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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Writing: Big Ideas


Reading and writing are intricately related and are often viewed as “two sides of the same coin” (Graham & Perin, 2007; Tierney & Pearson, 1983). According to Langer and Flihan (2000), “Because writing and reading involve the development of meaning, both are conceptualized as composing activities in the sense that both involve planning, generating, and revising meaning—which occurs recursively throughout the meaning-building process….” However, the cognitive demands required for each activity may differ as they relate to varied purposes and strategy use for constructing meaning. Readers interpret and make sense of an author’s words and ideas about a topic. Writers generate text to represent their own ideas and thinking.

There is an increased emphasis on writing across the disciplines in middle school and high school, where students write for a variety of purposes and audiences. Sometimes, the writing tasks are assigned for students to demonstrate their learning and for teachers to assess the quality of their learning. But the authentic purpose of writing is often to promote deeper understanding of a topic through organization, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of key ideas. This writing may be in response to texts they have read or to reflect on processes and procedures they used for a given task. In essence, students take ownership of their learning through writing.

Writing to learn requires an understanding of the purpose, audience, and organizational structure for various writing tasks. It also requires an understanding of the ways of thinking and communicating within each discipline. In this unit, you will review the process of writing and the cognitive and affective dimensions of this process; common types and purposes of writing in all disciplines; examples of disciplinary writing; and writing assessment practices.


Students learn in elementary school that writing is a process that, like reading, involves thinking before, during, and after a task. As they move through the grades, this process becomes more refined, reflecting the different ways knowledge is produced and communicated within each discipline. This refined understanding of writing reflects three essential considerations: 1) the task environment, both social and physical; 2) the individual (e.g., motivation, prior knowledge, goals); and 3) cognitive processes involved in planning (e.g., generating and organizing ideas; problem solving and making decisions); drafting these ideas into connected text; and reflecting/revising to improve text. (Hayes, 2000).

The general components of the writing process are:

  • Planning. To prepare for a writing task, writers plan, organize, and outline their ideas. This requires a clear understanding of the purpose and audience for writing and the individual goals writers determine to communicate their ideas. Questions to consider are: Why am I writing this? Who is my audience? What are the essential ideas I want to include? What examples will support these ideas? What is the best way to organize my writing?
  • Drafting. Writers use their plan to create a draft that represents their thinking. Questions to consider are: How do I begin? What is my lead? What and how much information is needed to communicate my ideas? What do I need to do to clarify my ideas? What questions might my audience have that I need to address? How will I conclude my writing?
  • Revising. Throughout the process, writers reread what they have written and rewrite based on several questions: Have I presented my ideas in a clear and understandable manner? Do I need to elaborate on my ideas? Can I use different words that more clearly reflect my thinking? Do I need to clarify anything? Does it make sense?
  • Editing. This may be considered one of the final parts of the revising process. Writers reread their work to ensure the text is readable to their audience and includes correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. This is often referred to as “polishing.”
  • Publishing/Sharing. This element may not always be included unless the writing is part of a culminating activity, such as sharing the piece publicly, or summative assessment. Questions to consider: What is the best way to share my writing and ideas? What technology will enhance this? How well did I explain my thinking?

It is critical to understand that proficient writers do not engage in this process in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Rather, they use these components interactively and recursively as they generate and clarify their ideas. Writers may also engage in more than one activity simultaneously. For example, they may revise as they are drafting; they may set new goals or rethink their organization of ideas as they draft or revise.

Reflect: Which part of the writing process is most difficult or problematic for your students? How do you support them to overcome these difficulties?

