Does all writing have to end with a final, published work?

Writing can be done for many different purposes, only some of which culminate in a final, published work.

In fact, writing can be used as a tool for learning, not just showing what was learned, in all disciplines.

Writing to Prompt Thinking and Discussion Cruz (2001) recommends several activities that can help students use writing as a prompt for thinking. First, she recommends "think-pair-share." This quick activity can be used when introducing a lesson, checking for comprehension, or helping students review material. It simply asks students to respond individually to a prompt, share the response with a partner, and then discuss responses as a whole class.

A second technique she recommends is called "response/remembrance." After students have received new information through reading, lecture, performance, or video, they are given several prompting questions (such as "What do you remember?", "What intrigued you?", or "What do you wonder about?"). They then select questions for their response and share with the class.

A third technique is "collaborative notetaking." This can be especially helpful for difficult texts because students are instructed in class to read only one section of text at a time. After the reading, students individually write down the main points on five- by seven-inch index cards, discuss their responses with the class, and add information they missed.

A fourth activity that Cruz recommends is the use of letters (sent or unsent) in which students summarize the main points of a lesson to share with an interested reader (a friend, family member, or historical figure). A variation on the activity involves writing the letter from a different perspective (for example, a homeless mother of two, an engineer) to a public audience (such as a credit agency or school board). All of these activities lend themselves to in-class discussion or further development if desired.

The Use of Journals Many teachers have also found journal writing, typically ungraded and not polished, to be useful. Christenbury (2000) identifies several different types of journals which may be used with students in order to increase fluency as well as work with course material:

  • Personal journals (which tend to be introspective)
  • Writer's journals (where students can record snippets of writing or writing ideas)
  • Dialogue journals (written on one side of the page with space left on the back for another student or the teacher to write back).

Journal entries, which can be done both in and out of class, can be written on topics initiated entirely by the student or can be in response to a prompt provided by the teacher.

The Use of Learning Logs Like journals, learning logs are typically done in class and not graded. However, the learning log differs from a journal because it is a tool for reflection rather than a place to deal with personal experience or respond only to texts. Learning logs often involve the use of a prompt related to material that has been covered or an activity experienced in class (Christenbury, 2000). Olson (2003) writes, "Cognitively, the learning log is a place for students to think out loud on paper - to ask questions, sort through and organize information, monitor their understanding, rethink what they know, and reflect upon and assess what they are learning" (p. 117). To be used most effectively, they should be completed regularly (once a week, at the end of each class period, at the end of a unit). They are helpful for teachers as well as students because they can give teachers insights into students' development.

Informal Response Activities Teachers can also create informal response activities to engage students in content. Zemelman and Daniels (1988) recommend that teachers consider three things when creating these kinds of response activities: What are the key ideas or concepts for students to think about? What kind of thinking would be most effective for students to connect with this content? What kinds of activities will encourage this kind of thinking about this content?

Students can respond to course content in a variety of ways. One way is through a "sensual description" activity in which they are exposed to course content (an abstract painting, a historical document, a theory, a fact) and respond using their senses. Students can list sensory details that emerge upon exposure to the content. Another way to respond to the content of a lesson is to write a dramatic dialogue between two opposing characters, theories, or historical interpretations of an event. Students can also respond by writing an informal analysis of his or her thinking (for example, by explaining what he or she understands about a chemistry experiment up to the point where he or she becomes confused).

ExampleIn Geometry, students are encouraged to articulate their understandings of concepts (beyond just memorized definitions) by writing brief, informal paragraphs comparing items such as the following: geometry algebra, line-plane, or equation-graph (Kenyon, 2000). These informal paragraphs become a source for class discussion as well as a way for students to review material and clarify understanding.

In Instrumental Music III, students complete a "sensual description" activity to help them listen closely when being introduced to a composition before they sight read it (the focus of this activity is to engage the musicians as careful listeners rather than stressing strict sight reading skills). Without identifying the composition by name, the band director instructs students to close their eyes and listen to the piece one time through. He/she encourages students to listen with all of their senses and provides the following prompts: What does the music sound like? What visual images come to mind? What textures does the music bring forth? What smells/tastes can be associated with the sounds of the music? After listening, students select one sense to focus on and share their response quickly in pairs. The band director then identifies the piece of music as Symphony No. 1 ("In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945") by Daniel Bukvich and shares historical information on the bombing of Dresden. The band director then plays the music a second time, this time telling students to list words or phrases that come to mind as they listen. The response may be in the form of a list, scattered words and phrases or even in paragraphs and is shared informally. Finally, the band director identifies the four movements of the piece by name and engages students in a discussion of the musical devices that the composer used to achieve varied effects in each section of the composition. The activity allows students to preview the piece and connect to it with their senses before sight reading it.