Back in 2003, Sam Wineburg, a history professor at Stanford, published a little essay (or quick rant) titled “Power Pointless.” I can’t find it online now, but it amounted to a plea to have students write papers instead of merely creating presentations. Bullet points can hide incomplete understandings; essays tend to reveal them.

Wineburg’s piece stuck with me because I’ve found it to be true even with well-developed presentations. I’ve attended the National History Day finals a few times, for example, and even at that high level I’ve found students who wrote papers to be much better prepared to answer questions. A focused essay with supporting details that are logically presented in well-connected paragraphs requires deep understanding and analysis, as well as writing skills.

And yet, especially with younger students, it can be difficult to determine the challenges underlying poorly written essays. Is the child still struggling with forming letters, spelling, punctuation, etc. such that she can’t express her understanding? Is she unfocused or unorganized? Or has she not developed much understanding?

Five teachers committed to improving students’ writing confronted those questions. In their classrooms, the widely used writing process is “significant, necessary, and vital,” but “not enough.” Through classroom R&D, they found that while students need to develop writing skills—from basic mechanics to sophisticated structures—problems are often grounded in a lack of understanding. Kids are asked to write before they’ve had a chance to learn much about their topic.

With over 130 years of teaching experience between them, these five teachers developed Writing for Understanding, an approach that emphasizes building and organizing knowledge as essential preparation for writing. They’ve written a terrific book that mixes cognitive science with their experiences as teachers and professional development providers. With everything from the rationale to explicit planning guidance to student writing samples, it’s a must read.

Here’s a small taste, drawn from the introduction and chapter 1:

Our work has convinced us that, even with a thoughtful question, many students fail when they write. This failure occurs … because they don’t have sufficient knowledge in the first place. No matter how thought-provoking the question is, one cannot reflect on knowledge one does not have. One cannot analyze information that is sketchy, inaccurate, or poorly understood. One cannot synthesize from nothing. It is up to teachers, then, to provide activities and experiences that give students knowledge and help them construct meaning from that knowledge….

It has long been a truism that one should write about what one knows; all writers know this, all teachers of writing or teachers who use writing in their classes know this. This truism has often led, however, to the idea that one should write about only what one already knows, or at the very least decide for oneself about what to learn and write.

One of the unintended consequences of this assumption has been that teachers have frequently not paid sufficient attention to how students actually acquired the knowledge about which they would write. In writing from personal experience, the knowledge could be assumed; after all, the knowledge was the writer’s own life events or ideas or reflections.

Because of this emphasis, the corollary to “write about what you know” has frequently not been articulated—that you should “know about what you write.” As a result, deliberate, intentional planning for knowledge building has not often been a part of the writing teacher’s approach….

Writing for Understanding is an approach that recognizes … that at the heart of effective writing, by any accepted definition, is the building of meaning and expression so that others can follow the writer’s thinking. Therefore, Writing for Understanding postulates that if students are to write effectively and with engagement—during testing, for their own personal growth, for school, for real life—they need to have certain elements in place. These elements are:

    • knowledge and understanding which can be articulated in spoken and written language
    • an appropriate focus for thinking about and synthesizing that knowledge and understanding
    • a structure through which to clearly develop and present that knowledge and understanding
    • control over conventions.

The rest of the book offers rich information for teachers on planning for understanding and supporting transfer of students’ writing ability—including the ability to learn about new topics to prepare for effective writing.

For a peek into a school that recently adopted Writing for Understanding—and some Listening & Learning domains from Core Knowledge Language Arts—take a look at these short videos:




14 comments on “Writing for Understanding”

  1. 1
    Dennise O'Grady on November 17, 2015

    I am working with several students right now after school who simply love doing these ‘one-pagers’–essentially little creative-looking presentations that are intended to ‘show’ they have read the book. Trouble is, they don’t read the book. They watch the book trailers, copy and paste from various internet sites, and spend most of the time picking and choosing colors, designs, arrangement, etc. To that end, the feedback they receive from teachers is in a similar vein: ‘Love the design!’ and ‘Very creative’ top the list, along with ‘Sounds like a good read!’ and ‘Nice to look at!’. The exercise seems pointless to me even if a student has read the book–why not respond to an engaging question?

