Do you remember your first writing assignment as a student? Were you asked to write a report on your favorite animal, vacation destination, or historical figure? Perhaps you had to complete a journal entry and respond to a question about your life or learning. My first writing experience was writing a poem in Kindergarten. We were studying poetry in the winter, and as every East Texas child does, I was wishing for snow to come and blanket this piney countryside. What I truly remember was my teacher's reaction to the poem; her praises were the foundation for years of willingness to write with confidence when asked. Looking back, I count myself so lucky to have such a positive and uplifting first writing experience. The thought has often occurred to me…. How would my educational progress have changed if this one event had gone just a little differently? Would I have been so willing to write and take risks as I grew as a writer?
This has been a key question in my mind as I support teachers and students to experience writing in positive ways. This foundational skill, the primary way beyond speech that humans communicate (Sawchuk, 2023), is an essential part of every classroom as a way to process and learn material, as well as create products to communicate that learning. These two key outcomes of writing, writing to learn and writing to assess, are potent tools in every teacher's toolkit to create enduring learning and proficient communicators. The issue comes in that not everyone had such a positive first experience. Many struggle with writing and have issues around length, grammar/conventions, time, and plain old confidence to use writing within the classroom. (And for clarity, that last statement is not just regarding students; I also use that statement to describe many of our teachers' self-perceptions of their own writing skills). To better understand what can be done to support our use of writing within the classroom, we need to know the rhyme and reason of writing as an instructional practice and ways to leverage this practice effectively to support students learning the content material and building lifelong skills of being proficient communicators.
If writing is such a struggle, then is it worth the effort and time it takes? Research around writing within classrooms answers this question with a resounding yes! To begin, when students are learning new material, writing can serve as a way to deepen a student's connection to the content that they are learning. In a study conducted by Professor Steve Graham at Arizona State University's Teachers College, a meta-analysis of 56 studies showed writing "reliably enhanced learning across all grade levels (by) improving a student's ability to recall information, make connections between different concepts, and synthesize information in new ways" (Terada, 2021). This is because it allows the brain to more easily retrieve information due to enhanced neural pathways created when a student writes about that which they are learning. This is due to a cognitive mechanism called the retrieval effect, which operates more efficiently the more information is looked at, sorted through, and connected to other experiences and understandings. "Practicing retrieval of recently studied information enhances the likelihood of the learner retrieving information in the future" (Graham, 2020). Additionally, popular author Harvey Smokey Daniels states in his book, Content Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide (2007), that "Writing helps students get more actively engaged in subject matter…..reading helps us take in knowledge, …. with writing, we make it our own." (Daniels, 2007, pg. 5)
Writing is encouraged across the content areas as all areas of learning can be positively impacted by writing within the classrooms. For years, subject-area experts and institutions have encouraged teachers to offer opportunities to learn through the highly effective method of writing.
"When students are challenged to communicate the results of their thinking to others orally or in writing, they learn to be clear, convincing, and precise in their use of mathematical language." (National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, 2023, pg. 4).
"The development of the writing skills of students is an important objective of the products, which also include visual presentations." (National Council for Social Studies, 2023).
"Students should present their results to students, teachers, and others in a variety of ways, such as orally, in writing, and in other forms—including models, diagrams, and demonstrations.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 1996, pg. 192)
Writing to Learn
The translation of all this information is that in the classroom, writing should be a go-to way for students to process the information they are receiving. The trick is going to be doing it in a way that is approachable for both students and teachers, and that allows for supportive, positive learning experiences. The starting place is to use writing to learn or, low-stakes writing. This is a tool that we must consider as a way to enable students to use this skill and be risk-takers in their learning. Low-stakes writing is "short, informal writing - from one paragraph up to two pages in length, that encourages students to develop critical thinking by exploring ideas rather than focusing on structure" (Pease, 2021). In-class experiences that leverage low-stakes writing include free writing, one-minute papers, summaries of key learning, online discussions, and group writing activities.
All of these writing-to-learn experiences allow students to "read assigned materials carefully, find information that will help think through ideas, and then examine what they have learned" (Pease, 2021). Teachers then use this writing product to assess students' knowledge of content, their correct or incorrect, thinking around the content, and the connections within what they learned. In summary, the purpose of these writing-to-learn products is to 1) support student learning and processing, and 2) enable the teacher to check for understanding and make instructional decisions moving forward. "The goal is to create new neural networks in your students' brains. Improved writing is only a side effect" (Pease, 2021). This is not the time or place to grade conventions, spelling, structure, or voice. In fact, "Content-area teachers should NOT mark all errors in kids' papers" (Daniels, 2007, pg.16). In writing-to-learn, the goal is not the product, it is the process that students' minds go through to internalize the material for later use.
Writing to Assess
The 2023 STAAR assessment brought writing into the spotlight for many teachers throughout the state as writing test items are now present in reading/writing, science, and social studies. As the evidence suggests in the former sections of this article, there is no doubt as to why these adjustments were made. The state explained in its STAAR Redesign informational materials that, "Strong instructional practices lead to increased student understanding and stronger performance on STAAR," and that these changes would "reward good instruction" (TEA, 2022). These changes within the assessment take the form of short constructed responses for science, social studies, and reading/writing and extended constructed responses for reading/writing. The requirements for success on these new item types have been outlined within released rubrics and exemplars from the TEA on their STAAR Redesign webpage.
