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Extended Writing-to-Learn Strategies

Writing enables students to process, organize, formulate, and extend their thinking about what they have been learning. In addition, teachers can also assign writing to help students evaluate what they know and understand about a topic. These writing-to-learn strategies help foster students’ abilities to make predictions, build connections, raise questions, discover new ideas, and promote higher-level thinking.

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The Shrinklit is a poetic form used to synthesize literature. Poetry has been used for years in many content areas to enhance curricula and assist in the learning of concepts, and when students use poetry to recall their thinking, they are more likely to remember it. The use of poetry clarifies concepts in ways that direct instructional methods cannot. Thus, writing a Shrinklit — a short, poetic summary of chapters or short pieces of literature — is an effective tool for learning (Sagoff, 1971).

Steps for the Shrinklit strategy

  1. Ask students to choose a few chapters in a novel or a short piece of literature.
  2. Tell them to write a poem that focuses on the main ideas in the assigned piece of literature.
  3. The poem should be at least 10 lines long.
  4. They should use figurative language (alliteration, personification, similes, etc).
  5. Students should share their ideas with a small group of students or with the class.

Sample Shrinklit for English
Great Expectations
Chapters 1-4

Pip stands by the tombstones, reading the inscriptions.

Sad to be one of the few survivors in his family.

An old man startles him, threatens his life

All for some food and a file—

Pip sees the leg irons, knows he must obey.

Steals food from his sister—fearful of getting caught.

Soldiers come seeking help —looking for convicts.

Pip and Joe follow them; criminals are caught.

One confesses to the crime—Pip still feels guilty,

Worries he’ll be punished —tickler again.

Probable Passages

Probable Passages (Wood, 1984) is a writing strategy based upon snippets of actual texts that students use to predict the content of the passage from which the text has been snipped. Probable Passages encourages readers to make connections to what they already know (their prior knowledge), as well as to their own experiences, other texts they have read, and their knowledge of the world, to predict what ideas and concepts the text they are about to read might contain. Probable Passages makes students aware of both the story structure found in narrative writing, and, as Readence, Bean, and Baldwin (2004) note, the text structures writing. Students utilize a list of vocabulary words to predict the content of what they are to read. Overall, however, the real power of the Probable Passages strategy is that it helps students scaffold their self-monitoring abilities, so they become aware of when their reading and writing fails to make sense, thus fostering both recall and comprehension. In order for this strategy to be successful, the teacher should model this strategy before students use it independently.

Steps for Probable Passages

  1. To begin, prepare a list of vocabulary words that contains important concepts from the text and that represents the categories in either the narrative or expository text to be studied. For example, if the text is narrative, include words that reflect the characters, setting, problem, and outcomes, and if the text is expository, include words that relate to the specific text structure, such as cause-effect, comparison-contrast, and problem-solution.
  2. Present the list to the students, and identify the specific text structure utilized. For clarity, students can be given a template that reflects the elements of the text’s structure.
  3. For narrative texts, students place each vocabulary word in the category (characters, setting, problem, or outcomes) where they feel it most likely belongs, and then they write a probable passage that reflects what they think the text might say.
  4. For expository text, Readence et al. (2004) suggest that you choose one category of the text structure — such as the problem in the problem-solution structure, the comparison in the comparison-contrast structure, or the effect in the cause-effect structure — and ask students to do the following:
  • First, develop a text frame that relates to the category, with blanks where the selected vocabulary words would fit. Students then fit the selected words into the text frame.
  • Next, develop a second text frame that supplies a beginning sentence that foreshadows the second part of the text structure — such as the solution in the problem — solution structure, the contrast in the comparison-contrast structure, or the cause in the cause-effect structure — and ask students to try to write a probable passage.
  • In a final step, students read the selected narrative or expository text to determine if their predictions for both the text frame and probable passage were correct. Then they edit their original probable passage to include any missing information and correct anything that is wrong.

Sample Probable Passage for Science or Social Studies
Vocabulary Words for Important Concepts
Text Frame: Cause Effect
  trees jungle
  farmers rare species
  burn trees
  increase farm land animals
Probable Passage:    
Brazil’s jungle and the animals in it are facing extinction. Sometimes farmers burn down jungles to increase farm land, and sometimes illegal logging projects cut down the trees. This all destroys the rare species of trees and animals in the Brazilian jungles.

Guided Writing Procedure

The Guided Writing Procedure (GWP) (Smith & Bean, 1980) is a strategy that is based on a three-day process that enhances comprehension by fostering the students’ ability to synthesize and retain the content area material they have been studying. According to Smith and Bean, the Guided Writing Procedure is designed to:

  • activate and sample students’ prior knowledge about a topic to be studied before they begin learning about it.
  • sample and evaluate how well students can express their thoughts in writing in a specific content area discipline.
  • improve the students’ overall writing abilities through careful thought and revision.

