Incorporating Content-Area Writing in Your Class

There’s a great column over at that recently featured some great tips for writing in content areas.

Content-area writing is all about getting students to write outside of English class to help them better engage with and understand course material. Enhancing the lessons of any subject with writing activities helps students build connections, demonstrate knowledge and retain information.

Though its educational benefits are clear, assessing content area writing can be intimidating to non-English teachers. As Debbie Shults notes “some content area teachers feel they are not up to the task of ‘teaching writing.'”

Fair enough.

Luckily, content area teachers don’t have to be writing experts to incorporate writing in their classroom. Writing in a content area should emphasize what is said (ideas, concepts and connections) rather than how it is said (correct spelling and grammar).

General writing skills are important, but students should be allowed to concentrate on delving into the subject matter to wrestle with new ideas without being afraid of misplacing a comma.

Keeping this in mind, Shults suggests using rubrics to “determine the essential criteria of an assignment, describe the various levels of quality, and concisely communicate expectations to their students.” This takes some of the anxiety out of assessment.

Also, avoid limiting yourself to just one type of writing assignment. Shults lists some suggestions:

Solar system web pages, Civil War newspapers, lab reports, immigrant journals, science fair abstracts, play scripts, R.A.F.T. papers, biographies of scientists, interview questions, timeline narratives, response-note taking formats, and storyboards for film or slide presentations are just a few of the infinite and realistic ways content area teachers can help students hone the writing skills that language arts teachers have helped them develop.

At the college level, one of the professors we work with recently added “cases” to his sociology class, where students gather information about hypothetical scenarios then offer arguments to espouse a particular stance. An assignment like this goes beyond demonstrating knowledge and encourages reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

There are a number of resources on the web with more good ideas for assignments.

It doesn’t take much to put together a few new assignments and quickly get “a window into how students think about the concepts they are learning.” And it’s a significant step toward better education for your students.