Using the Writing Process: Important Considerations

  • Students should understand the elements of the writing process, but not every piece of writing needs to reflect this full process. Teachers should consider the purpose and length of the writing assignment, the audience, and the cognitive demands of the task.
  • Students will move between components of the writing process depending on their needs, goals, and purpose for writing.
  • Some students may need scaffolds at any point of the process to support their writing. These scaffolds may include graphic organizers, revising and editing checklists, sentence starters, lists of transition words and phrases, and vocabulary lists. Teacher–student conferences provide individual attention and support to assist students as they write. Brief mini-lessons address the writing needs of groups of students or even the whole class.
  • Writing is a social activity. Students may work collaboratively during any phase of the process. Partners or small groups are effective in generating ideas during the planning stage; peer reviewers support students during the revision and editing stages. In preparing students for writing in real life or professional settings, some assignments can allow for group writing.

Video and Reflection: Watch Making Writing Explicit in Social Studies to see how a teacher supports high school students in writing clearly about their understanding. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What do you consider when designing a writing assignment? How do you decide what to focus on in scaffolding student writing?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice 1) how Mr. Lazar determined specific writing skills for the assignment; and 2) how he scaffolded students’ writing to prepare them for thinking and writing like a historian.
  • Reflect: What different supports does Mr. Lazar use to encourage explicit writing for a complicated topic, and how would they improve student learning? How does his instruction compare with your own when supporting students before a writing assignment in your classes? What specific procedures do you plan for student collaboration before, during, or after writing?


Generally, writing is classified into three types:

  • Narrative
  • Informational/Explanatory
  • Arguments

(Common Core State Standards; New Standards Project)

The type of writing that is assigned should reflect the goals and purposes of instruction. Each type of writing can include a variety of genres. For example, narrative writing could reflect personal narratives or memoirs, fiction, biography, or poetry. Informational writing could comprise summaries, lab reports, directions, procedural explanations, reflections on learning, and research reports. Argument writing could include book or article reviews, essays, letters to an editor, blogs. Each type of writing promotes critical thinking and understanding of disciplinary literacy, requiring different emphases on the stages of the writing process.

The emphasis of writing across disciplines in middle school and high school is on informational and argument writing. While the writer’s “voice” is more apparent in narrative and argument writing, students should be encouraged to integrate their background knowledge with content in each type.

Reflect: Which types of writing do you assign most frequently in your classes? List three examples of these writing assignments and consider how they are both similar to and unique from each other in terms of what they demand of students.

Short- and Long-Term Writing

The importance of writing to learn is reflected in daily writing assignments. Throughout the course of a day, students will work on both short- and long-term writing tasks. The purpose of each is to help students identify important information and to interpret and evaluate it based on integrating existing background knowledge with new learning. The length of time for writing is often determined by the purpose of the task.

Short-term writing assignments may take place in class on any given day or over several days. They typically do not require using the full writing process. Students may be asked to list ideas for writing a future piece, outline or organize ideas, or write a reflection of what they have learned and how they learned it, without revising or editing. Students may write in preparation for a group or class discussion or to reflect on what they know about a topic before reading. They also may use this writing (often referred to as “quick writes”) to summarize what they learned through these discussions or readings. The purpose is to provide students with opportunities to represent their thinking to themselves and sometimes to the teacher or their peers, in preparation for future learning activities.

Long-term writing assignments may take place over weeks or months. Often, these require students to synthesize their learning and apply it to new situations, using the writing process of planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Long-term assignments could include research reports, essays on a particular topic, analyses of events (historical or scientific), and descriptions of mathematical theory or processes.

Video and Reflection: Watch Reading and Writing Scientific Abstracts to see how the teacher prepares students for summarizing in scientific writing. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about how you prepare students for a writing assignment. 1) What aspects of writing do you consider before presenting the writing lesson (e.g., organization, text structure, vocabulary)? 2) What support materials or instructional practices do you provide to assist students as they write?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the explicit instruction and guided practice opportunities that Ms. Tran provides as students read and write scientific abstracts.
  • Reflect: 1) How did Ms. Tran prepare students for writing summaries in the format of an abstract? 2) How did she scaffold student learning during the writing process? 3) How are Ms. Tran’s instructional practices similar or different from your own when supporting students in writing.


