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Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5

Writing Across the Curriculum

Writing throughout the day gives students opportunities to practice the craft they learn during a writing workshop and exposes them to the authentic writing of multiple disciplines. This workshop — focused on practices that integrate writing into all areas of the curriculum — illustrates that writing can take many forms and serve many purposes.

Charles WhitakerOur goal shouldn’t be to expect young students to write at the level of expertise that a researcher might write in science, for example, but they can begin to write like that, and they should begin to write like that.

— Charles Whitaker, retired professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University and a director of National Writing Project sites in Kentucky for the past 20 years

Learning Goals

In this workshop you will explore how to:

  • help students use writing to express what they know and to ask questions about what they don’t know
  • introduce students to authentic writing from individual disciplines and provide them with opportunities to approximate that writing
  • use students’ writing to assess how well they understand content

Prepare for the Workshop

To prepare for this workshop, you will review the strategies you already use and read two articles about writing in content areas.


What Do You Do?

Consider the kinds of writing assignments your students do, and the opportunities they have to incorporate writing in a variety of subject areas. Then answer the following questions, jotting down your answers in your notebook:

  • What have your students written outside of language arts and/or a writing workshop?
  • What have some of the challenges been when asking students to write in content area classes other than language arts?
  • What benefits have you noticed?
  • What are your goals for having students’ write in a variety of content areas?


Examine the Literature

Print out the Examine the Literature Response Chart (PDF). Then read each article listed below, recording your ideas on the chart during and after reading. When you have finished, save your chart to submit as an assignment.

What’s the Purpose? Students Talk About Writing in Science (PDF)
This article includes suggestions for teaching science writing in the elementary grades and features interviews with fourth-grade students and their experiences writing in science.

Tower, Cathy. “What’s the Purpose? Students Talk About Writing in Science.” Language Arts (National Council of Teachers of English) 82, no. 6 (July 2005): 472-483. Copyright 2005 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Hugs, Humor, Hankies, and History: Writing To Bring Social Studies to Life (PDF)
In this article, a fifth-grade teacher shares how she anchors social studies curriculum to the narrative form of writing with which students are already familiar and comfortable.

Beery, Ruth. “Hugs, Humor, Hankies, and History: Writing To Bring Social Studies to Life.” Primary Voices K-6 (National Council of Teachers of English) 11, no. 1 (August 2002): 18-23. Copyright 2002 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Analyze the Videos

Key Practices To Observe

“Writing Across the Curriculum” and “Writing in Science” explore how to use writing effectively and authentically in a variety of subject areas. They feature commentary from experts on teaching writing at the elementary level as well as classroom illustrations highlighting the practices of several teachers.

As you watch, look for the following key practices:

  • Teachers provide strategies that help students write authentically in all disciplines.
  • Teachers provide students with ample time in content classes to record, think about, and extend their own observations and questions.
  • Teachers encourage students to draw on their content knowledge for writing workshop topics.
  • Teachers integrate literacy into content area classes through multigenre projects.
  • Teachers allow students opportunities to choose their own focus when writing in content areas, guided by their own observations, questions, interests, and ideas.
  • Teachers demonstrate how to use note taking and drawing to record observations.
  • Teachers demonstrate how to organize observations and notes for writing.
  • Teachers provide students with opportunities to choose authentic audiences and genres when writing for publication.

Examine Your Practice

Read Slice the Pie To Help Writers and Learners (PDF) by Charles Whitaker. In this article, Charles describes a pre-writing strategy in which the teacher and students use a graphic organizer — a pie chart — to help students define their own writing tasks at a point in a unit of study when their writing will emerge from and support their learning. This strategy is especially useful in content area learning, including learning in English/language arts. After reading the piece, complete the following activity.


Slice the Pie

Use the “Slice the Pie” activity described in the article as a pre-writing strategy for a piece to share with your colleagues. Begin by choosing one of the following questions as the broad subject matter for your “pie,” or use a different question or subject you feel is better suited to your needs.

  • What idea or strategy for integrating writing into content areas would I like to share with my colleagues?
  • What should be the focus of our faculty’s next professional development session?
  • How can teachers and staff increase parental involvement at our school?
  • What’s the most important challenge facing our school, and what are some ways we can address it?

