Writing to Learn: Reasons to Implement Writing Across Disciplines

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about writing across the disciplines. I am in school as an education major, specifically for middle level math and science. My work in the Writing Lab has caused me to begin to think about how I can best implement writing into my future middle school math and science classes. I think that it is important to integrate writing into all of the disciplines whether at the middle school or college level. However, if I am to be an adamant supporter of writing across the curriculum, I need to be able to answer the question, “Why is it important that students are given the opportunity to write across disciplines?”
This is a question that I have never really fully considered. For myself, learning to write at a young age and in a variety of school subjects helped me to become a better, more effective writer. I become a better writer the more I write. Is this the only reason to implement writing across the disciplines? Is the purpose of writing across the curriculum to make bad writers better by giving them more practice? While doing research on this topic, I encountered an article entitled, “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” According to Herrington, while writing across the curriculum is a practical and beneficial way to improve surface features of a written product, there is a much better reason to implement writing throughout the disciplines (279).
Instead of writing simply to improve writing, Herrington takes the “writing to learn” approach. This approach implies that students have a voice. Students can contribute their thoughts and ideas to any discipline. It is then through the process of writing that students are given the opportunity to discover and communicate what they have to say. This approach to writing “relates the process of writing to the process of learning a given subject matter” (Herrington 279). Educators can seek to relate these two processes by creating writing assignments that “are linked to course objectives and by responding to student writing in ways that stress its value as a process of discovery” (Herrington 280). Writing can be implemented into school curricula in order to help students effectively meet specific course objectives. This “writing to learn” approach values the process of writing and sees it as beneficial to overall student learning.  In order to write about a topic, a student must first understand what they are seeking to write about. Well designed writing assignments give students the opportunity to think about and apply the material that they are learning.
As a peer tutor, student writer, and a future teacher, this information is exciting. Writing is a way for me and the students I work with to learn how to effectively communicate our ideas in order to share them with others and better understand academic material, no matter the subject. Learning to become a better writer is important, but it also has a greater purpose. As one becomes a better writer, they learn to think and communicate more effectively. For me, this makes learning the mechanics of grammar and research paper writing a lot more exciting. It also gives me a conversation to implement with the student writers I work with in order to encourage them in their writing journey.

Herrington, Anne J. “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” College English 43:4 (1981): 379-387. Web. 24 February 2013.


  1. Lindsay, I really appreciated this article a lot. Currently, I am in a class that teaches reading and writing in every discipline. It is impossible to remove it from a class, even if it is not an English class; there will always be some form of reading and writing in the classroom. In my textbook, Content Area Reading by Vacca and Vance, they say that teachers often run into problems when they don't incorporate other disciplines in their lessons because they are all interrelated. Writing espicially is thought of as being an "English class thing", but really is used in every class and in all areas of life.

  2. Lindsay, your post was very interesting. Writing in classes like math and science is almost unheard of; the focus of those classes is generally placed on labs and problem-solving. I think you are right to say that writing across disciplines could be beneficial to all students.

    One thing that I encountered as I did some research was the difficult nature of teaching students to write in another discipline. David Hamilton wrote and article entitled "Interdisciplinary Writing," in which he looks at how writing has been taught across the disciplines, and how writing changes other fields. Part of the problem in teaching interdisciplinary writing is that a writing teacher is not trained in several disciplines. He is trained in writing. Hamilton says of himself, "My ability to be a serious audience for them individually is quirky, completely accidental. Beyond fairly broad problems in organization or the narrowest mechanical matters, I am lost" (783) Because Hamilton does not understand the field in which his students work, his ability to help them beyond the basics is limited. This is a danger all consultants, tutors, and teaches face when helping a student with writing on an unfamiliar topic.

    I do not mean to call interdisciplinary writing unimportant. Hamilton also says that "Almost everybody who is a serious student of anything has cause enough to write" (782) We have to be prepared to help anyone who has need because, as Hamilton astutely notes, these students will inevitably come to a "writing doctor" for help (782).