“The important thing to realize is that teaching students to do the intellectual work involved in writing about a subject—any subject—means teaching them to organize and elaborate on facts and ideas, to decide on priorities, to look at information through different lenses, and to entertain questions and see the answer to one question as leading to yet more questions.” – Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C., 2012

While writing instruction traditionally has been considered the purview of English teachers, writing instruction within each discipline is now acknowledged as critical to understanding, interpreting, and evaluating essential, discipline-specific ideas. If we want students to develop expertise in various disciplines, we need to teach them the role and purpose of writing in each. The structure and visual features of text, author’s purpose, and precision or clarity of information are all critical in responding to ideas within each discipline. This requires explicit instruction in how to write like an “expert” to communicate ideas within each discipline. Students must learn that effective practices for reading and writing within disciplines differ based on the purposes, goals, and outcomes.

Writing instruction is, therefore, an important element of teaching within each discipline. The goal (and challenge) of teaching disciplinary writing is to provide students with the tools for understanding, representing, and responding critically to ideas based on the purposes, goals, and formats of written communication within the discipline. For example, composing a thesis based on writings about a historical event or time period requires an examination of the author’s stance and/or bias, time period, and supporting or conflicting reports. Students must consider these factors when constructing their own ideas. Writing in science and math requires attention to accuracy of details, sequence of procedures, and reliability of outcomes. Writing a literary analysis in English requires an understanding of both narrative and expository structures, and interpretation of events and characters based on integrating the text with their background knowledge.

Examples of Disciplinary Writing
Writing across the disciplines takes many forms and can require short- or long-term tasks. Following are some examples of writing activities within each discipline in middle and high school:

History/Social Studies:

  • Summaries of important events, people, places in a particular time period
  • Explanations of causes and effects of events
  • Interpretation and tracing of historical events based on source, context, and corroboration of multiple sources
  • Arguments based on a comparison of past and present events


  • Journal entries of observations, cause and effect, compare/contrast
  • Lab reports outlining procedures that can be replicated
  • Visual displays (charts, graphs) that highlight procedures
  • Summaries of outcomes of experiments
  • Research reports that synthesize information on a science concept or topic


  • Reflection journals of what was learned, and how
  • Descriptions of procedures used to solve problems
  • Visual representations of processes leading to solutions
  • Expository essays that examine and explain a mathematical theory


  • Journal entries for synthesis of events, interpretation of characters’ motivations and actions
  • Response to ideas presented in newspaper or journal articles
  • Persuasive essays
  • Poetry

Reflect: Think about writing you have assigned. What knowledge did students need to compete this assignment? How did you prepare students for this writing?


Instruction and assessment are inextricably related in the classroom. The current emphasis on standardized testing (e.g., state testing or PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing for the Common Core standards) has left many teachers wondering how they have time to incorporate their own assessments into classroom instruction. In contrast to yearly standardized testing, assessing student writing during a course of study not only informs teachers of what and how students are learning, but provides important information on the need to review, revise, or elaborate on instruction. Formative assessment throughout a unit of study allows students to demonstrate what they are learning and informs teachers of what else they need to do. Summative assessment at the end of a unit provides students with opportunities to demonstrate a greater depth and breadth of their understanding on a topic they have studied.

Effective assessment requires teachers to ask three essential questions: 1) What do I want to know about each student’s learning? 2) How will I know this? In other words, what form of assessment will provide this information? 3) How will I use the results to plan subsequent instruction? These questions should be addressed initially as teachers plan their units.