Try an Activity

Interactive.(Activity disabled due to Flash content.)

Planning a Weekly Writing Schedule

This activity is designed to help you integrate writing in a meaningful way throughout the school day. As you do the activity, consider the many forms and purposes of writing: writing to learn, writing that approximates the writing of professionals in different content areas, and writing.

Put It Into Practice

The videos, activities, and readings in this workshop illustrate effective practices, including using a writer’s notebook, for helping students write authentically in different content areas. Now apply what you have learned to incorporate the writer’s notebook in a subject area outside the writing workshop.


Writer’s Notebook in Content Areas

Choose a writing topic based on a subject you and your students are studying or will study in a content area other than language arts. For a week or so, record your notes and your questions about this topic in your writer’s notebook. Save your entries to submit as an assignment. You may also use the entries to demonstrate to your students how to use the writer’s notebook to help develop authentic writing pieces in a content area.

Reflect on Your Learning


What Did You Learn?

Summarize what you have learned about writing across the curriculum from the experts’ statements, classroom examples, and readings and activities in this workshop. Use the questions below to guide your thinking. When you have finished, save your written summary to submit as an assignment.

  • Which classroom practices from the videos reflect what you currently do?
  • Which practices or ideas are new to you?
  • What changes do you plan to make?
  • What support and/or resources will you need to implement these ideas?

Related Resources

Web Resources

National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE provides research, teaching resources, and articles for teaching writing at all levels.

First Hand Learning Mini Journals
First Hand Learning encourages elementary and middle school students to observe, read, and write about natural phenomena on their own.

KidSpace at the Internet Public Library
The KidSpace link at the Internet Public Library sends users to books, magazines, and newspapers from around the world that are available free via the Internet.

Multimedia Math Glossary
This site provides definitions for many common mathematical terms used in Grades K-6.

NASAexplores includes free weekly educational articles and lesson plans on numerous subjects, adapted for three reading levels.

The National Archives on Google Video
The National Archives on Google Video site provides access to more than 100 historic films.

Rainforest Action Network
This site explores information about rainforests and ways that students can act to help protect their natural habitat. The site could provide inspiration for letter writing, poetry, and other kinds of writing, as well as content reading.

Print Resources

Allen, Camille. The Multigenre Research Paper: Voice, Passion, and Discovery in Grades 4-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0-325-00319-X

This is a step-by-step guide to multigenre research in the upper elementary grades.

Buss, Kathleen, and Lee Karnowski. Reading and Writing: Nonfiction Genres.Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2002. ISBN: 0872073467

This book illustrates how to use the concept of author’s purpose to teach elementary students about different types of nonfiction writing.

Chatton, Barbara, and N. Lynne Decker Collins. Blurring the Edges: Integrated Curriculum Through Writing and Children’s Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991. ISBN: 0325001448

The focus of this book is on thematic units emphasizing reading and writing for authentic reasons throughout the curriculum.

McMackin, Mary C., and Barbara S. Siegel. Knowing How: Researching and Writing Nonfiction 3-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2002. ISBN: 1571103406

Based on their experiences working with a class of fifth-graders, the authors outline a practical, workable plan for teaching young writers research writing.

Rester-Zodrow, Gina, and Joni Chancer. Moon Journals: Writing, Art, and Inquiry Through Focused Nature Study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. ISBN: 0435072218

This book recounts how the authors’ students kept a 28-day moon journal and how it evolved into a rich source of poetry, prose, art, and observation.


Literacy Experts

Isoke Titilayo NiaIsoke Titilayo Nia

An educator for more than 25 years, Isoke also spent 13 years as Director of Research and Development at the Reading/Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. She currently travels throughout the U.S. and abroad as a literacy consultant through All Write Literacy Consultants, an organization she founded in 2001. She writes short stories and is at work on a book on the study of genre in the process classroom.

Katie Wood RayKatie Wood Ray, Ph.D.

