Writing to learn – any writing activity undertaken with the goal to learn about something specific. Writing skills are de-emphasised.
Writing to learn is a short but regular activity that requires students to write about a topic with very little thought about writing conventions (such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and structure). The idea is to use writing as a vehicle for organising thoughts, brainstorming, reflecting, consolidating previous learning, reviewing, linking and collating ideas. It is not a writing activity in the traditional sense where students are graded on their writing skills. Teachers purposefully de-emphasise and ignore writing conventions so that students can solely concentrate on their thoughts pertaining to the topic.
The idea is to use writing as a vehicle for organising thoughts, brainstorming, reflecting, consolidating previous learning, reviewing, linking and collating ideas.
An essential element of this strategy is that the teacher refrains from commenting on writing conventions: any such comment will be taken as an indication that writing conventions are valued, scored and need attention in the activity. If this happens, less attention is subsequently paid to learning and exploring concepts in the writing. Cognitive load theory proposes that students only have so much room in their brain at any one time – by removing writing conventions, students can fully concentrate on their ideas and thoughts. In addition, by removing the stress that many students feel when writing, they can start to enjoy writing, to write for pleasure, to see the benefits of writing and the importance of practising it more regularly. They become more confident and fluent writers over time.
Writing to learn is an underutilised yet highly effective and engaging strategy that builds confidence in both writing and the topic – it improves students’ writing skills and fluency with very little stress. It is a strategy that requires almost no preparation or planning on the part of the teacher. It is suitable for all levels, abilities and topics. Writing to learn is best done on a regular basis, such as at the start of each lesson for a few minutes. Many teachers use writing to learn daily and follow it up with an activity such as calling on volunteers to read their writing to the class. Again, teachers should refrain from making any comments about writing conventions or a student’s writing skills.
Teachers purposefully de-emphasise and ignore writing conventions so that students can solely concentrate on their thoughts pertaining to the topic.
Hint: a writing-to-learn activity can be as little as 2 minutes or as long as 10 minutes. Either way, it is best done in a relaxed, supportive, ‘no wrong answers’ type of environment.
Writing to learn almost always involves initial direction from the teacher. For example, students may be asked to write about their opinion on a particular topic or to summarise a text such as a book or a movie. They may be asked to write what they know, what they do not know and what they want to learn (similar to a KWL chart). They may reflect on metacognitive skills at the end of the activity by answering questions such as ‘what did I do well on this project?’ and ‘how can I improve?’. Writing to learn can help students understand complex concepts in science, physical education, health or maths.
Hint: stream-of-consciousness writing is a type of informal journal-like reflection. The writer has the freedom to write whatever comes into their mind; the idea is to continuously write with little regard for proper sentences, spelling or grammar – and certainly to forget about perfect punctuation. Stream-of- consciousness writing may be disorganised, random, messy, non-judgemental and private; it helps people to organise, declutter and de-stress. It takes a bit of practice, so don’t expect students to write much for the first 4 or 5 (up to 10) attempts. The student’s stream of consciousness can be semi-structured and directed or it can be completely open, allowing students to write about anything for a set period of time.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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