Skip to main content

Should content-area teachers teach writing? What particular writing skills do they need to help students with?

Expert answer

My opinion is that schools should take a school-wide approach to teaching writing. And this is particularly important at middle and high school levels. Because a lot of teachers come into middle and high school and they’re not really well-prepared to teach writing.

We completed a national survey of secondary teachers — randomly sampled from across the U.S., a group of language arts teachers, social studies teachers, and science teachers — and we asked them about their preparation. About 72 percent indicated that at the college level, they had little or no preparation in terms of teaching writing. And 42 percent indicated the same thing when we asked about everything that they’d done since then, including personal learning, in service, etc. Language arts teachers, as you might expect, felt better prepared to teach this skill. So when you consider that we have a large number of teachers who don’t feel so comfortable with this skill, it’s important that we approach it as a group in terms of bringing all of our expertise to bear.

Language arts teachers really should have responsibility for the primary writing program. But what we’d like to see is that science teachers, social studies teachers, and other content area teachers, use writing as a tool for learning and thinking about what they’re learning. There’s reasonable evidence that this has a positive effect in terms of content learning. That content learning may be more strongly affected in the sciences than in social studies and language arts.

We want to be sure to take advantage of how writing can help students think about what they’re learning. For kids into middle school and more so into high school, writing becomes more differentiated by discipline.

For example, when writing a persuasive text for social studies, the kinds of things that you draw upon as evidence to make your claim versus writing a scientific persuasive paper can be very different.

The students also need to have a general sense of what persuasion is, the basic parameters that you’re going to establish, how you make your claim to support that, how you argue on the other side. But beyond that, they need to really learn the canon of that discipline, what counts as evidence, what’s important in terms of making your case.

Learning how to write a persuasive essay for English isn’t going to be enough to be successful in other classes. And as students move into college and choose a major, that becomes even more relevant. If you’re a history major, you know you’ve got to go out and look at those primary sources. You can’t be relying on secondary sources anymore. The way that you present that information, how you handle it, is going to differ considerably than if you’re a computer science major and you’re writing a paper in that discipline.

Find more answers from this expert