Increasing Written Literacy 

Author: Joseph Kanke, Instructional Coach

Education, as a system, is constantly undergoing changes and adapting to the needs of students.  One such need is to improve writing.  The response has been a campus-based push for increased writing opportunities referred to as Write to Learn, Writing Across the Curriculum or Writing in the Discipline.  While each term may not be used completely interchangeably, there is significant overlap.  For the purpose of this article, I will refer to this process of written literacy as Write to Learn.  Basically, Write to Learn means writing is occurring across disciplines and subjects.

Recent data shows students are not graduating high school with writing tools they need to be successful.  According to the Writing Next Report, 70% of students in grades 4-12 are considered low achieving writers and college instructors estimate that only 50% of high school graduates are prepared for college-level writing.

Everyone agrees that the more you read, the better reader you will become.  The results for writing are the same.  When students are given consistent and frequent writing practice, they will begin to see themselves as writers.  As they become better writers, they will have a platform to authentically engage with content and critical thinking skills will increase.  All of these skills will ensure that students are ready for academic and work related writing.

If you are on a campus that is considering the implementation of Write to Learn, there are two essential components you will want to address to make the program effective.  The first is that some teachers will feel unsure of their own writing abilities and thus—understandably—feel apprehensive about writing instruction.  They need to be assured that while providing immediate and specific feedback will be essential to writing growth, it does not necessarily need to focus on grammar.  The second key element is providing teachers with ample professional development.  Just as students need to develop a writer’s toolkit, teachers need access to a variety of authentic writing activities so they can choose what works best with their content.

Students need to be engaged in writing frequently and across subjects, content, and format to ensure adequate practice and exposure so that they are ready for college, careers, and life.

Here are two examples of writing strategies that could be implemented under the Write to Learn model.


Activity Implementation When to Use Grouping
Magnet Summaries
  1. After reading an article or finishing class notes, help students pick out the key word (concept being taught).  This will be their magnet word.
  2. Ask students to copy the magnet word in the center of a note card or page of their notebook.
  3. Tell students the magnet word acts like a magnet and pulls other key information that is important to the topic.
  4. Students should then pull key words from the article or notes and arrange them around the magnet word.
  5. Tell students to write a summary which includes the magnet word and some/all of the keywords.
  6. Since students will be so focused on including the keywords, their first summary may not flow smoothly.  Encourage students to edit a minimum of one time.

After reading an article.


After finishing class notes on a topic.



Individual to Pairs

Write 3, Draw 2
  1. Place no less than 8 papers with headings of your choice around the room. *
  2. Explain to students that you have posted key (vocabulary, dates, historical figures, equations, etc.) around the room that they should be familiar with.
  3. Tell them to move around the room and choose 3 of the pages and write, using complete sentences, something they know about that concept.
  4. Tell them to choose two additional concepts and draw a visual representation of something they know about it.

* Students are required to interact with 5 concepts, and by providing a minimum of 8, students will be given the element of choice.

  • Vocabulary
  • Equations
  • Historical Figures
  • Dates
  • Places
  • Parts of Whole (cells, plot, triangles)





Daniels, Harvey, Zemelman,S., & Steineke. N. (2007). Content-area writing:  Every teacher’s guide.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Graham, Steven & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next:  Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools.  New York, NY:  Carnegie.

Keifer, K., Lecourt, D., Reid, S., & Wyric, J. (2014, November 25). What is Writing to Learn? Retrieved February 4, 2015, from

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