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By Annie Sheehan • July 20, 2018

Preparing Students for Success With Cross-Curricular Writing

Every day, elementary and middle school teachers give cross-curricular instruction without even realizing it. Reading is incorporated into almost every subject area, math is used in science class, and occasionally science and social studies intersect.

Writing is often seen as the opposite of subjects like math or science, kept in its own section of ELA, but mixing these seemingly separate subjects together by writing across the curriculum is a key way to benefit both students and teachers. Cross-curricular writing maximizes lesson efficiency for teachers and improves student understanding while working on critical skills and providing opportunities for deeper learning that will prepare students for their future.

During the typical school day, students rarely have the chance to write at length. Studies show that only 4% of the typical middle schooler’s day is dedicated to writing a paragraph or more. Some schools set aside designated time for writing throughout the week, but writing instruction is often narrow in scope and squeezed into 20 minute blocks.

Emphasizing more writing during the school day is crucial to student success. Experts recommend that first grade teachers should have one hour each day dedicated to writing instruction. The Institute of Educational Sciences recommends providing students with daily time to write, as well as teaching them to write for a variety of purposes. But all too regularly teachers are short on time and writing takes a backseat to building content knowledge. It’s often not feasible for schools to devote an entire hour of the school day to direct writing instruction. Cross-curricular writing can bridge this gap.

Cross-curricular writing occurs when students practice informational writing in math class or use narrative writing to illustrate a concept they learn in science. This strategy allows teachers to maximize the efficiency of an instructional period while nurturing creative and critical thinking skills. Cross-curricular writing helps students see connections between subjects and is said to improve students’ abilities to find multiple solutions when problem-solving.

Writing for College and Career Readiness

Today’s Common Core Standards are currently used in some way, shape, or form across forty-one states and lend themselves to cross-curricular writing. Standards begin to explicitly address social studies and science in writing in 6th grade, but students should be introduced to academic writing across subjects from a much earlier age. Steve Peha, founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, explains that “Writing regularly, in all subject areas but especially in math, social studies, and science is going to be crucial.” Many schools are combining Common Core Standards with Next Generation Science Standards, creating this need for students to become even stronger writers.

The idea of cross-curricular writing was introduced in the 1980’s and focused on undergraduate programs, many of which are still adopting Writing Across Curriculum (WAC) to better prepare college students for their careers. When they graduate, today’s students will be expected by employers to write across a wide variety of fields and produce coherent pieces of writing within a reasonable timeline. Writing is an essential part of everyday life - from writing emails to text messages, students are already communicating a wide range of platforms. Writing across subjects exposes students to new ways of communicating their thinking and can prepare students to thrive in their college lives and careers.

One of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language relates to attaining general and domain-specific academic language. This standard could easily be applied to a writing assignment that focuses on a historical event, a science experiment, or even a math problem. Using extensive writing practices in subject areas helps students practically apply content-specific language, demonstrating their understanding and increasing their own personal vocabulary as they use words correctly throughout their writing.

Writing for Deeper Learning

Encouraging students to write in the context of other content areas can increase their understanding of new concepts. By writing about the material they’re learning, students are required to coherently articulate their thoughts and demonstrate subject comprehension without memorizing or simply regurgitating information that’s given to them. When students write, they are essentially giving teachers a tangible record of their critical thinking.

Some cross-curricular examples, such as writing about something like a math problem, help students think through various steps and strategies that they can use to solve a problem. This allows students to improve their critical thinking skills and their metacognition, which can positively impact student growth.

In science, teachers recommend using a written lab report to gauge surface level knowledge and encourage hypothetical and procedural thinking. A lab report can serve as an assessment for both science and writing, giving teachers insight into a student’s thinking and content knowledge while also helping students practice their basic conventional writing skills.

Cross-Curricular Writing Takes Practice

Some students demonstrate extreme hesitation and reluctance towards writing, but increased opportunities to become more familiar with the writing process can have a positive impact on this type of fixed mindset. Giving students many smaller, more manageable opportunities to write throughout the school day helps to extinguish the idea that writing is such a daunting and cumbersome task.

Teachers may struggle with implementing writing opportunities that are effective and applicable at first try. Encourage them to start out with more clearly connected subjects, such as social studies, and slowly work to incorporate writing throughout other areas. Coaching teachers to view writing as something beyond a stand-alone activity may take some time, but the resulting benefits for both the teachers and the students makes this an invaluable shift.

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