Literacy

How to Integrate Writing Across the Curriculum in Your Classroom

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How to Integrate Writing Across the Curriculum hero

Have you used a K-W-L chart to kick off a research project? Maybe you’ve had students complete a Frayer square to build vocabulary knowledge. If so, you’ve already used activities that are broadly defined as “writing across the curriculum” (often abbreviated as WAC).

Whether you’re teaching math, science, social studies, ELA, music, art, technology, or even PE, writing can be a great way to assess students’ learning and deepen their thinking on a subject. But it’s not always easy to figure out how to integrate writing in non-ELA classes. Graphic organizers are good place to start before delving deeper into the writing process.

Read on to learn more about writing-across-the-curriculum best practices, why the approach is important, and some straightforward ways to incorporate it into your classroom.

What Does Writing Across the Curriculum Mean?

Think of the writing-across-the-curriculum definition as a set of teaching and learning strategies that were designed to encourage educators across all content areas to use writing as a tool for thinking. This approach took root in the rise of mass schooling in the twentieth century, as we prepared more and more students for college writing. Education professor Charles Bazerman and co-authors of the Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum describe the movement as the “systematic encouragement, institutional support, and educational knowledge to increase the amount and quality of writing occurring in such courses as history, science, mathematics and sociology.”

There has recently been a movement to delineate different elements of WAC. “Writing-to-learn” activities, for example, can be useful across various subjects and grade levels, whereas those falling under the category of “disciplinary literacy” promote writing in specific subject areas with their own unique genres and styles. In whatever manner we might use it, the general idea behind writing across the curriculum is that writing is a tool for learning.

For most purposes, teachers can think of WAC as a way, according to the Michigan Department of Education, “to initiate discussion, reinforce content, and model the method of inquiry common to the field.” Writing helps students share their thinking in ways that discussion alone or a set of multiple-choice or true/false questions simply cannot. And, if we are creative in our approach, WAC can allow students some freedom, flexibility, and fun in the ways they express their understanding of course content.

Why Is Writing Across the Curriculum Important?

Students derive many benefits when educators incorporate writing across the curriculum in the classroom. Here are a few of them.

  • Engagement: Students participate in hands-on, minds-on activities, working through ideas in real time. Whether students are writing by hand or typing, we can see their thinking evolve in the moment.
  • Intellectual growth: Students can return to earlier pieces of writing as a lesson or a unit progresses, weighing their current thinking against previous ideas. In this way, students synthesize knowledge over time.
  • Disciplinary knowledge: Students learn to think like experts across disciplines. For instance, students might use primary sources to write a historical argument, which is different from writing a hypothesis-driven scientific report. Furthermore, they learn from mentor texts in these various fields in order to become more accomplished writers.

There are a number of other sources that provide clear rationale for WAC in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, yet one of the most persuasive—and concise—may be that of Barry Lane, author of 51 Wacky We-Search Reports. His approach to helping students work collaboratively to find compelling facts about a topic and then turn them into humorous pieces of writing makes the point that facts can be fun.

However, he warns that “[facts] get buried in lists of general information that read more like an encyclopedia than a real juicy report.” By using some of the WAC strategies shared here, we can help students find these facts, figure out what they need to know about a topic, and maybe even have some fun with their writing.

Effective Writing Across the Curriculum Strategies

There are dozens of WAC strategies out there. Here are three teacher favorites to help you get started.

1. RAFTS (Role, Audience, Format, Topic, and Strong Verb) is a great strategy that can be adapted for different grade levels. The idea of RAFTS writing—whether offered as a quick write in class, or as the foundation of a unit-long writing assignment—is that students adopt a role, such as a scientist or historian, and write to a specific audience in a format other than an academic essay. Download our RAFTS Chart to use with students.

Need an example? Check out the completed organizer below.

RAFTS How to Integrate Writing Across the Curriculum inline

For more information, here are two resources to explore: the LearnAlberta site offers an overview, and chapter 4 of writing instructor Traci Gardner’s book, Designing Writing Assignments, offers a number of different audiences, formats, and topics to mix and match.

2. Another classic WAC strategy is the Frayer model. Students place a word in the center of a graphic organizer, then in the boxes surrounding it, they write their own definition, description, examples and non-examples. This can be a quick-write activity or the beginning of an outline for a longer piece of writing.

Download our version of the Frayer Square Chart to use with students.

Need an example? Check out the completed organizer below.

Frayer Writing Across the Curriculum Example

For more information on the Frayer model, the Wisconsin Department of Education provides a summary of the approach.

3. Finally, the Minute Paper is a strategy that is designed to be used at the end of class as a formative assessment. Students are asked to write in two parts. First, they are asked to describe two or three of the most salient concepts that they learned from a lesson. Next, they are asked to share one question that they still have (sometimes referred to as “the muddiest point”). This provides them with a chance to summarize their ideas and give the teacher insights on where to begin instruction in the next class.

Download our Minute Paper Chart to use with students.

Need an example? Check out the completed organizer below.

Minute Paper Writing Across the Curriculum Model

For a brief summary of the Minute Paper approach, see this resource from Tufts University.

More Ways to Integrate Writing Across the Curriculum

When used consistently, writing-across-the-curriculum strategies can help students synthesize knowledge, ask deeper questions, and prepare for longer, more substantive pieces of writing. By providing students with a variety of WAC opportunities, they are likely to be more engaged in the classroom and beyond as critical thinkers, thoughtful readers, and intentional, creative writers.

Do you have creative ways for integrating writing in social studies, art, STEM, or another subject? We'd love to hear your ideas. Or if you tried any of our strategies, let us know how they worked out. Connect with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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