and mathematics courses and then ask them to write about their understanding during assignments and tests. Sometimes, our students come to us knowing how to do both. Sometimes, we are surprised and disappointed that they don’t seem to know how to apply their reading and writing strategies in our content area. As a math and science specialist, I want my students to use reading and writing as ways to deepen and broaden their understanding of the subjects that I am teaching them.

I would think that an ELA teacher explicitly teaches reading and writing strategies so that their students become stronger readers and writers. My intent as a science teacher is related but different. I want to use literacy instruction so that students understand science better.

I had many experiences early in my career where I assumed my students were able to research, write reports, write conclusions, or complete short answer questions on my exams. Those assumptions led to frustration and feelings of failure for both myself and my students. Sometimes, it took students failing to point out what explicit teaching I needed to do with my classes. Ultimately, if I have students who are struggling with reading and writing in my non-ELA class, I need to teach them those skills.

Reading, Writing and Comprehension

We sometimes view reading and writing as separate ideas. If we view them instead as ways that students take in and output knowledge, we can see that comprehension, or meaning making, is the bridge between the two. Reading is ONE way of taking information in, and writing is ONE way of sharing our knowledge. Our English Language Arts program recognizes that there are other, equally important modes of inputs and outputs.

Comprehension Strategies – Making Meaning

When we take information in, our mind uses different strategies to make meaning of new information. During a conversation, this occurs fluidly where we listen, make sense of information, then speak. The same is true of reading and writing. We read information, make meaning, then may write about what our new understanding is. Many literacy experts have grouped comprehension strategies into anywhere from six to thirteen strategies. Following the work of Ellin Keene, the following are SEVEN comprehension strategies that strong readers use.

For more detailed information about these seven comprehension strategies, see my earlier blog post, Comprehension Across Subjects.

Nonfiction Writing Lesson Framework

Adrienne Gear (2014) suggests the following lesson framework for each nonfiction form:

  1. An introduction to the features of the nonfiction form.
    • This can be done by analyzing published examples of a nonfiction form.
  2. Independent write and Whole-class write can be woven together in a We DO – You DO cycle.
Whole-class write:Independent write:
The teacher and class write a passage together, going through the organizing steps together. This can be done on chart paper or projected on a screen.Writing activities can vary in length. There should be multiple opportunities for each type of writing introduced in a year.
Plan and organize thinkingDraft piece of writingFocus on a writing techniqueRevision and editing techniquesPlan and organize thinkingDraft piece of writingFocus on a writing techniqueRevision and editing techniques

Nonfiction Text Features

There are several text features that are useful within nonfiction to help readers understand the information being presented. These include:

Nonfiction FeaturePurpose
MapTo show location: e.g. habitat of animals
WebList of any kind: for example, a list of food an animal eats or its enemies
Diagram, labelsDescription
Fact BoxInteresting, additional facts
Flow ChartTo show how things work together: e.g., life cycle
ChartTo sort details: e.g. facts about different species
Labels, CaptionsTo explain a diagram or picture
TimelineSequential events or dates
Diagram with LabelsComparisons

Helpful Nonfiction Mini Lessons

Mini lessons allow you to guide student writing skills without taking up a lot of time. Here are topics that Adrienne Gear suggests for helping improve writing quality. You can see some of her mini lesson resources here. Including ideas for:

  • Adding Text Features
  • Interesting Details
  • Triple-Scoop Words
  • Comparison using Similes and Metaphors
  • Voice
  • Introductions to Hook Your Reader

Sharing Our Understanding: Non-Fiction Forms of Writing

Part of introducing nonfiction forms is for students to recognize key features of each form. This can be done by analyzing published works, both in print and online. Books from your library can be used to help students visualize the type of writing you are expecting them to do. There are many different forms of non-fiction writing that students both read and are expected to write themselves. Each of these forms has their own purpose and form. (Gear, 2014)

Different forms of writing can be used within the same topic and subject area. For example:

Type of WritingWriter’s IntentExampleApplication: Weather
DescriptionTo provide reader with facts and information about a topic. Related subtopics tell us specific details about the main idea. Writers give details related to our five senses.Descriptive reports on countries, animals, plants, insects, etc.Classroom blogs.Book or movie reviews.Describe the weather in Saskatchewan in January.
InstructionTo provide reader with instructions on how to achieve a goal, do something, make something, get somewhere.How something works: e.g. manuals, how to use something, survival guides.How to do or make something: e.g. recipes, rules for games, science experiments, crafts, instructions on starting a blog page.Give the instructions for how to make a winter survival kit.
PersuasionTo share an opinion with the reader or attempt to convince the reader to take an action of some kind.Opinion piece: e.g. favourite book, movie, pet, season.Persuasive piece: e.g. you should eat a healthy diet; no school uniforms; best chocolate bar to buy; oru school is the best.Classroom blogs or online reviews.Which form of weather is deadliest to humans?
ComparisonTo share with the reader the similarities and differences between two topics or ideas.Compare (similarities) and contrast (differences): e.g. rabbits and hares; Canada and Japan; cars then and now.Compare a winter blizzard and summer hail in Saskatchewan.
ExplanationTo provide reader with facts explaining how or why something happens.Scientific explanations: e.g. how a spider spins a web, why some things float and others sink.Explain how blizzards form.
Nonfiction NarrativeTo provide reader with sequential description of events in a person’s life, a current or historical event.Biography of a famous or non-famous person.AutobiographyCurrent event/newspaperPast eventBlogs or tweetsGive a report on the Newfoundland blizzard of January, 2020.