Assessing students’ writing is often considered easier than assessing their reading comprehension because writing is visible. However, an assessment of writing needs to consider the thinking behind the writing, possible misconceptions, and potential roadblocks to future understanding that may occur over a unit of study. It should be noted that students who are still learning a language may experience challenges in representing the depth of their thinking and knowledge in the new language; teachers should consider this when assessing the writing of ELL students. Teacher-designed writing assessments focus on both content and writing craft, addressing the goals, essential questions, and purposes of what students are expected to learn. They also should reflect the individual strengths and needs of students, leading to the identification of specific practices to move students forward in their writing. They need to be authentic, reflecting both the processes and products of learning, and revealing students’ strengths as well as needs.

Formats for Assessing Student Writing

One of the ways to assess student writing and learning is through the development of a rubric. Depending on the purpose of instruction, the rubric will include elements of the content learned, components of the required product, and components of effective writing. One of the key factors in all disciplinary writing is the use of evidence to support ideas. This should be reflected in the rubric as well. Based on the criteria noted in the rubric, point values are assigned (which may be weighted) for each component. These criteria allow teachers to respond in narrative form to students. Providing a rubric to students at the beginning of a unit will enhance their understanding of what they are to learn and communicate during the unit.

Depending on the nature of a writing assignment, a rubric for history/social studies could include categories for identifying the source of texts, the context of the time in which texts were written, and corroboration or contradictions from multiple sources. A rubric for science could include accuracy of information, sequence of procedures, and reliability of information for replication. Again, the use of evidence to support thinking is a critical element of the rubric.

Reflect: Review this and student work for a 6th-grade science assignment on what it means to be healthy. Use the rubric to evaluate the student’s writing and write a few sentences on next steps for this student.

Review this rubric [PDF] for a 6th-grade science assignment on what it means to be healthy. Then, use the rubric to evaluate two students’ writing (student work 1 [PDF], student work 2 [PDF]) to support their argument for this question. Consider how students address this topic by synthesizing information from a fiction and informational text, and write a few sentences on next steps you would suggest for each student to improve his or her writing.

Other Assessment Formats
A second format for assessment is the use of portfolios. A student portfolio will include various samples of written work (with or without teacher feedback) and student self-reflections collected over time. Portfolios enable teachers to evaluate growth in learning using multiple work samples representing different writing situations and different points in time.  Student portfolios are useful in teacher-student conferences to assess their writing strengths, challenges and needs, and progress in writing. During the conference, teachers take anecdotal notes on students’ thinking, progress, and future goals.

Third, short-answer questions, or quizzes, are often used to assess student learning and performance. These are often answered in journals or on paper to be submitted. When assessing student responses, teachers need to focus on the important and accurate information used to answer the question and evidence used to support the answers.

Finally, performance-based assessments (which are often summative assessments) provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in writing within a new, multimodal, or unique context. These assessments might involve creating a poster, developing a PowerPoint presentation, writing a blog, or writing a script for dramatizing a particular event. For example, history students might research, write about, and present the causes and effects of a particular event or phenomenon in history using the same learning process with a different phenomenon in class. Performance-based assessments can be engaging and motivating for students if they are tailored to students’ needs, talents, and interests.


Many students, including those who are considered proficient readers, struggle with writing across the disciplines. Writing requires a different set of cognitive demands than reading, and these demands may be challenging for students. Performance standards have been created (including the Common Core State Standards) to delineate what and how students should write; however, key ingredients for effective writing are motivation and engagement. One of the major challenges for teachers is to create writing assignments that not only promote learning, but that also engage students in writing about what they know and wish to explore further.

One of the essential factors in student engagement is “choice.” When students can choose what they want to read or write about, their performance improves. This is not always possible within a rigid curriculum. However, there should be numerous opportunities for student choice of writing topics with a variety of written representations. This could include writing procedures for a science experiment or drawing a representation that illustrates those procedures. Within a unit of study, presenting students with choices for demonstrating and enhancing their learning can motivate them to communicate their ideas, which will result in improved writing.

