Writing Makes Middle School Students Better Learners

Dr. Steve Graham, the Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College at Arizona State University, explains in...

Dr. Steve Graham, the Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College at Arizona State University, explains in this essay why writing makes middle school students better learners. The piece originally appeared on the website of the Middle School Matters Institute, which is part of the George W. Bush institute’s Middle School Mattes Initiative.

There are many reasons why people write. One of my favorite explanations comes from the present day master of horror, Stephen King, who indicated that he writes such gross books because “I have the heart of a small boy — and I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

Another explanation that resonates with me as an educator is E.M. Forester’s observation: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Or as Alfred Kazin, the American writer and literary critic, succinctly put it: “The writer writes in order to teach himself.”

The basic idea underlying Forester’s and Kazin’s observations is that writing helps you understand better what you already know and what you are coming to know. So what does this mean for middle school students?

It means that writing provides a tool to help them learn and more fully comprehend ideas presented in class and their textbooks. On average, students experience about a 10-point percentile jump in learning when they write about information presented in science, social studies, math, and other content classes.  Comprehension scores increase by almost 20 percentile points when students write about the text they are reading in these same classes.

Why does writing make such a difference in students’ learning and understanding? Simply put, it makes you think more deeply about ideas.

*Writing fosters explicitness, as students must decide what to write and which ideas are most important.

*Writing is integrative, as it encourages students to establish relationships between selected ideas and organize the ideas into a coherent whole.

*Writing facilitates reflection, as the permanence of writing makes it easier for students to review, re-examine, connect, critique, and even construct new understandings of ideas they have committed to paper.

*Writing fosters a personal involvement with ideas, as it requires active decision-making about what is written and how it is treated.

*Writing involves students putting ideas into their own words, making them think about what the ideas mean.

In short, writing about ideas provides middle school students with a tool for visibly and permanently recording, connecting, analyzing, personalizing, and manipulating information to be understood and learned.

This does not mean that comprehension and learning are automatically enhanced when students write about ideas. Consider the following examples from four students:

A hamlet is a little pig.

The Treaty of Trianon cost Hungary more than sixth-fifths of its land.

An active verb shows action, as “he kissed her”; and a passive verb shows passion, as “she kissed him.”

With all the uses of rubber, it was necessary to find a substitute. After all, rubber does not grow on trees.

In each of these examples, writing provides a window into students’ misconceptions about specific ideas, but it did not appear to facilitate learning. Like any tool, writing is likely to be of little use if a student does not know how to apply it effectively. Fortunately, there is an easy remedy for this situation — students can be taught how to apply specific writing strategies as learning tools.

To illustrate, writing a short synopsis or summary of material presented in class or a textbook can improve students’ understanding of such information. Writing a short synopsis is not an easy task, however, as students must determine which ideas are most important, which ideas are trivial and redundant, how ideas connect to one another, and the core idea underlying the material to be summarized.

One way to ensure that students can write such a synopsis successfully is to present them with a strategy for creating a summary, describe how the strategy works and when to use it, model how to apply the strategy to relevant classroom material, and provide guided practice in using the strategy until students can apply it effectively and on their own.

Another approach for teaching summarization is to show students model summaries of classroom material, discussing with them what makes these models good summaries. Next, students are shown additional models with one part of the summary missing (e.g., a sentence providing important details). They supply the missing part and discuss how well their various attempts to solve this problem worked. This basic approach is repeated with additional material deleted from the summary until students complete the full summary on their own.

Other writing activities that can effectively support middle school students’ understanding and learning of academic content include taking notes from a lecture or text; answering or generating written questions about classroom material; writing journal entries guided by open-ended questions about key concepts; and working on extended writing projects that involve applying key ideas to a new situation, defending a specific perspective related to these ideas, or personalizing the ideas (e.g., asking students to write about how their life as an adolescent differs from the life of Frederick Douglass as an adolescent).

I would like to close with a simple, but not much practiced proposition. Teaching middle school students how to use writing as a tool to support learning is not the responsibility of the English teacher. It is the responsibility of all middle school teachers.

It is clear that writing about academic content can improve learning, but students need to know how to do write academic content in each discipline. Although middle school students sometimes use similar writing strategies for learning in subjects such as science, English, and history, they typically use these strategies for different purposes and in different ways. A social studies teacher is much more qualified than an English teacher to teach students to think and write like a historian, just as a science teacher is better at teaching students to think and write like a scientist.