Imagine this: You are a seventh-grader. School is probably one of the last things on your mind. You are taking six different subjects with six different teachers and they all have their own teaching styles, expectations, grading systems and ways of providing feedback. You feel like they are all speaking their own language. You are learning about osmosis in science, the electoral process in social studies and geometry in math class. You have no clue how the skills you are learning in one class relate to those you are being taught in another. School seems more and more difficult and impossible to navigate.
This scenario is playing out again and again with students in classrooms across the country.
As educators, we need to work toward the same set of goals if we are to effectively prepare our students for the world of work and higher education. This means sharing a common language and a set of practices, so students can begin to clearly understand the connection between subjects and apply the skills they are learning in one area to their instruction in another. It also means breaking down the silos that exist between classrooms and departments to ensure we are amplifying our teaching efforts, not fragmenting our time and energy.
For students, the focus needs to shift from memorizing information to developing and applying critical life skills. Life is not about selecting the right multiple-choice answer; it is about reading, writing and effective self-expression. These are the skills needed to pitch a product, make a sale, write an email and diagnose an engine problem or a critical illness.
Teaching literacy is the best way to prepare our students for the future.
In my experience working with hundreds of schools, the easiest way to improve student performance at scale is by having students write in every class. This is a recognized necessity in English and reading, but when writing takes place in every classroom, across every subject, students develop the ability to apply critical reasoning and effectively express ideas across subjects. Simply put, the practice deepens learning across the board.
More than 30 years of research from the University of Chicago shows teaching analytical reading and writing across disciplines is the most important thing we can do to improve our students’ college and career readiness. Students who wrote regularly in each of their classes showed consistent improvements in math and science courses as well, not just English.
While literacy skills are complex, implementing this strategy is as simple as positioning writing as a key instructional tool for every subject and empowering teachers with a common language and framework for teaching students to write evidence-backed arguments.
Writing every day, in every class, encourages students to read, analyze and create arguments across content, applying the valuable skill of evidence-based thinking in every subject area. In math, for example, students should be answering questions using data to support their claims. Applying similar analytical skills in social studies, students might answer the question, “Is the electoral college fair?” and use evidence from multiple texts to support their claim.
This collaboration and development of cross-curricular units reduces each individual teacher’s workload, allowing teachers to focus on student progress. The ability to look at student work samples with the same set of criteria helps teachers, schools and principals define clear expectations at their school, allowing everyone to collaborate and work toward the same goal: student progress. When schools put an emphasis on writing in every classroom, we all win.
Katherine McKnight is an author, educator and consultant. Her career in education began as a high-school English teacher in the Chicago Public School system more than 20 years ago. She is as a professor of secondary education at National Louis University and an onsite professional development consultant for the National Council of Teachers of English. Her latest book, “Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge (Grades 6-12),” was released in April.
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