As one can imagine, this created quite a splash within the 2022-2023 school year to include more writing within instruction. Region 7 educators attended every writing training they could get to learn about the expectations of this new STAAR writing, see examples, and learn how to get students to generate these responses. In many districts, a common structure for this STAAR writing had to be adopted and implemented before the writing expectations and rubrics were even released. Acronyms to remind students what must be present in response were communicated and put into practice immediately in order to create a sense of security for all in completing STAAR writing tasks. In short, we all jumped onto the writing to assess wagon and held on for dear life.
Currently, we are continuing to feel the ripples of this change as 2023 STAAR performance is being analyzed across the state. This is where it is important for stakeholders in this situation to examine the connection between the cause and the effect of these STAAR changes. As we reflect on our own work and learning, we need to consider the next steps through the lens of writing-to-learn and writing-to-assess. Is STAAR writing the same as writing to learn? Are their purposes interchangeable and interwoven? Low-stakes writing to learn cannot be compared to writing graded on a rubric and on state-mandated achievement tests. The changes to the assessed writing were driven by the need for writing to be present and consistent within classrooms to support enduring learning and understanding for Texas students. The product of the two different writing scenarios, however, is vastly different.
It is key to remember that writing to assess and writing to learn are two different things. Both forms of writing have a place within the scope of a student's educational experience. Writing to assess is more formal writing in which the focus is the product and all components therein. This type of writing is drafted, edited, graded, and presented for effectiveness. Writing to assess allows the students to apply all that is learned in a 'public' way in order to communicate their knowledge to others (Daniels, 2007, pg.14). We have all experienced this kind of writing at various points in our lives including state assessments, certification assessments, college writing, and professional writing for presentations or publication. Writing to assess uses rubrics, scoring guides, and academic expectations to help us determine success in its production. In other words, this kind of writing is high-stakes, and without the appropriate learning support and positive experiences, it is challenging for students and teachers.
Supports for Writing in the Classroom
As the research shows and the change to the STAAR assessment reiterates, using writing in the classroom is an important and worthwhile task to support student learning and success. It is very important to remember that writing to learn and writing to assess each have their own purpose in the grand scheme of learning. One cannot be traded to the other, and one cannot overshadow the other. Both forms of writing are necessary to build highly functional and prepared graduates. The question is, then, how do we do this? What supports are available to classroom teachers to understand, implement, and leverage the power of both types of writing?
To support all teachers in their use of writing in the classroom, TEKS Resource System has, and will continue to, incorporate writing in all contents. Let's look at some specific support available to you right now within the system.
These performance tasks are designed to incorporate students' content knowledge and process skills into a relevant product, which, in many cases, includes writing. This writing could take the form of writing to learn and/or writing to assess, based on the individual task. Each performance assessment includes a rubric to assist you in giving students feedback about their learning and/or writing.
TEKS Resource System provided rubrics for all Performance Assessments, as well as, supplemental rubrics in RLA/SS to support writing readiness and growth in high-stakes writing. These can be found attached to each Performance Assessment within the IFD and in the Resources folder, respectfully.
Constructed Response Formative Items
Each content area has a bank of open-ended formative items that require students to write to learn. The teacher then uses these to guide their instructional decision-making process based on what the students have learned. Each content looks a bit different based on the requirements of the discipline. These can be located within the TEKS RS Assessment Center. (Please note: TEKS RS Formative items are not available within DMAC.)
TEKS Resource System Assessment Center also contains updated formal writing questions within the unit tests for each content area. These items are formatted to replicate the language and formatting on the STAAR assessment.
Region 7 Curriculum Services
The Region 7 Curriculum Services Team is also here to help! It is our mission to support you in the implementation of best practices, including writing in the classroom. As a result, there is a suite of writing sessions available to support you in the upcoming months. Please join us as we explore research-based methods to use writing as a learning tool and writing as an assessment tool.
Elementary Science Writing Workshops with Paul Eyler
November 1, 2023 - Workshop #283009
Awesome Vocabulary Strategies in 2nd - 8th Grade
November 30, 2023 - Workshop #283012
STAAR Update: Scientific Language and Writing in 3rd-8th Grade
October 12, 2023 - Workshop #271868
STAAR Update: Evidence-Based Writing about Science Phenomenon
December 1, 2023 - Workshop #271356
Navigating Elementary Math Centers & Stations with TEKS Resource System (Make & Take)
January 25, 2024 - Workshop #271357
Navigating Elementary Math Assessments with the help of TEKS Resource System: Round 2.0
November 1, 2023 - Workshop #272308
STAAR Updates with TEKS RS - Extended Constructed Response 201
About the author:
|Cyndi Nyvall has served as a Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Region 7 ESC, specializing in TEKS Resource System. Her career experience includes teaching, instructional coaching, district administration, and state-wide leadership in reading and writing instruction.|
Graham, S., Kiuhara, S. A., & MacKay, M. (2020). The Effects of Writing on Learning in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654320914744
Pease, Allison, (2021), How to Use Writing in Your Classes to Improve Student Learning, City University of New York. https://www.jjay.cuny.edu/how-use-writing-your-classes-improve-student-learning
Terada, Y. (2023). What Students Should Write in All Subjects. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-should-write-all-subjects/
Sawchuk, S. (2023). How Does Writing Fit into the 'Science of Reading'?.
National Council for Social Studies (NCSS). 2023. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS. Accessed August 2023 at https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/national-curriculum-standards-social-studies-introduction
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). 2023. Principles and standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: NCTM. Access August 2023 at https://www.nctm.org/uploadedFiles/Standards_and_Positions/PSSM_ExecutiveSummary.pdf
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/4962. Accessed August 2023 at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/4962/chapter/8#192
Daniels, Harvey, et al. Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide. Heinemann, 2007.
STAAR Redesign Webinar, TEA, January 2022
TEKS Resource System, TCMPC, September 2023