We often think of writing as a reflection of finished thinking, whether it be via a term paper, final exam, or other culminating project. However, writing is also a powerful tool for thinking, to help ...
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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e often think of writing as a reflection of finished thinking, whether it be via a term paper, final exam, or other culminating project. However, writing is also a powerful tool for thinking, to help students construct meaning and to deepen their understandings of complex content (Bomer, 2011). Writing to think is grounded in the understanding that people need to use language to mediate and extend their thinking (Vygotsky, 1981; Bomer, 2011). That is, as we are learning new content, we need language to help us figure out what we know, believe, and understand. Have you ever participated in a discussion and realized mid-sentence that you are changing your mind? Does your thinking become clearer and more focused the more you talk? For many, talking helps us develop and clarify our thinking. Writing functions in the same way, as language mediates our initial response and opens space for us to develop and refine our thinking.
Informal writing-to-think opportunities can help create and maintain environments in which learners feel comfortable taking risks and working out new understandings (Cambourne, 1988). Since these writing assignments are not graded or evaluated (except informally to help you gauge student understanding), students are free to engage with complex or difficult material without fear of judgment. The act of writing causes students to internalize what they are learning, moving engagement to a deeper level than just reading material would. Now they are working to make the learning theirs (Daniels, Zemelman, & Steineke, 2008). Informal writing also can serve as a springboard to a small group or class discussion. Students come to the discussion with thinking to share and, as a result, are engaged with one another’s thinking. This may be especially helpful for introverted and reserved students, as well as those students for whom English is a second language as it gives them additional time to process their thinking.
Below are five writing-to-think strategies that work across content areas and can be used no matter the size of your class or your course delivery format—seminar, lecture, or online.
A quick-write is a timed writing exercise that lasts between 5–7 minutes. Keeping these short is important because it encourages students to be focused and engaged for the entire time. Students are provided with a prompt, usually an open-ended question, and they must write for the entire time. Students need only a pen and paper (or a keyboard). What they write can then be used as an informal assessment for teacher information (not for a grade) and/or as a springboard for discussion with a partner, small group, or large group.
Admit Slip: Stand by the door a few minutes before class and collect “admit slips” from students as they enter the room. These can be assigned as homework to be completed in response to a reading, video, or other shared text accessed outside of class. Based on your instructional goals, prompts can be broad, serving to ascertain students’ general understanding of a topic discussed in the previous class or from their homework, or they can be more focused, directing students’ attention to something specific in the reading. You can use the admit slips to start class or steer your discussion.
Exit Slip: With your last 5–7 minutes of class, try providing students with an open-ended prompt (or a few and let them choose one). These prompts can be general (What did you learn today? How is this class going for you?) to more targeted (What was something difficult from today? Why is it difficult?Summarize today’s class in 25 words.) Much like admit slips, what students write on their exit slips can be useful to you as plan your next class. You can see misunderstandings or gaps in understanding (things that need more or different instruction on your part) and you can use students’ comments to spur discussion the next time you meet.
Carousel Brainstorming: In this activity, students move to different stations around the room. Each station has a large piece of flipchart paper with a quote or question on it. These quotes and questions can come from the students (it could even be their exit slip from the previous class or their admit slip for the day) or from the instructor. At each station students respond in writing to what is on the paper. At the end of the rotations, students can gather at the station they most want to discuss further, thus leading to a small group discussion.
Drawing: This strategy is important to include because it allows for non-linguistic representations of concepts. For students who are less confident writers, this can provide an opportunity to feel more successful and comfortable. For students for whom writing comes easily, this allows them to stretch their brain in new ways as they represent their thinking without words. We need students to be able to think and show their thinking in a variety of ways. Close cousins to drawing include clustering and concept mapping, both of which allow students to show relationships among concepts using a combination of words, layout, design, and non-linguistic representation.
Bomer, R. Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann, 2011.
Cambourne, B. The Whole Story: Natural Learning and the Acquisition of Literacy in the Classroom. Auckland, N.Z.: Ashton Scholastic, 1988.
Daniels, H., Zemelman, S., & Steineke, N. Content-Area Writing: Every teacher’s guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007.
Vygotsky, L. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Amy Burke is an assistant professor in the Department of Reading at Texas Woman's University. Her research interests include multimodal composition, the relationship between literacy and identity, and the ways in which various forms writing and talking affect learning. She has been published in journals including Language Arts and Literacy Research and Instruction.