A useful analysis is to look at our curriculum and identify where it would be most useful for students to incorporate each type of writing to deepen their understanding. This can be done in a simple chart such as the one found here.

Pre-Thinking for Writing

Writing can help students understand subject content if we have them do pre-thinking before they write. This pre-thinking has them use comprehension strategies to deepen their understanding so that they can write.

A barrier for students might be that they do not understand either the content that they are having to write about OR they do not understand the structure of what you are asking them to write.

When we have students organize their thinking before they write, they will not only understand their courses better, but they will have their thinking organized in a way that helps them write.

You can take a closer look at different forms of writing, including assessment criteria in the following summaries, as well as view helpful pre-thinking tools for each type of writing:

Ultimately, teaching meaning making and how to express understanding can help our students know the subjects we are teaching them and help them to connect school content with their lives.

Eaton, S. E. (2010, September 26). Reading Strategy: The difference between summarizing and synthesizing. Retrieved from http://www.drsaraheaton.wordpress.com

Gear, A. (2014). Nonfiction Writing Power. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.

Johanson, T., & Broughton, D. (2014). Exploring Comprehension in Physics. Saskatoon: McDowell Foundation.

Keene, E., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Readers Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Public Education & Business Coalition. (n.d.). Thinking Strategies for Learners: A guide to PEBC’s professional development in reading, writing, mathematics and information literacy. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from Public Education & Business Coalition: https://www.pebc.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/thinking-strategies.pdf

Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2008). English Language Arts 6. Retrieved from Saskatchewan Curriculum: https://www.curriculum.gov.sk.ca/bbcswebdav/library/curricula/English/English_Language_Arts/English_Language_Arts_6_2008.pdf

Comprehension Across Subjects

Comprehension strategies are ways in which we make meaning of the information we take in through text, media, and sound. Often considered the domain of the English Language Arts teacher, we now realize that it is important that teachers across subject areas and grades encourage meaning making and use tactics that cause learners to use strategies that they may or may not be fluent in.

Depending on which researcher you follow, you may categorize comprehension strategies into 6, 7, or even 13 different strategies. Following the framework of Ellin Keene (1997) in her book Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Readers Workshop, this post identifies seven strategies that help learners make meaning of complex information. A detailed comprehension strategies summary describes the actions of readers, writers, mathematicians, and researchers.

comprehension dog
Photo by Jesse757 – Creative Commons Attribution License  https://www.flickr.com/photos/7721141@N07

While categorizing strategies and tactics is helpful, we need to keep in mind that the comprehension strategies are all interconnected. Visualization is grounded on activating and connecting knowledge. Determining importance and summarizing are closely related. Monitoring comprehension often creates self-questions. Each person has different comprehension strategies that their mind tends to use. Our challenge as teachers is to create a pause and opportunity for students to try stretching to new mental pathways.

Activating and Connecting Prior Knowledge

This comprehension strategy involves students connecting their learning to past experiences, events in the world, and to other learning they may have in and out of school. We simply can’t understand new information that we hear, read or view without thinking about what we already know. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Relate to prior experience.
  • Make connections between text, media, and personal observation.
  • Connect the new to the known – use what learners know to understand new information.

visual dictionary - activating and connectingWhen students are using this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • This reminds me of…
  • I noticed…
  • It made me think of…
  • I never knew…
  • That changed my mind…
  • This is different from…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote activating and connecting prior knowledge include:

Monitoring Comprehension

This comprehension strategy involves students recognizing and acting on their own confusion, and their self-questioning to determine understanding. We monitor our comprehension and keep track of our thinking in a number of ways. We notice when text makes sense and when it doesn’t. We ask questions, infer, activate background knowledge, and make connections, all in the effort to promote understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Become aware of their thinking as they read.
  • Notice when meaning breaks down and their mind wanders.
  • Employ ‘fix up’ strategies – reread for clarification, read ahead to construct meaning, use context to break down unfamiliar words, skip difficult parts and continue to see if meaning becomes clear, check and recheck answers and thinking, and examine the evidence.

