“emphasize the active role of the writer, who must organize and reformulate ideas and experiences in the process of writing about them” — Langer & Applebee 6-7

Do you know who Kelly Gallagher is? If you teach English to middle or high schoolers, you likely know exactly who I mean.

For those of you who don’t, he’s a high school English teacher, but like . . . a famous one. He has a few books out on how to best engage students of English Language Arts. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Students is his collaboration with Penny Kittle, another prominent English teacher. It’s one of my absolute favorite books about teaching. Many of my classroom rituals and practices come from them, including Book Talk! Their new collaborative book, 4 Essential Studies: How to Reclaim Student Agency, just came out, and I can’t wait to read it!

During the shutdown, I watched daily YouTube episodes from Gallagher & Kittle, in which they let support to other English teachers struggling with remote teaching of ELA. It was a great source of comfort to have a community to turn to when none of us had an idea of how to continue teaching well during such difficult times.

In one of the episodes, Kelly shares in Book Talk about reading a 1986 study by Judith A. Langer and Arthur N. Applebee, How Writing Shapes Thinking.

Because I trust Kelly’s recommendations and tastes so much, I ordered a used copy (it’s an older study, after all).

Still, its thirty-five years distance from 2021 educational climate makes it no less valuable for high school teachers . . . of all subjects!

I wish all high school teachers — even those in STEM content areas — would read the study and follow the principles revealed by the research findings. I’m lucky that the teachers in the science department at my school understand how writing benefits student learning and thinking. Bless them for doing CERs (claim-evidence-reasoning) in their classes. It totally carries over when I ask students to do basically the same thing when we study research writing or rhetorical writing.

In 1986, Langer & Applebee found that writing in classes like the sciences wasn’t terribly commonplace.

“Science teachers, for example, were less likely than social studies teachers to perceive writing activities as falling within their curricular province. They felt, in general, more tied to a specific curriculum and spoke of their responsibility to cover a given number of topics during a school year.”

Langer & Applebee 20-1

Unfortunately, even thirty-five years after the research came out, it’s not typical to see students writing unless they are in English or social science class. Creating a school culture of writing still hasn’t caught fire. But it needs to.

“Writing is rarely used in these ways, in part because as a profession we lack a clear understanding of the kinds of learning that writing can foster, and in part because we lack careful explanations of how to plan and carry out such activities.”

Langer & Applebee 3

But, students need to be writing — all the time! In the case of writing and growth as a writer, volume MATTERS! And students are still not getting enough opportunities to write as much as they need to, not enough to foster more profound and critical thinking.

“American children do not write frequently enough, and the reading and writing tasks they are given do not require them to think deeply enough.”

Langer & Applebee 4

That’s right, not even English teachers have students writing enough or providing opportunities to think deeply enough. We can do better.

Part of the issue is that the writing projects we assign to students are all about the product, not the process. They’re about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but not the rainbow itself. That hurts the potential for students to delve deeper into their thinking about a topic.

“Traditional approaches to the teaching of writing have been prescriptive and product centered, emphasizing the formal structure of effective discourse. . . In direct opposition to the focus on the final written product, there was a groundswell of support for ‘process’ approaches to the teaching of writing. Paralleling our general concern with writing as a way of thinking advocates of these approaches emphasized the thinking strategies underlying the processes of composing a text.”

Langer & Applebee 6

We need to redirect our focus to the ideas students have, carve out time to collaborate with peers on their writing, encourage them to write and rewrite as many drafts as it takes to hone their skills, and teach editing at the end. Let the process be recursive.

They even recommend “deferring or eliminating grades” on student writing. After ten years of teaching, I agree! I think grades cheapen students writing experiences; it becomes about a single letter instead of all the ones the students work to string together to create meaning. Langer and Applebee recommended this strategy thirty-five years ago. As a whole, we still haven’t done what best practice recommends. I feel incredibly frustrated when traditional, outdated systems keep me from using what research says is best practice. Do other fields work like this? Healthcare? Law enforcement? 

Clearly, the instructional strategies we have used don’t work. It’s time to expand the instruction of process-oriented writing throughout the school and implement new strategies to do so once and for all.

“‘Since students who plan, revise, and edit are more likely to be better writers, the NAEP results support the national emphasis on teaching the writing process. Students who use the kinds of process strategies we think teachers should be teaching have higher writer achievement. The results, however, do not indicate that classroom instruction in the writing process has been effective. This suggests that the . . . instructional approaches are treating the writing process in a superficial manner. Students are not learning to link process activities with problems they face in their own writing.’”

Langer & Applebee 7

For two years, Applebee and Langer researched how teachers from all subject areas implemented writing into their curriculum, regardless of content, to deepen their instruction and curriculum and offer more opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills.

Writing across the curriculum — across subject areas — benefits student learning and thinking in many ways. In fact, Langer and Applebee found that: 

“the acquisition of writing within a culture is a fundamental factor in the development of modern thought — promoting, in particular, these types of discourse (and those types of thinking) we label as ‘rational’ or ‘scientific.’”

Langer & Applebee 3

Instead of reserving writing for only English class or the humanities, a school’s culture of writing significantly promotes thinking in courses we don’t usually associate with writing — science, math, technology!

“the act of writing facilitates a logical linear presentation of ideas.”

Langer & Applebee 3

Another aspect of including writing in all subjects is that its permanence can do the thinking and learning more “sticky” for students. When students write to think, they remember what they know better.

“the permanence of writing (as opposed to the fleeting nature of talk), permit[s] reflection upon and review of what has been written.”

Langer & Applebee 3

Writing amplifies students thinking because it gives them a framework in which to work. Thinking without context makes it difficult for students to apply that thinking authentically. But, writing about their thinking helps them do that.

“‘Thinking skills are taught best when related to some content, the argument goes, and writing provides a particularly welcoming context for thinking deeply about such content.’”

Langer & Applebee 3

Writing is active. Students don’t just have to sit and stare at projected notes or listen to a teacher drone about everything they know about a concept. Writing is something that students do rather than something that is done to them

“the active nature of writing, provid[es] a medium for exploring implications entailed within otherwise unexamined assumptions.”

Langer & Applebee 5

In a nutshell, writing in any content area will only enhance the student’s learning experience, empower them to stay curious, and keep them engaged and connected.

“writing activities can provide varied and effective ways for students to think about and reformulate new learning and to integrate new information with their previous knowledge and experience.”

Langer & Applebee 19

For educators looking to get away from rote facts and memorization, to scale that Bloom’s Taxonomy or Levels of Depth of Knowledge from good ole’ Marzano, bring writing into your lessons. Start with something small and keep practicing! It pays off. Your students and their brains need it.

“When teachers did use writing, the content often became a vehicle for teaching conceptual skills rather than facts to be mastered by students.”

Langer & Applebee 21

I couldn’t find How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning on Bookshop.org. This site helps support local and independent bookstores. I had to use the dreaded Amazon! But, a trip to an indie used bookstore might have a treasure trove of all sorts of studies and research! Plus, you can get 180 Days and 4 Essential Studies by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle — the English teachers who inspired me to read this study in the first place — on Bookshop.org. Support the little guys because it makes a difference.

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