    Personally, I think the easiest way to be prepared to help all students is to be familiar with all styles of academic writing. No one has the time to study every discipline, but we can be proficient in the writing styles they expect (MLA, APA, Chicago). Sites like Purdue OWL provide excellent resources for all of these styles. By being familiar with them, I believe we will be better prepared for the challenge of helping students in areas unfamiliar to us.

    Hamilton, David. "Interdisciplinary Writing." College English 41:7 (1980)780-790, 795-796. JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

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  4. Lindsey,
    I really appreciate your thoughts about writing to learn. In an article entitled "Writing-to-Learn in the Apparel Curriculum", Bye and Johnson (2004) write about the value of using writing-to-learn assignments. They say that writing-to-learn puts more focus on content and idea development than on mechanics and grammar. Bye and Johnson imply that when professors assign research papers in a specific discipline, and when the feedback they give to students' papers focus almost completely on writing skills instead of content, the students may get discouraged about their writing skills and think that the content is not important.

    However, I believe that content cannot be separated from good writing. Those who know their content will be able to write well, because an important part of writing well is communicating ideas logically. In fact, Bye and Johnson describe writing-to-communicate by saying that it "emphasizes clarity of content and logical progression of thought."

    Bye and Johnson suggest that writing-to-communicate is distinct from writing-to-learn. From reflecting on the thoughts in their article, I think writing-to-learn can be seen as a step on the way to writing-to-communicate. Writing-to-learn focuses on the writer, while writing-to-communicate focuses on the reader.

    Bye and Johnson write, "writing-to-learn emphasizes idea generation and experimental thinking," and go on to describe various benefits of writing-to-learn. For example, students can "creat[e] full thoughts from partial ones," practice using vocabulary and terms associated with their content field, see their thoughts on paper, and practice writing with their own distinct voice. In addition, writing-to-learn can incorporate elements of peer editing and sharing of ideas, which I know allows for further learning for all students involved. The low pressure of this informal type of writing can produce various benefits to students.

    Therefore, in the writing lab, we as consultants should be careful not to emphasize writing style and mechanics over content and logic, which are just as important. One can hardly exist without the other.

    Bye, E., & Johnson, K. P. (2004). Writing-to-Learn in the Apparel Curriculum. Journal Of Family And Consumer Sciences, 96(1), 43-47.

  5. I absolutely agree that the ultimate purpose of writing across the disciplines is not to make bad writers better but, as Herrington described it, to lead students through a process of discovery. In the article, "Flow Writing in the Liberal Arts Core and Across the Disciplines: A Vehicle for Confronting and Transforming Academic Engagement," Deanne Gute and Gary Gute advocate that writing throughout the disciplines is the best approach to lead students through the process of discovery and away from the path of disengagement (192). Many college students feel apathy, boredom or anxiety in college classrooms and "writing to learn gets everyone in the class to engage their brains at the same time..." (Gute 192). Writing demands deeper engagement and strategies for effective communication. Using writing as a tool in the process of discovery is a great way to think about writing to learn!

    Gute, Deanne, and Gary Gute. "Flow Writing in the Liberal Arts Core and Across the Disciplines: A Vehicle for Confronting and Transforming Academic Engagement." The Journal of General Education 57.4 (2008): 191-222. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 March 2013.

  6. In “Writing Across the Curriculum: Students as Scholars, Scholars as Students,” Charles Bergman describes a meeting of faculty members from many disciplines who wanted to implement more interdisciplinary writing in their classes, but didn’t necessarily know how. Instead of discussing methods and strategies, they were all asked to actually sit down and write. That process and the discoveries made served as a reminder to them that “academics are writers,” whether they think it or not. When teachers are modeling learning, thinking, and writing, the student is not merely a receiver of content but becomes an apprentice of sorts, learning what he needs to understand but also learning how to understand it. I think that that approach proves extremely beneficial because it can help students relate many fields of study while discouraging compartmentalization.

    Bergman, Charles A. “Writing Across the Curriculum: Students as Scholars, Scholars as Students“. Journal of Advanced Composition , Vol. 5, (1984), pp. 79-86. JSTOR. Web. 5 March 2013.


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