  2. 2
    Will Fitzhugh on November 17, 2015

    HS Authors’ papers now being published in The Concord Review
    average 7,400 words, with endnotes and bibliography. Show these serious history essays by students. from 41 countries so far, if you want them to see what their peers are already accomplishing! Write me for samples. Will Fitzhugh, [email protected];

  3. 3
    Ponderosa on November 17, 2015

    We shouldn’t “teach” writing (or reading or thinking) at all. We should teach about the world. Then, and only then, can students write (and read and think) about the world. The fact that most teachers now conceive of their jobs as teaching reading and writing is one of the great disasters of modern education.

  4. 4
    Ewaldoh on November 18, 2015

    As long as the evaluation centers on the look of a paper and gives less importance to the content … what’s to gain?

    The same goes for the “science project” that is graded on the required poster. For too many, more time is spent on the visual presentation than on the project. Typically, any result is accepted without question. No defense of the procedure … if, in fact, a procedure was even carried out.

  5. 5
    Natalie Wexler on November 19, 2015

    I’m not that familiar with the Vermont Writing Collaborative’s approach, but it definitely seems to be on the right track. A similar model is the Hochman Method, which is disseminated through The Writing Revolution, a nonprofit. (Full disclosure: I’m the board chair).

    Both models begin with the idea that writing needs to be connected to content. But the Vermont Writing Collaborative, as far as I can tell, provides the content to teachers along with a structure for getting kids to write based on that content. The Writing Revolution works with schools to adapt our writing strategies to the schools’ existing curricula. Of course, that won’t work if — as in many elementary schools today — the school has no content-rich curriculum. But if schools do have such curricula, The Writing Revolution approach can work wonders.

    Also, The Writing Revolution doesn’t rely on kids using different colors to create a “painted essay” — I assume that’s what the first commenter was talking about when she remarked that sometimes students are more concerned with the creative aspects of the assignment than the substantive ones. But perhaps the different colors work well for some kids.

    This article from The Atlantic is a good introduction to the Hochman Method and shows how it was instrumental in turning around one struggling high school: The method can work equally well at any grade level and for any subject — it’s designed to be used across the curriculum.

  6. 6
    Diana Leddy on November 19, 2015

    We, at the Vermont Writing Collaborative, are big fans of Judith Hochman’s work- we cheered when we read “The Writing Revolution”, passed the link on to all the folks we work with and ordered your book. From our perspective, Writing for Understanding and the Hochman Method are built on the same foundation.

    We would, however, like to clear up some misconceptions. Writing for Understanding is an approach, not a curriculum. We do not have set content, but rather, as you do, work with schools to create reading and writing sequences that align with curriculum that is already in place. In fact, designing tasks that support students in writing about key curricular concepts is a fundamental tenet of our planning process.

    For more information on the Painted Essay, please go to this link: The Painted Essay is just one of many tools we use to teach that structure is deeply related to meaning. The colors help students understand the complex relationships between the parts of an essay and the concepts of effective communication that they are based on. After developing a deep understanding of how thinking can be expressed in an essay, students quickly learn to flex the structure, adjusting their writing to different content and purposes.

    We’ve sent a few copies of Writing for Understanding to The Writing Revolution office in New York. As a non-profit with a similar mission, we’d love to help you learn more about our approach.

    Joey Hawkins and Diana Leddy
    Cofounders, The Vermont Writing Collaborative

  7. 7
    Ponderosa on November 19, 2015

    I find The Atlantic article cited in Ms. Wexler’s post unconvincing. It makes it seem as if students at New Dorp struggled to write mostly because no one had taught them how to use transition words like “although”. If only! In my experience kids who grasp a topic can write about it. Period. It may not be the most polished writing, but it will get the job done. The reason most kids can’t write about most things is that they don’t clearly understand those things. So the bulk of the writing problem in American schools is a KNOWING problem. They don’t know enough. If we want a kid to write about chemistry, teach him chemistry! If we want a kid to write about a wide range of topics, teach him a wide range of topics. My seventh grade “bad writers” are stunned when they crank out three page history essays without much problem. What changed? They had learned a lot about the topic before they wrote. The fixation on writing and writing programs obfuscates this big truth. We’ve wasted SO much time on this quixotic quest to teach writing when the best way to teach writing is to teach about the world. When will this folly end? I wish all the writing gurus of America would close up shop and turn their energies to helping the content area teachers teach their content more lucidly so that American students could acquire a bright, shiny, detailed model of the world in their brains about which they could then write articulately.