While the GWP may seem to be time consuming, the research of Konopak et al. (1987) illustrates that if students use this strategy, the quality of their writing is greatly improved, because they are able to integrate their prior knowledge about the topic of study with what they learn from a text and then produce a carefully edited, readable piece of writing. This improvement in the students’ writing is facilitated by the teacher’s continual monitoring of that writing, which guides the students’ editing and revision processes and eventually leads to a well-thought-out and developed piece of content area writing. In effect, “the GWP is an in-depth exploration of a text reading assignment” (Readence et al. 2004, p. 196), and this is an exploration we sincerely want our students to make.

Steps for the Guided Writing Procedure

Day 1:

  1. Students brainstorm what they know about an upcoming topic of study and record their responses, including a list of terms relative to the topic.
  2. After students have developed the list, instruct them to identify categories that encompass the brainstormed terms and list details that support their choices of categories.
  3. Next, students incorporate the terms and details in an organized form, such as an outline, web, or graphic organizer.
  4. Finally, using the outline, web, or graphic organizer as a guide and a rubric for good writing, students write a short paragraph depicting what they know about the topic. This is a first draft.
  5. When students have completed their first drafts, collect them and evaluate them on the basis of good writing criteria. Readence et al. (2004) suggest that these criteria are topic, supporting details, logical flow, word choice, grammar, and mechanics. These criteria are best judged through the use of a rubric. Note: During this first phase of the GWP, read the students’ drafts, but do not make any discernible marks on the manuscripts.

Day 2:

  1. Return the students’ first drafts along with a copy of the rubric used to evaluate the drafts.
  2. Using the evaluation rubric, students edit or revise their first drafts. The resulting papers become their second drafts.
  3. Students turn in their second drafts and the original rubric for a second round of teacher evaluation.
  4. At this point, give students a reading assignment related to the topic of study. Tell students that the purpose of the reading is to locate additional ideas, details, and examples to add to their writing.

Day 3:

  1. As they did on Day 1, students need to record the new information garnered from their reading and add it to their original outlines, graphic organizers, or webs. (Note: Students may need help in this revision process as they add and delete information.)
  2. Finally, armed with this new information, students develop their final drafts. This final draft now contains an integration of information from the students’ prior knowledge as well as what was learned from the text, lectures, videos, etc.

Sample Guided Writing Procedure for Science

Day 1:


North America, Canada, Florida, California, swim


fly, dive, fish, small mammals, water birds



I. Habitat
A. North America
B. Canada
C. Florida
D. California

II. Habits
A. swim
B. fly
C. dive

III. Dive
A. fish
B. small mammals
C. water birds


The American eagle has a big habitat. It flies cross North America, Canada, Florida, and California. It swims and dives to catch fish, small mammals, and water birds.

Day 2: Revision of draft completed on Day 1

The American eagle has a large habitat range. It can be found across North America from Canada down to the United States and across Florida to the furthermost tips of California. As it flies, swims, and dives across its habitat, it hunts fish, small mammals, and water birds to exist.

Day 3: Paragraph written after reading information on the topic

The bald eagle, our national bird, has a large habitat range. It is unique to North America and can be found across North America from Alaska and Canada all the way down to northern parts of Mexico, including Baja California. Most bald eagles, 60%, in fact, are found in Alaska.

Since bald eagles usually live near woodlands and waterways such as the coastlines of lakes and rivers, they depend on hunting for small woodland mammals and fishing for fish and water birds. They can soar through the air at speeds that range between 20 and 40 miles per hour, and when they spot a fish, they can dive at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.

Multigenre Report

The Multigenre Report is a creative approach guaranteed to motivate students to write to learn. First proposed by Romano (2000), the Multigenre Report is simply a collection of student written pieces of varying genres that depict a central theme or topic that students have studied about. The pieces they write can include a variety of compositions: narratives, expositions, poems, songs, raps, letters, memos, notes, diaries, journals, essays, lists, scripts, newspaper articles, editorials, advertisements, birth certificates or announcements, death certificates, obituaries, and even drawings. They can be of varying lengths as well. Moulton (1999), Allen (2001) and Grierson, Anson, and Baird (2002) all present variations of the Multigenre Report by suggesting that it can be utilized as a research project or an author study wherein students compose a collage of creative compositions that reflect what they have learned from researching a topic.

While Tama and McClain (2001) stress the value of using the Multigenre Report as a research project, they note that its open-ended nature may be disconcerting to students who need more structure. As a result, they suggest that teachers provide clear parameters and directions for their students, such as stipulating the number and types of genres to be included as well as the specific components to be developed, such as a table of contents, endnotes, and a bibliography. See a cross-curricular Multigenre Report for science, English, social studies, and consumer studies, based on an endangered species.

Sejnost, R.L. & Thiese, S.M. (2010). Building Content Literacy(opens in a new window). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.