We Write To Learn
By Jennifer Padgett
Many times, when we think of writing, creative stories and research papers come to mind-that is, we think of writing as a means
to convey information or inspiration to others. That is certainly a valid purpose for writing, but writing can also be a means for
the brain to create new pathways to permanently embed newfound knowledge-within the writer. As our students’ school
subjects, such as science and history, become more conceptually advanced and vocabulary enriched, our children will require
advanced strategies to successfully master new, more complex material.
Amy Benjamin, author of Writing in the Content Areas, says it well: “Writing equips the mind to think.” Use of notes, bulleted
lists, descriptive annotations, and informal outlines is another way that students can process new concepts by “writing to learn.”
Even though the nonfiction text at hand may be well written and even though you, the instructor, may be well versed in a
particular subject area, your child should acquire additional tools with which to process new information.1
First, it is important to note that children learn how to be skilled writers by reading and analyzing others’ work. Any time I assign
a new writing genre, I use the following modeling process:
1. Choose the specified genre of writing (i.e., sonnet, persuasive essay, outline, note-taking, etc.).
2. Together, study and discuss samples of that particular genre of writing. What is the purpose of this type of writing-as a
means of learning or as a means of demonstrating or promoting what one has been learning?
3. With your child, write a sample of the genre. Be sure and speak aloud what is going on in your own head as you write this
4. Give your child ample practice time to write a similar piece independently; he may need to produce several writing samples
in order to fully comprehend the unique elements of the chosen genre and prove his understanding of their application.
“An across-the-board journal is a vehicle for informal writing in which the student processes and connects information, language,
and problem-solving skills from one class to another.”2 Below are some nonfiction writing ideas created to guide your child as he
endeavors to comprehend new, complex reading material.
Example 1: Note-Taking
Sometimes we forget that being able to take concise notes is writing. Due to easy access to the Internet’s informational
highways, plagiarism is rampant. Note-taking is a worthy skill that needs to be developed and practiced. Learning how to write in
a succinct manner will not only improve one’s own writing but will also prepare a child for taking notes during future lectures in
1. Words should be in fragment form; no sentences allowed.
2. Include only the important, main words (usually nouns).
3. Use synonyms wherever possible.
4. Leave out insignificant words (usually prepositions, articles, conjunctions).
5. Use of abbreviations, symbols, and one’s own shorthand is ideal.
Example 2: Newspaper Article
During silent reading, my children will often read God’s World. However, if you are anything like me, you probably often wonder if
they understood the information. Here is another way to check their comprehension and improve learning through writing: Using
their journals, draw a very large question mark. Divide the question mark into the following sections: Who, What, When, Where,
Why, and How. Implementing the above note-taking rules, have your children bullet their responses to the above questions. This
will require them to analyze the article at a deeper level as they identify the important facts. My favorite graphic organizer site is
that children can use with nonfiction reading.
Example 3: Summaries
Once students have mastered the skills of note-taking, locating the main ideas, and rephrasing language into their own words,
students are ready to learn how to write summaries. Initially, summary writing is really a two-step process. After the student has
read the specified article several times, have him bullet the main ideas in chronological order, still keeping in mind that the
material should be paraphrased in the writer’s words.
Next, instruct the child to write the actual summary, using the bulleted list as a guide. One way to improve fluency is to keep a
transition list next to the student while he writes. Words such as next, finally, in addition, and therefore can help the language
used in the summaries to flow and become aesthetically pleasing to the ear. A great link that offers a variety of transitions is
As students read text in content areas, they may encounter a lot of technical language that may or may not be defined by using
context clues, i.e., the words surrounding the unfamiliar word. Students who learn to target confusing words and attempt to
define or make a prediction of what the word is will, without a doubt, improve comprehension.
Provide students with a reading assignment. Next, allow them to first skim the selected piece of reading, pulling out
boldfaced/italicized or confusing vocabulary. Within their journals, have the students write the following headings and complete
the first two sections. Finally, read the selected piece again thoroughly to comprehend the actual meaning of the word. Use of a
dictionary is strongly encouraged to verify the accurate, precise definition.3
Example #5 Finding Figurative Language in Nonfiction
Even though content area reading can be dry and methodical in nature, there is nonfiction writing out there that is metaphorical:
text that is poetic and embellished with figurative language. Both methodical and metaphorical language are very much desired
and enjoyed in nonfiction writing and usually accomplished only by skilled writers.4
Below is an excerpt taken from The Shirley Letters From California Mines in 1851-1852 by Dame Shirley. It provides an excellent
example of a primary resource that is loaded with much history and figurative language.
“. . . Bursting into a thousand glittering foam beads over the huge rocks, which rise dark, solemn, and weird-like in its midst.5
In their journals, have students write these sensory words: Touch, Taste, Sight, Smell, and Hear. If your child is confused by
imagery, read some poetry or children’s literature and, together, identify words/phrases that fit into the above categories. Here
are just a couple of examples of imagery pulled from the above excerpt:
• Touch: watery midst
• Sight: glittering foam beads
• Hear: the sounds of water crashing over the huge rocks
In conclusion, different types of writing are used to achieve different purposes. For example, a student cannot write
a research paper about Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s Tomb if he has not read and studied Egyptian history,
archaeological digs, and the mummification process. This student, first, needs to truly learn and deeply comprehend this
information, which can be accomplished by taking notes, summarizing main ideas, and absorbing new vocabulary. In conclusion,
we teach our children to write as a way to process new information; eventually, they become the experts in their “own” learning
Jennifer L. Padgett, M. Ed. has been a secondary educator in the fields of writing and literacy for eighteen years. When not
homeschooling or teaching a night class, Jennifer is pursuing her passions: adoption advocacy and freelance writing. One may
read more about her family’s latest adventures at www.thewriteheart.com <http://www.thewriteheart.com> .
1. Benjamin, Amy. Writing in the Content Areas. Eye on Education, Inc., Larchmont, New York: 2005, p. 4.
2. Benjamin, Amy. Writing in the Content Areas. Eye on Education, Inc., Larchmont, New York: 2005, p. 139.
3. Robb, Laura. Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math. Scholastic Inc., New York City, New York: 2003, p.
4. Benjamin, Amy. Writing in the Content Areas. Eye on Education, Inc., Larchmont, New York: 2005, p. 78.
5. Excerpt taken from the “Letter the Seventh: The New Log Cabin Home at Indian Bar” by Dame Shirley, p. 89, accessed
July 13, 2012.
Copyright 2013, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of The Old
Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com