Katie is a full-time writer and researcher on the teaching of writing. With a particular focus on the study of writing craft, she leads teacher workshops and summer institutes across the nation related to the teaching of writing. Her professional background includes both elementary and middle school teaching experience; eight years as an Associate Professor of language arts education at Western Carolina University; and two years as a staff developer at The Reading and Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Katie is also the author or co-author of numerous articles in professional publications and five books on the teaching of writing, including Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom(1999, NCTE) and The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (2001, NCTE).

Karen SmithKaren Smith, Ph.D.

Karen is currently an associate professor in the education department of Arizona State University. She spent 20 years as a teacher in a multilingual, combined fifth- and sixth-grade classroom. Prior to her position at ASU, she served as Associate Executive Director at the National Council of Teachers of English. She has written numerous articles and a book chapter, “Enhancing the Literature Experience Through Deep Discussions of Character,” from What a Character, published by the International Reading Association.

Featured Teachers

Sheryl BlockSheryl Block
Fourth-Grade Teacher
Simpsonville Elementary, Simpsonville, Kentucky

Sheryl Block has been teaching for 26 years, the first 9 years in special education. Since 1990, Sheryl has provided professional development training in writing instruction in her own district and throughout Kentucky. She is a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Writing Advisory Committee and the Scoring Accuracy Team. She also serves as a writing cluster leader for the north-central region in Kentucky.

About the School:

Located in a rural, agricultural community, Simpsonville Elementary places a high priority on writing instruction — the principal received the Patronus Award, the highest honor given by the Louisville Writing Project (a National Writing Project affiliate). Although the students are primarily Caucasian, Simpsonville has a growing Hispanic population, higher than the state average.

Jeanne BoiarskyJeanne Boiarsky, Ph.D.
Third-Grade Teacher
Zaharis Elementary, Mesa, Arizona

Jeanne is currently in her 16th year as a teacher. In addition to third grade, Jeanne also has taught at the first- and second-grade levels. Dr. Boiarsky received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education from Arizona State University, graduating cum laude. She received her Ph.D. in elementary education from Lacrosse University in Mississippi.

About the School:

Located in the suburbs of Phoenix, Zaharis Elementary’s student population of 780 is predominantly Caucasian (83 percent). Virtually everyone at the school — students, teachers, administrators, and support staff — keeps a writer’s notebook.

Lindsay DibertLindsay Dibert
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Danville Elementary, Danville, New Hampshire

Lindsay Dibert has been teaching fifth grade for the past six years. She has served on technology and distance learning teams for the Timberlane Regional School District. Lindsay earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and her M.S.T.E. from the University of New Hampshire.

About the School:

Danville is a small town in southern New Hampshire, and Danville Elementary is one of five elementary schools in the Timberlane Regional school district. The school enrollment is nearly 400, and 96 percent are Caucasian.

Nicole OutsenNicole Outsen
Fifth-Grade Teacher
North Hampton School, North Hampton, New Hampshire

Nicole Outsen has been teaching at the elementary level since 1996. She began her teaching career in New York City, and has been teaching at North Hampton School since 2001. Nicole presents workshops on reading and writing for the University of New Hampshire Department of Continuing Education and is the author of Teaching Comprehension Strategies All Readers Need: Mini-Lessons That Introduce, Extend, and Deepen Reading Skills and Promote a Lifelong Love of Literature (Scholastic, 2002). She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College, Columbia University. She earned her master’s degree in Teacher Leadership from the University of New Hampshire.

About the School:

Located in a small town with a population under 5,000, North Hampton School serves 481 students in preschool through the eighth grade. The school received a Blue Ribbon Award from the No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools. North Hampton emphasizes world languages, multiple assessment tools, individualization, and service learning. The majority of the students (97 percent) are Caucasian.

Christine SanchezChristine Sanchez
Third-Grade Teacher
Tohaali Community School, Toadlena, New Mexico

Christine Sanchez has been teaching for 11 years, two years at Tohaali Community School on the Navajo reservation. Christine is also Navajo and, like her students, grew up on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico. Christine received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Fort Lewis College and her master’s in educational leadership at Western New Mexico University.

About the School:

Tohaali is both a day school and a boarding school — many of its 200 students live in dormitories during the school year. All students at Tohaali Community School are Navajo. The school serves kindergarten through eighth grade, with about two-thirds of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.