With so much emphasis on reading and math, content areas and writing often seem to get the leftovers at the end of an instructional day. While students certainly need to be able to read, I think there are ways resourceful teachers can successfully teach content and craft.
For many students, the knowledge and processes taught in science and social studies provide a more interesting context to learn reading and writing than any randomly chosen story from a textbook company. Is there a way to effectively integrate content area knowledge with the craft of writing? I think so. We did it a few weeks ago during a science lab.
Building Background Knowledge
The lesson’s objective was for students to measure and compare the masses of objects using a balance scale. Before asking students to write about a topic of any kind, they must first have a sufficient amount of knowledge on the subject. Writing demands an in-depth level of such knowledge. Without it, your students’ writing will seem weak and shallow Don’t set your students up for failure. Give them numerous opportunities to build their background knowledge before expecting them to write. I had my students watch short video clips about how to use a balance scale. Then, I demonstrated the process to them before letting them work in small groups to do it on their own.
We also need to teach specific vocabulary so we can eliminate the dreaded “stuff” and “things” that pepper many students’ writing. Since I use Whole Brain Teaching, I introduced key terms using a Power Pix and gestures. A Word Bank is also useful here – just tack up a piece of chart paper and make a running list of words that students can refer to when speaking and writing. Spend time visualizing words (for example,, “What do you picture when I say balance?”) and making connections. Having appropriate levels of context and vocabulary will enable students to more effectively express what they know through writing.
Writing to Express Knowledge
Since our entire grade level was teaching students to write explanatory text, I ended our lesson by having students write a short paragraph explaining how to measure mass using a balance scale. This didn’t need to be a 5-paragraph essay. A condensed writing assignment like this enabled my students to understand the traits of a well-written procedural:
- a clearly stated topic
- very specific vocabulary
- transitional words and phrases
- proper sequence
Consider the Reader
After their first draft, I read many sentences such as: “Put it on the scale.” When conferring with my young writers, I asked them, “Put what on the scale? Where on the scale?” In this way, they were challenged to consider their readers and write from their perspective, thereby making their directions that much more explicit.
Time for It All
When I create lessons like this, where content and craft come together, my students are highly motivated. They enjoy learning. They enjoy writing about what they have learned. Success came as a result of adequate knowledge, specific vocabulary and a writing task that complemented the lesson objective. There was time enough for it all.