ERIC Identifier: ED327879
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Sorenson, Sharon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
Encouraging Writing Achievement: Writing across the
Curriculum. ERIC Digest.
Proponents of writing across the curriculum are quick to clarify that
writing to learn is not the same as learning to write; but as flip sides
of a single coin, the two support one another. Anne Walker (1988) calls
the two parts the "virtuous circle." When content area teachers incorporate
writing in all areas of the curriculum--social studies, math, science,
vocational education, business, foreign language, music, art, physical
education, and language arts--students benefit in three ways: they have
a resource for better understanding content; they practice a technique
which aids retention; and they begin to write better. (Walker, 1988; Kurfiss,
HOW DOES WRITING ACROSS THE CURRICULUM HELP STUDENTS?
Across-the-curriculum writing finds its merit in removing students from
their passivity. Active learners are active thinkers, and one cannot write
without thinking. (Steffens, 1988; Walker, 1988) Thus, incorporating writing-across-the-curriculum
techniques tends to change the complexion of the classroom. Teacher-centered
classrooms become student centered. Rather than the teacher being the Great
Dispenser of Knowledge, filling students' empty heads, the teacher becomes
a facilitator, aiding students' understanding. (Self, 1989; Hamilton-Wieler,
1989) Assuming that students gain new knowledge by making associations
with prior knowledge, the writing activities commonly used across the curriculum
give students the opportunity to make those connections. (Walker, 1988;
Self, 1989; Barr and Healy, 1988; Kurfiss, 1985; Steffens, 1988) With the
hectic pace of back-to-back 50-minute classes all day, students need the
chance to assimilate information, make connections, and face whatever may
still confuse them. Hamilton-Wieler (1988) calls this kind of writing "a
way into or means of learning, a way into understanding through articulating."
WHAT KINDS OF WRITING MAKE SENSE ACROSS THE CURRICULUM?
Many writing-across-the-curriculum assignments tend to differ from typical
English-class writing assignments (unless the English teacher also incorporates
writing-to-learn techniques). Generally, cross-curricular writing activities
fall into two groups:
*Expressive writing appears in learning logs, journals, exit summaries,
problem analyses, or peer dialogues, and allows the student to write in
his/her own vocabulary without fear of being "corrected."
*Product writing appears in more formal products--essays, test question
responses, library papers, and lab reports--most like what students have
been taught to create in English class.
Given the difficulty of product writing and given the usual initial
discomfort of content area teachers in giving and evaluating product writing
assignments, models prove useful. Models that illustrate how to tailor
a topic to a specific curricular area help students learn how to address
purpose in terms of audience. Models that illustrate discipline-specific
language help students learn how to prepare a more focused, deeper response.
(Sorenson, 1989; Winchester, 1987; Hamilton-Wieler, 1988)
HOW CAN TEACHERS FIND TIME FOR WRITING?
The biggest stumbling block for teachers is their concern for precious
class time and how they can cover the book or meet curriculum requirements
if they add yet another component to classroom instruction. Generally,
proponents agree that when teachers incorporate writing in their content
areas, the need for review and the need for reteaching after testing is
sufficiently reduced to more than make up the difference. And since expressive
writing should never be graded--especially not for grammar or mechanics--teachers
do not suffer from increased paper load. (Worsley and Mayer, 1989; Hightshue,
1988; Self, 1989)
DOES WRITING ACROSS THE CURRICULUM IMPROVE STUDENT PERFORMANCE?
While hard statistical evidence is scarce, a few studies show positive
results. In one study, low-achieving math students using writing-to-learn
techniques improved their state competency test results to a greater percentage
than did average math students in a traditional classroom. (Gladstone,
1987) A physics teacher saw a steady 3-year improvement in overall grades
when writing-to-learn techniques were incorporated. (Self, 1989) Other
studies, admitting a lack of hard evidence, nevertheless found attitudinal
shifts among students. (Winchester, 1987) Most students experienced less
apprehension about writing and felt they were better writers--writing more
varied, more complex, and more mature pieces--after only a year in a school-wide
Most importantly, however, research supports that writing to learn improves
higher-order reasoning skills. (Gere, 1985) As Barr and Healy (1988) summarize
the research, a "study of writing achievement across the curriculum attests
to the fact that writing improves higher-order reasoning abilities. WAC
programs are ideally suited [to achieve these ends] for they provide the
theoretical base for teachers and the instructional strategies that enable
students to reformulate ideas from text."