visual dictionary - monitoring comprehensionWhen students are using this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I think…
  • I understand…
  • This doesn’t make sense…
  • Oh, now I get it…
  • A part I had trouble with…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote monitoring comprehension include:

Asking Questions

This strategy involves students actively wondering about topics and questioning facts and information. Questioning is the strategy that propels learners on and is at the heart of inquiry-based learning. Humans are driven to make sense of the world, and questions open the doors to understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Wonder about the content, concepts, outcomes, and genre of text.
  • Question the author.
  • Read to discover answers and gain information.

visual dictionary - asking questionsWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I wonder…
  • I’m curious…
  • My big question is…
  • Why…
  • Do you know anything about…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote questioning include:

Making Inferences

This comprehension strategy involves students predicting, hypothesizing, interpreting, and making conclusions. Inferential thinking allows learners to grasp the deeper essence of text and information. Readers infer by taking their background knowledge and merge it with clues int he text to draw a conclusion or arrive at a big idea that is not explicitly stated in the text. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Use context clues to figure out meaning of unfamiliar words.
  • Draw conclusions from evidence.
  • Predict outcomes, events and observations.

visual dictionary - making inferencesWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I’m thinking…
  • It seems to me…
  • I’m guessing that…
  • I predict…
  • Probably…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote inferring include:

Determining Importance

This comprehension strategy involves students evaluating information, making judgments about information, and identifying key ideas and concepts. We read nonfiction to learn, understand, and remember information. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Target key information.
  • Choose what to remember.
  • Construct big ideas from smaller ideas.

visual dictionary - determining importanceWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • This is really important…
  • The most important ideas here are…
  • So far, I have learned that…
  • I think this part means…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote determining importance include:

Visualizing

This comprehension strategy involves students making mental pictures and/or mind maps of ideas and how they interconnect. Visualization builds complex connections and involves more than just how something looks. It extends to other senses such as smell, touch, sound, and taste. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Gain information from the images they construct and view.
  • Create mental images drawn from background knowledge and observations.

visual dictionary - visualizationWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I am getting a picture…
  • I can see (smell, hear, taste)…
  • I have a picture in my head…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote visualization include:

Summarizing and Synthesizing

This comprehension strategy involves students recalling, retelling, creating new meaning, and remembering information. Synthesizing information allows us to see the bigger picture as we read or observe. Thoughtful readers merge their thinking with information to come to a more complete understanding. It is important that teachers teach learners to:

  • Add to their knowledge base.
  • Paraphrase information
  • Move from facts to ideas.

Summarizing and synthesizing are often used as synonyms. While they are related, they are different strategies that readers use. Sarah Eaton, a professor at the University of Calgary (2010, Summarizing vs Synthesizing), identifies these differences:

SummarizingSynthesizing
A basic reading technique.An advanced reading technique.
Pulls together information in order to highlight the important points.Pulls together information not only to highlight the important points, but also to draw your own conclusions.
Re-iterates the information.Combines and contrasts information from different sources.
Shows what the original authors wrote.Not only reflects your knowledge about what the original authors wrote, but also creates something new out of two or more pieces of writing.
Addresses one set of information (e.g. article, chapter, document) at a time. Each source remains distinct.Combines parts and elements from a variety of sources into one unified entity.
Presents a cursory overview.Focuses on both main ideas and details.
Demonstrates an understanding of the overall meaning.Achieves new insight.

Summarizing is taking the details of information apart while synthesizing is putting those details back together into a new and unique whole.

visual dictionary - summarizing and synthesizingWhen students use this comprehension strategy, you may hear them say…

  • I never knew… now I know…
  • I think the big idea is…
  • I have learned that…
  • Now I understand that…

Some tactics that teachers might use to promote summarizing and synthesizing include:

When do we explicitly use Comprehension Strategy Tactics?

If the information that we are having students interact with is complex, it is important to use instructional methods that help them make meaning. As well, if we notice that students are struggling with a specific skill or content area, we can view comprehension strategy instruction a possible solution to those learning barriers. Teaching with comprehension in mind will lead to increased cognitive engagement and deeper meaning-making.

Eaton, S. E. (2010, September 26). Reading Strategy: The difference between summarizing and synthesizing. Retrieved from http://www.drsaraheaton.wordpress.com

Johanson, T., & Broughton, D. (2014). Exploring Comprehension in Physics. Saskatoon: McDowell Foundation.

Keene, E., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Readers Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Public Education & Business Coalition. (n.d.). Thinking Strategies for Learners: A guide to PEBC’s professional development in reading, writing, mathematics and information literacy. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from Public Education & Business Coalition: https://www.pebc.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/thinking-strategies.pdf

Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2008). English Language Arts 6. Retrieved from Saskatchewan Curriculum: https://www.curriculum.gov.sk.ca/bbcswebdav/library/curricula/English/English_Language_Arts/English_Language_Arts_6_2008.pdf

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