Informal Writing in the Middle School Content Area Classroom

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What if… Middle School content educators incorporated informal writing into daily content lessons?

By Sue Artis, School for Professional Studies, Saint Louis University

What if …. Middle School educators incorporated informal writing into almost all daily middle school content area lessons? Could such a practice play a significant part in students’ learning across all content areas?  The answer appears to be – “Yes!” and that increased learning appears to be significant.  Content knowledge retention is increased when content is written by the student.

Let’s view writing through a different lens. For this purpose, let’s focus on writing in the content area as an ongoing informational tool not as a formal assessment tool. The purpose would then be to help monitor students’ understanding of the material presented, as well as to help drive daily lesson content.

Researchers (Cunningham and Allington ,2011, McLaughlin , 2010, Tompkins, 2010) suggest that incorporating informal writing into content area teaching will enhance students learning across all disciplines.  When students write about what they are learning, the brain uses the thinking processes to comprehend. In this case comprehension includes such processes as making connections, monitoring, imagining, predicting outcomes, drawing conclusions, offering opinions, and summarizing.  Such processes are taking place as each student thinks critically, problem solves, and analyzes what was learned.

Whether the content is social studies, science, or math, students write about what they are learning that day. They are using their reflecting skills, to fortify new knowledge which reinforces their comprehension of the material. It will result in more learning and retention of content material.

Therefore, if a middle school educator incorporates informal writing activities into daily content lessons, students’ knowledge of content material would increase.  Educators would also have an ongoing monitoring system that would drive future content lessons.

During a content lesson in which informal writing takes place, students write a brief response to an open-ended question or journal entry. When this type of writing is integrated into daily content lessons, students are engaged. They also share thoughts about the material, respond to what they are learning, use comprehension strategies and employ study skills resulting in acquiring and retaining new and greater amount of content knowledge. (McLaughlin, 2010)

Middle school content educators should consider, when planning content lessons, the most effective method of informal writing for student learning. It would not matter if the content area is science, social studies or math, the following informal writing strategies can be used in any middle school content area. Some may also be incorporated at the elementary level.

No matter what content area, it is important to remind students frequently that the writing for this activity is completely informal.   The following are a few examples of informal writing methods (Cunningham & Allington ,2011, McLaughlin, 2010, Tompkins, 2010) that assist educators in understating students’ prior knowledge, gain insight to students’ current acquisition of new content or clarification needed of new content material, and how well writing is used to create or solve problems.

Students prior knowledge:

Think Writes: Short, quick writing exercises intended to clarify students’ writing skills and are generally no longer than two minutes in duration. Think Writes allow the writer to “throw” their thoughts down on paper.  Students should be instructed that no editing or revising is needed. Scrap paper, post-it notes, index cards are all great utilities for this type of writing. The students understand that they are to “get their thoughts down” within a very short period of time.

Connection Think-Writes: Prior to introducing a new topic, benchmark knowledge by using a Connection Think-Write. Instruct the students to write down what they know about the specific topic. Students should write what they know as quickly as possible. They are trying to “beat the clock.” The educator informs students of the time remaining in the exercise.

Prediction Think-Writes:  Students are given a problem, object, graph, map, etc., and asked to indicate in writing what they perceive they are viewing. Predication Think-Writes may be used in any content area and usually used at the beginning of a lesson as a motivator as to get to the outcome of the content.  Upon the conclusion of the lesson, students can discuss the accuracy of their predictions.

Summarizing, Concluding, Evaluating, and Imaging Think-Writes: These techniques also use the same format as Connection and Prediction Think-Writes, but are often used by middle school content educators during the lesson or at the conclusion of the day’s lesson to pull the content together in a meaningful way. A simple question is posed to the class about what was learned, or observed during that particular lesson or lessons. Responses will generate content for future lessons, or it may become clear to the instructor that remediating the lesson may be necessary if comprehension is low.

Admit Slips: Students write responses to a question or topic on an index card, scrap paper, post-it and write a question about the topic on the reverse side. Admit Slips are collected and reviewed by the middle school educator. Admit Slip responses are used to understand and assess students’ prior knowledge, therefore allowing the educator to reflect upon on strategies that will modify future lessons for student success. Admit Slips can also serve to help determine the beginning point of the content area unit. Prior content knowledge may indicate that one or more lessons may be omitted if students already have that knowledge. Questions listed on the Admit Slips may be presented in future lessons.

