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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

EL Study Guide / Digging for Content in Writing

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How can we guide students to become not only competent writers but also deep-thinking writers with something worthwhile to say?
The question of how writing and thinking are related leads naturally to the question of content. Quality writing can only flow from well-focused thinking—sorting out ideas and opinions from facts, selecting the most powerful facts or opinions, and organizing according to overarching ideas.
Citing the emphasis on writing about personal experience among U.S. high school students, Will Fitzhugh (“Where's the Content?” p. 42) argues that “the lack of a sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing” is stunting not only students' writing skills but also their thinking skills.
  • Do you agree with Fitzhugh that “limiting students to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school” limits their critical thinking? Why would writing on experience lead away from critical thinking?
  • Is sustained research on an initially unfamiliar topic necessary to making the thinking-writing connection, as Fitzhugh implies? Or are students more likely to apply their minds if they follow the dictate “write what you know”? Could student writers apply “objectivity and rigor,” not just emotion and powers of observation, to autobiographical writing?
  • To what extent should students' interests and hobbies be content for school-based writing?
Joanna Hawkins (“Think Before You Write,” p. 63) describes how to inspire students to write about factual content. The author's process rigorously supports students to conduct research and think before they begin to pen an essay. Discussing newly gleaned knowledge aloud before writing is a key ingredient of this Writing for Understanding technique.
  • The next time you give students a writing assignment of more than two pages, build in an extra week or more to try the three activities Hawkins describes as crucial to building working knowledge of a subject before composing: (1) developing vocabulary, (2) comprehending text (through reading aloud of carefully selected material), and (3) refining understanding through discussion.
  • To explore how the Writing for Understanding process works in classes other than language arts, bring some science, social studies, and arts or technical education colleagues into this experiment.
  • After working through the Writing for Understanding process, assign a 4- to 5-page paper instead of giving a typical test to gauge student understanding of a unit.

Getting to the Infusion of Knowledge

Susan B. Neuman (“N is for Nonsensical,” p. 28) looks at how skimping on rich background knowledge—even with the good intent of emphasizing foundational skills—may hamper learning to read in the early years. “Comprehension of text, the purpose of reading,” she notes, “depends not on a small set of procedural skills but on a great infusion of knowledge—knowledge of words and their meanings, understanding of the concepts that connect them, and ability to think critically about what one reads” (p. 29).
In preparing students to learn to read, many researchers emphasize creating “print-rich” classrooms with letters, words, and punctuation symbols plastered on all surfaces. Heavy visual exposure to print is certainly key. But when Neuman calls for teaching preschoolers in a “language-rich setting” she clearly means going beyond displays of words and print.
Brainstorm how early elementary classrooms might be physically set up so that they are both print-rich and language-rich. What kinds of objects, pictures, and activity starters might be displayed around the room? How might senses other than sight be brought into the service of helping students build language and conceptual knowledge? What displays might help young students connect words and books with rich, interesting world knowledge?
Visit early childhood classrooms in several different neighborhoods. Jot down and bring back to the group what you notice about how the rooms are set up and what activities receive the most attention? Are these environments print-rich? Are they language-rich? Do you see differences related to economic or ethnic background?

Questions as Scaffolding

Both “Learning to Think in English” by Yu Ren Dong (p. 22) and “For the Sake of Argument” by Alex Hernandez, Melissa Aul Kaplan, and Robert Schwartz (p. 48) describe questioning strategies that teachers employ to scaffold students' higher-level thinking. Teachers profiled in Dong's piece found that inviting students to brainstorm questions and formulate hypotheses about readings they found clogged with unclear vocabulary encouraged students to move beyond surface understanding of the text to deeper understanding and curiosity.
  • What was the role of student questioning in your formal education? Were you encouraged to ask questions that went beyond requests for facts, or did certain kinds of questioning bring a risk of ridicule?
  • Can you think of a time when your thinking was stimulated or led in a different direction by a question someone else asked? Have you seen this happen in a classroom setting?

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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