Solving the Writing Time-Squeeze

Expand your writing program across the curriculum to facilitate much-needed practice.

By Erin Bailey


Young boy writing

How many minutes per week do you allot for writing? If you are like most teachers, it's not enough. Time remains the biggest obstacle in producing better writers. In order for someone to write well, he must do a lot of it. Ray Bradbury said, “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” Mr. Bradbury did not say what the topic must be, only that we must do it. But how do you squeeze in more writing time when there aren’t enough minutes in a day?

Benefits of Writing in Content Areas

Writing regularly on a subject outside of English provides needed practice and actually deepens understanding of content material. This is because pupils must organize their thinking in order to write about a subject. The process enhances critical thinking and shifts the focus of learning off the teacher and onto the student. Content-area writing emphasizes the many forms and purposes of writing. Some researchers call it “writing to learn” and separate it into three phases:

  • In the pre-learning stage, children are getting ready to learn. You might ask them to respond to a question on the board or have them brainstorm a solution to a problem. Expect the responses to be short and informal. This stage is graded with a checkmark-type system. 
  • When students are in the writing-to-learn stage, they may include explanations, reflections, or comparisons. A point system is a satisfactory assessment.
  • The post-learning phase is when pupils write to demonstrate knowledge. This could be essays, formal reports, or critiques. Assessing this type of composition might be a rubric.

For children whose learning style is language-based, writing in content areas has an added benefit. For them, writing serves as a bridge to left-brained activities in math and science. Learners become aware of how they process information and any gaps in their own understanding.

The First Steps

To become better writers, we all need a few tools; the most important of which is a vocabulary. If your math class is finding the hypotenuse of a triangle this week, write “hypotenuse” on the board and leave it there. Although it may feel like we have accomplished something when we erase the board at the end of the day, children need repeated exposure to words to grow comfortable with them. Having a word displayed prominently in the classroom will lead them to use it in dialogue and in writing.

Model the type of writing you would like to see from your class. Write out lecture notes. Summarize lessons in a few key ideas. Synthesize information from multiple sources. Have the expectation that each person in your class will write from the very first day of school. If you wait until October when things have settled down, you’ve prolonged the introductory period. By starting in September, you and your class will be in the groove before Halloween. In other words, get the painful part over with right away.

Ideas for Squeezing in More Writing

There are several ways to include more writing in other areas of the curriculum:

  • Summarize the lesson: “Today we learned how to multiply two digit numbers. First we multiply the number in the ones place. Then we multiply the number in the tens place…” Summarization is a skill that children work on all year. Practice makes perfect!
  • Keep a journal: Learners reflect on topics they did not understand, expand on something they found interesting, define vocabulary in their own words, and make connections to previous lessons. “Three dimensional shapes have length and width like two dimensional shapes, but they also have depth.” 
  • Explain the information in diagrams and pictures: “The water cycle starts with the sun…”  It is also helpful to make comparisons. “The similarities between vascular and nonvascular plants are...”
  • Respond to a high-interest content article: This works particularly well if students must form an opinion about a topic.

Additional Ideas from Lesson Planet:

Lesson Planet offers some interesting ideas for writing across the curriculum. 

Writing about Insects

Kindergarten and first graders use the book Benny the Beetle as a model for their own insect book. This is an engaging way for learners to demonstrate their understanding of previous lessons.

Writing a Procedure: A Lego Activity  

Secondary learners practice writing a scientific procedure. Small groups build Lego structures and then write a procedure for duplicating it. The activity allows learners to practice an important skill with minimal stress.

Weekly Math Challenge

Elementary learners solve a different challenge each week and write their solution in a math notebook. For each solution, a written explanation of how it was derived and the steps involved is required. This integration of writing helps children in developing procedures for more challenging math problems.