WHAT KIND OF STAFF DEVELOPMENT HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL?
Some school administrators say they have a writing-across-the-curriculum
program "housed in the writing lab." Others say the program is evident
in their school newspaper or literary magazine. Still others suggest that
writing across the curriculum happens when the English teacher asks students
to write a paper about art or the art teachers refer to literature. These
examples lack the ingredients of writing across the curriculum. (Walker,
1988; Self, 1989)
When teachers from all content areas incorporate writing activities
on a nearly daily basis in all classes, then writing-across-the-curriculum
techniques are in place. In order for that to happen, however, teachers
need a great deal of preparation. Most teachers outside the university
feel uncomfortable as writers, even writing about their own curricular
areas. They feel even less comfortable 'evaluating' writing. And some resentment
almost always arises over "doing the English teacher's job." (Walker, 1988)
To overcome these problems and address the issues--in short, to make
teachers comfortable--most school districts have found a year-long plan
for inservice and group dialogue necessary for a successful program. In
many cases, participation has been voluntary (Winchester, 1987; Self, 1989),
but the rewards have come when participants, observing the enthusiasm and
classroom success, have asked for information. In other cases, participation
has been mandatory (Self, 1989), but there is some question about a teacher's
success if he/she is an unwilling participant.
Barr and Healy (1988) argue that "Schools succeed when the emphasis,
by both teachers and students, is on writing and thinking about relevant
and significant ideas within the subject areas." Writing across the curriculum
accepts writing, the need to develop it, and its role in learning as a
human function essential to thinking and communicating.
Barr, Mary A. and Mary K. Healy. "School and University Articulation:
Different Contexts for Writing across the Curriculum." New Directions for
Teaching and Learning (36) Winter 1988, 43-53. [EJ 382 431]
Gere, Anne Ruggles, Ed. Roots in the Sawdust: Writing To Learn Across
the Discipline. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1985.
[ED 262 419]
Gladstone, Carol. "Thinking, Reading, and Writing across the Curriculum."
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers
of English, Los Angeles, CA, 1987, 8p. [ED 291 089]
Hamilton-Wieler, Sharon. "Awkward Compromises and Eloquent Achievements."
English Education 21(3) October 1989, 152- 69. [EJ 397 676]
Hamilton-Wieler, Sharon. "Writing as a Thought Process: Site of a Struggle."
Journal of Teaching Writing 7(2) Fall-Winter 1988, 167-79. [EJ 391 833]
Hightshue, Deborah, et al. "Writing in Junior and Senior High Schools."
Phi Delta Kappan 69(10) June 1988, 725-28. [EJ 379 988]
Kurfiss, Joanne. "Do Students Really Learn from Writing?" Writing Across
the Curriculum 3(1) December 1985, 3-4. [ED 293 123]
Self, Judy, Ed. Plain Talk about Learning and Writing Across the Curriculum.
Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education, 1987.
Sorenson, Sharon. Webster's New World High School Writer's Handbook:
A Complete Guide for Writing Across the Curriculum. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 1989.
Steffens, Henry. "The Value and Difficulties of Teaching the History
of Science and Technology in Secondary Schools." Paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Cincinnati, OH,
1988, 17p. [ED 306 182]
Walker, Anne. "Writing-across-the-Curriculum: The Second Decade." English
Quarterly 21(2) 1988, 93-103. [EJ 378 669]
Winchester School District, MA. Winchester High School Excellence in
Education Grant: Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum Final Report.
Washington: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1987. [ED 305
Worsley, Dale and Bernadette Mayer. The Art of Science Writing. New
York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1989. [ED 304 702]