Common Core Writing: Writing Across the Content Areas

January 11, 2015

The Common Core writing standards for English and all other subjects are nearly identical. This means that the writing process for argument, information, research etc. should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ. Read on for ways to standardize the writing process across content areas.This is number eight in a series of posts about my online course, Common Core: Implementing the Writing Standards. If you are looking to get caught up, check out:
Post #1: an overview of the writing standards
Post #2: the gradual release process and writing
Post #3: explicit teaching of writing skills
Post #4: argument writing
Post #5: informational writing
Post #6: narrative writing
Post #7: research and writing

As you have been reading my posts you may have been thinking, but I'm not an English teacher, does this all even apply to me? The answer is YES. The writing process for argument, information, research etc. should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ (i.e. writing about the French & Indian War in history class, osmosis in science class, etc.).

English does have its own set of writing standards, separate from the writing standards for history/social studies, science, and other technical subjects, but they aren't much different. Let's take a look.

At the 9-10 level in English, Standard 2 is about informational writing: "Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content." At the 9-10 level in history/social studies, science, and other technical subjects, Standard 2 is also about informational writing: "Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes." Pretty much the same idea. In fact Standards 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 are identical.

So why is this important to know? Again the writing process should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ. Think about writing at your school. Do English teachers require students to follow the same process for writing research papers in their classroom as the history teachers do? Maybe your answer is "yes" (and that is awesome for you!), but your answer is more likely to be "no" or "I don't even know."

Once upon a time, there was common planning time built into the schedule for high school teachers in my school district. The first school at which I taught used the Step Up to Writing program to make writing uniform across our content areas. Each month, students were required to write an essay in each of their four core classes (English, math, science, and social studies). Each subject area took a week in the month so that students were not overwhelmed with four essays at once.

The Common Core writing standards for English and all other subjects are nearly identical. This means that the writing process for argument, information, research etc. should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ. Read on for ways to standardize the writing process across content areas.Step Up to Writing has many components, but the part we used across the board was a simple graphic organizer to help guide our writers. There is a lot of push back right now against formulaic writing and the five paragraph essay, but as Post #3 in this series discusses, struggling writers need explicit instruction and supports. Do you think you will get better essays from students who used a basic organizer like this or those who didn't? I think it is more than fine to teach students the formula first and then show them how they can expand and build on that.

So with this graphic organizer and writing an essay each month in every core content area, did all of our students become super star writers? No. Did we see improvement? Yes. I taught at a historically low performing school, with tests scores of proficiency at less than 15-20%. The year we began writing across the curriculum, over 50% of our students scored proficient or higher on the standardized state tests (and that is with a special education population of 25-30%). Wowzers! Big difference. And if my success story is too small for you, go back and read about New Dorp and their writing revolution in my third post.

The Common Core writing standards for English and all other subjects are nearly identical. This means that the writing process for argument, information, research etc. should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ. Read on for ways to standardize the writing process across content areas.Now you are thinking, Ahhhhh! My school doesn't do anything like this. But what you should be thinking is,  how can I get my school on board with this? One suggestion is if you don't know how other teachers are teaching writing in their content areas, find out. Ask other teachers what kind of writing students are doing in their classes, and what kind of process/supports they are using. You may be met with blank stares here. Remember that you as the English teacher are "responsible" for teaching writing. Other subject area teachers may not feel like it is something they should have to do or even know how to do.

Another suggestion is to find a teacher in a different content area to collaborate with: the American history teacher, the chemistry teacher, the music teacher. Come up with a list of topics from their content area and promise that you will teach the students how to write the research essay if the other teacher will help them with the research and understanding the content. Then tell other teachers about your success.

Or, get all of the English teachers together and decide as a department how you are going to standardize your approach to teaching writing. What will the 9th grade teachers focus on? How will the tenth grade teachers build on that?

The article, “Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum” describes four strategies that can make reading and writing across the curriculum more appealing for teachers who may resist it: 1) use low-stakes writing assignments; 2) provide multiple forms of feedback; 3) employ variety in texts and their presentation; and 4) employ a variety of levels of reading difficulty.

So if jumping into collaborating on research papers and longer writing assignments scares you, start smaller. At my most recent school, we incorporated writing across the curriculum by doing weekly constructed responses in all classes, in all subject areas every Wednesday. As constructed responses are a part of most standardized tests, your school may have a similar requirement (maybe not on the same day or with the same frequency). Compare the kinds/levels of questions students are given as well as the supports used. Once you are all on the same page with those shorter writing assignments, begin to plan for a unified approach on larger writing assignments, essays, research papers, etc. I am sure standardized brainstorming materials, outlines, etc. for use in all classrooms would be desired and beneficial for non-English teachers.

The Common Core writing standards for English and all other subjects are nearly identical. This means that the writing process for argument, information, research etc. should be the the same across the disciplines, only the content will differ. Read on for ways to standardize the writing process across content areas.I developed these constructed response paragraph forms that could be used by teachers of all subjects and grades in my school. The first form is highly structured with sentence-by-sentence directions. The form has a blank space for students to fill in the prompt for whichever class they may be in, suggested transitions to improve the organization of their paragraph, and a self-check list at the end so students can evaluate their own work.

Giving students this “formula” for writing helped them structure well-developed paragraphs as they responded to texts in English, history, science, art, music, etc. This form also helped teachers of subjects other than English support students as they wrote.

After students become more confident in their writing skills, this second, less structured form can be used. Again the form has a blank space for students to fill in the prompt for whichever class they may be in. Instead of sentence-by-sentence directions, students are provided with a greater variety of transition words to choose from and a scoring rubric which can be used for self and/or teacher assessment. The rubric makes the writing expectations clear to students and makes it easy for teachers of any subject area to grade.

You can find all of my resources with constructed response questions (CRQs) here.

I would love to hear about how your school handles (or doesn't) writing across the curriculum. Next up: assessing student writing.


For more writing lesson ideas and resources:

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