 Students’ Thoughts about Content:

Journals: Journals are used to summarize, react, evaluate, and extend student thinking. The emphasis is placed on writing to record learning, not a published piece of writing. It is effective because the student “talks to himself” about a topic and writes it down. Journaling is an ongoing activity that provides the student with a progressive reference on becoming knowledgeable about the content topic. What the student enters in the journal today, may not prove to be true tomorrow. In that way, the student can see the progression of his thinking.

Double Entry Journals or Learning Logs: These logs are used to record information, write questions or comments. Students summarize, draw diagrams, list information, or reflect. The logs may also be used to record information found from reading articles, books or online research. Educators review and respond to the entries to monitor what the students understand and what concepts need clarification. Learning Log/Double Entry Journal entries may be reviewed at the end of a unit in order to quantify what the students have learned.

Dialogue Journals-prompted or unprompted: This may be a dialogue between student and teacher or student to student. McLaughlin suggested (as cited by  Gordon and Macinnis , 1993) suggested that teachers pose questions for response prior to beginning the lesson or unit. When unprompted dialogue is implemented, students write a reaction to the topic or concept presented that day, analyze their thinking and pose additional questions.

Written Conversations: These journal entries allow for students to share a section in a journal entitled “I wonder.” The entries should result in conversations between peers about the subject. The collaborative effort opens the students’ minds towards other perspectives and opinions.

Ticket Out: This type of informal writing requires the student to reflect upon what was learned during a particular lesson. The technique can also be used to pose questions concerning the topic material. This takes place during the final minutes of the class period. Educators collect the tickets as the middle school students leave the classroom. As with the Admit Slips, the Ticket Out responses needing clarification are noted and can be addressed in the following day’s lesson. Questions can also be answered in future lessons. Reading of the tickets should take about five minutes.

Students Use Writing to Create and Solve Problems

Write and Sketch in Math and Science: This type of informal writing may be done by simply folding a piece of paper in half. Scrap paper may be used. On one side, have the student write how they would solve a problem or conduct an experiment. On the other side, students sketch how they actually solved the problem or completed an experiment. So in other words, the students develop a plan, and then they write about how they executed the plan, or in some cases, revised and executed a new plan.

Be a Math or Science Author: Students write math problems or design an experiment based on the educational unit. Middle school educators review the problems or experiments. The problems are solved by peers either during that day’s lesson or a future lesson. In subjects such as science, the instructor can coach and challenge the students to develop most of the necessary queries regarding the content of the unit. In that way, the students feel that they have designed the lessons for the unit, and the teacher plans the lessons based on the submissions from the students.

As middle school content educators plan content lessons, they need to think about how to integrate a short, brief type of informal writing. One must remember that informal writing is not used as a formal assessment. It is used as an observation tool which gathers information quickly about students’ prior and new content knowledge which drives your instruction the following day or days and assists in student understanding and retention of the material.

McLaughlin stated “that students who engage in writing in the content areas comprehend better than students who do not (as cited in Duke and Pearson, 2002).  Gammil (2006) agrees, noting, ‘Those teachers who do include writing components document more student involvement in their own learning and greater gains on test scores.’(p. 754)”  

References:

Cunningham, P.M. & Allington, R.L. (2011). Classrooms that Work: They can all read and write (5th ed.)Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson.

Duke, N., & Pearosn, P.D. (2002). Effective practices for developmenting comprehension comprehension. In A.E. Farstup & S.J. Smaule (Eds.) What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd. ed. Pp.205-242). Newark , DE: International Reading Association.

Gammil, L.B. (2006). Learning the write way. The Reading Teacher, 59 (8), 754-762.

Gordan, C.J. & Macinnis, D. (1993). Using journals as a window on students’ thinking in mathematics. Language Arts, 70, 37-43.

Tompkins,G. E. (2010). Literacy in the Middle Grades. (2nd ed.) Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson.

McLaughlin, M. (2010). Content Area Reading: Teaching and Learning in an Age of Multiple Literacies. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson.

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