A second factor in students’ motivation and engagement is the use of technology to enhance learning and to represent their understanding. Providing students with opportunities to create representations of their understanding with technology can motivate them to learn and to share their ideas with others. Commonly referred to as blended learning, students learn through a combination of teacher instruction and feedback with learning through the use of the Internet and particular technology. For example, students may share their ideas on a topic or unit of study on email with a discussion partner to talk about their responses to a text the class has read. This conversational format may encourage some students to share ideas that they would not offer in a whole-class discussion or generate in an essay. They may also use technology to share their understanding through personal blogs, PowerPoint presentations, or participation in Google Hangouts. The use of technology to research, confirm, and/or communicate ideas enriches and personalizes learning. When doing so, students become creators as well as consumers (Lapp, Fisher, Frey, & Gonzalez, 2014).

Students need to identify the purpose, goals, and audience for their writing. Students’ choice of audience will increase their motivation and engagement in their writing. Understanding why they are writing and for whom is essential for them to refine their writing and to add “voice” to their ideas by integrating their existing knowledge with new information. In the next four units, you will examine specific research and related classroom practices for reading and writing in your specific discipline.

Reflect: Which writing activities have you assigned that were most engaging and successful for your students in their learning? Why do you think students responded positively to this writing experience?

Congratulations! You have completed Part I of the course. Next, go to page 14 to view the references for Units 1–4, or select a link below to begin Part II for your discipline:

Mathematics: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

Science: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

English: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

History/Social Studies: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy


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Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating robust vocabulary: Frequently asked questions and extended examples. New York: Guilford Press.

Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987, January). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Technical Report No. 403). Cambridge, MA: BBN Laboratories; University of Illinois: Center for the Study of Reading.

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Duke, N., Pearson, P. D., Strachan, S., & Billman, A. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. In S. J. Samuels & A.E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (4th ed., pp. 51–93). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Graham, S., & Perrin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high school. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Grant, M., Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Johnson, K., & Frey, N. (2012). Purposeful instruction: Mixing up the “I,” “We,” and “You.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy56, 45–55.

Guthrie, J. T., & Wigfield, A. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research: Volume III(pp. 403–422). New York: Erlbaum.

Hayes, J. (2000). A new framework for understanding cognition and affect in writing. In R. Indrisano & J. Squire (Eds.), Perspectives on writing: Research, theory, and practice. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Langer, J. A. & Flihan, S. (2000). Writing and reading relationships: Constructive tasks.

R. Indrisano & J. Squire (Eds.), Perspectives on writing: Research, theory, and practice. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Gonzalez, A. (2014). Students can purposefully create information, not just consume it. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy,58, 182–188.

Lapp, D., Moss, B., Johnson, K., & Grant, M. (2012). Teaching students to closely read texts: How and when? IRA E-ssentials. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moje, E. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy,52, 96–107.

Moss, B., Lapp, D., Grant, M., & Johnson, K. (2015). A close look at close reading, 6–12.Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: NGA Center and CCSSO.

Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher39(6), 564–570.

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317–344.

Pearson, P. D., Roehler, L. R., Dole, J. A., & Duffy, G. G. (1992). Developing expertise in reading comprehension. In S. J. Samuels & A. E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (2nd ed., pp. 145–199). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review78, 40–59.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32, 7–18.

Spires, H., Hervey, L., Morris, G., & Stelpflug, C. (2012). Energizing project-based inquiry: Middle-grade students read, write, and create videos. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 55, 483–493.

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Tierney, R. J., & Pearson, P. D. (1983). Toward a composing model of reading. Language Arts, 60, 568–580.

Tierney, R. J., & Shanahan, T. (1991). Research on the reading–writing relationship: Interactions, transactions and outcomes. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research: Volume II (pp. 246–280). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zwiers, J. (2014). Building academic language: Meeting Common Core Standards across disciplines, Grades 5–12 (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Select a link below to begin Part II for your discipline:

Mathematics: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

Science: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

English: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

History/Social Studies: Unit 5 – Big Ideas in Literacy

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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