  8. 8
    Nicole Houghton on January 16, 2016

    My school adopted the literacy collaborative approach, but this year we have focused much more on writing. I agree that students must know the content and have good knowledge of the topic in order to write about it, however, I feel that we do this but still have very low writing skills. We take kids through a long process, first by modeling our own thinking, using graphic organizers, and building from there. For smaller writes, it is always appropriate to use books at their instructional reading levels and have them write about it, usually by asking an engaging question.

    Transferring their thinking into writing has been a struggle. I do believe and have read studies that having students talk about their thinking, especially for ELL students, is much more beneficial then sending them off to write immediately. In order for them to write effectively they do need to have certain elements in place, but when they are younger, we as teachers must provide resources and tools for students to effectively learn to write about what they know.

  9. 9
    Xiaoping on January 24, 2016

    I am impressed by “kids are asked ti write before they’ve a chance to learn more about their topic”. I cannot agree more that students fail to compose an essay fluently in a well structured because of not enough input. The heart of effective writing is the building of meaning and expression which requires students to possess adequate relevant knowledge to build the bridge of old knowledge with new one. Moreover, the procedure of effective writing is of help to show teachers what the core elements that effective writing are looking for, and how to lead students based on the procedures.

  10. 10
    Cynthia on March 19, 2016

    Over the course of my teaching experience, writing has always been an area of greatest need for my students. They enter high school with the skills of an elementary student. In math, most teachers express their inability to perform basic math skills such as multiplication and division. In language arts, teachers are always complaining about how their essays are terribly written. There are two things that need to occur. One, students need to practice and learn basic writing skills using proper grammar. At my site, grammar is no longer taught to the students as it was when I first started working there. They have cut out so much and made the necessary changes to run classes that are more aligned with common core’s expectations. For instance, they annotate literature a lot more frequently. In regards to writing, our school was given professional development training on how to use thinking maps to answer a prompt.Middle school English teachers and the entire Language Arts department at my site participated in this training. It was nice to work with other grade levels to address an area of great need. Students also need a lot of front loading and modeling during the preparation of a writing assignment. As a teacher models the writing process, students are able to get a better understanding of the topic and write a better essay. I also believe it would be beneficial for students if teachers provide writing centers to further address common problems or even to allow the higher achieving students to enhance their writing. I look forward to reading about new ways that will assist my students’ writing skills.

  11. 11
    GUERNA EUGENE VINCENT on September 15, 2016

    What we know now about writing is that it is important for teachers to help students develop effective strategies to use to produce good writing and that reading and writing are equally important to student learning success in school. Teachers are providing with opportunities to attend workshops that focus on effective writing strategies, and so teachers who attend those workshops are provided as well will materials they can take back to their classes. What I have observe in the classroom is that teachers focus so much on specific areas that students need to do well on the state assessment so much so that students miss out on getting the skills necessary to become good writers.

  12. 12
    Emmanuel Guevarez on September 18, 2016

    Aa an ELL instructor, I believe this to be 100% accurate on how to approach the students necessary on how to expand their writing skill and thought process. The key object is that instructors must take time in getting to know their student’s academic needs, once the knowledge is beeing applied it is critical to making connection what they are writing, what do you want them to learn, to gain, to expand in their writing. Once this is accomplished the true learning may begin.

  13. 13
    Denise Duff on November 17, 2018

    Developing a child’s writing skills is something that is overlooked sometimes as teachers seem to focus more on areas that they feel comfortable delivering like Math and Science. Guiding the writing process from an early age aids in developing a child’s skill in writing. Moreover, if as parents, teachers, or even mentors we encourage reading from a very early age, we are unintentionally developing a child’s writing ability/skill. I always believe that strong readers always become effective writers.

    Effective writers must have a sound knowledge which they can draw from to make their writing exceptional; to make their writing intelligible. Strong readers become strong writers. “Writing forces students to ascend the learning hierarchy” (Henson, 2005). Let us encourage reading as we seek to develop good writers!

    Henson, K. T. (2015). Curriculum planning: Integrating multiculturalism, constructivism, and education reform (5th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

  14. 14
    SP on March 24, 2021

    This post was very insightful. It is important that students have a working understanding of the content that they’re being asked to write about, otherwise, their writing will lack depth. It’s a simple idea, yet it’s incredibly powerful and just makes sense. I’m now thinking about what I’ve done in the classroom that may not have always prepared students with enough content knowledge before asking them to go into extended writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
All comments are held for moderation.