Writing is used to assess student learning more often than it is used to facilitate learning. We talk about writing as a product for assessment, a subject where paragraphs and commas are taught, or a skill that one either has developed or lacks. Rarely do we hear people, even teachers, discuss writing as a process for learning.

Imagine if a teacher said, “Go write on it and see what you come up with,” after a student asked a question. “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts,” writes William Zinsser in Writing to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All. “Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”

Simply put, writing is our critical thinking made visible.

Through the process of writing, writers put nascent thoughts into comprehensible language for others to read. In their pursuit of self-expression, they often find themselves challenged to find new words or motivated to develop academic vocabulary.

Because it is a critical thinking process, writing isn’t merely an act of jotting down what you have in your head. Once the initial thoughts in your head start to flow, you naturally begin iterating on them.

In academic writing, this leads back to the text, where writers rethink, re-evaluate, and understand a detail or main idea more deeply. As Robert Frost points out, “All there is to writing is having ideas. To learn to write is to learn to have ideas.”

In the best classrooms, writing for learning is facilitated through collaboration with a peer or revision based on feedback from a teacher. This process can happen when studying any subject, not just English language arts.

(Next page: How writing improves STEM learning; closing the writing gap)


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