National Writing Project

Writing to Learn for Preservice Teachers

By: Samuel Totten
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Why do few teachers incorporate writing-to-learn strategies into their classrooms? The answer, according to the author, is not very complicated: they have never been taught these strategies.


Despite increased understanding about the teaching of writing and the use of writing as a learning tool, many teachers devote little classroom time to writing. According to the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges report The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution (2003), the classroom writing experience for an inordinate number of students amounts to little more than filling in the blanks or giving abbreviated responses with a minimum of thinking.

Why is this? Is it that teachers of some disciplines don't realize the value of incorporating writing-to-learn strategies into their curriculum? Do they perceive such practices as not pertinent to their primary focus—and thus as something that detracts from the discipline at hand? Or have these teachers never been taught—and thus have no concept of—how to incorporate writing-to-learn strategies into their classrooms?

Each of these questions is worthy of examination. But the question that intrigues me the most is the last one. I'm a former English and social studies teacher who took his teacher education courses in the early 1970s in California, and I myself was taught virtually nothing about writing to learn.

To see whether teacher education had progressed in this area since my own preparation days, I conducted an informal survey of major colleges and universities. I sent inquiries to 104 institutions that have teacher preparation programs—two in each state and four in Washington, D.C.—and asked whether their programs (elementary, middle, and secondary level) require preservice candidates to take a course on process writing. To ensure consistency of response, I defined a process writing course as one covering "writing-to-learn concepts" and/or "incorporating writing strategies across the curriculum." If the school did require such a course, I asked that it send me a copy of the course description and syllabus.

Of the institutions I contacted, forty-seven responded. Of that group, nineteen indicated that they did not require a separate course on process writing. Of the remaining twenty-eight, only four required that all preservice candidates take a separate course on process writing. The others responded as follows:

  • Four institutions indicated that only those students enrolled in the English education program were required to take a course on process writing.
  • One institution indicated it required only those students preparing to teach English and/or social studies to take a course on process writing.
  • Thirteen institutions indicated that they required all preservice candidates to take a course on literacy, which addressed both reading and writing.
  • Six institutions indicated that the concept of process writing was included—along with numerous other pedagogical components—in methods courses for preservice students.

The fact that only four respondents require all preservice candidates to take a separate course in process writing indicates that faculty of many colleges of education do not see the value in a course that focuses on writing and writing-to-learn strategies. That another four require such a course only for English teachers points to a belief that a separate course cannot be justified for teachers across the curriculum. Some faculties may still be uninformed about how writing is an integral tool for assisting students to comprehend more deeply and clearly what they are studying; they may be unaware of the research that underscores the value of incorporating writing-to-learn strategies in every discipline.

Whatever the reasoning, the fact that teacher-preparation institutions do not require such a course is cause for alarm, and signals a need for a reexamination of that policy.

Research on staff development clearly shows that in order to be able to effectively teach a new concept, teachers need a combination of the following:

  • a sound theoretical understanding of the concept
  • an introduction to the concept via one or more demonstrations by an expert
  • initial practice under the tutelage of an expert
  • ongoing practice with feedback
  • ongoing training and support (Showers et al. 1987, 79).

If a course or an inservice solely comprises "providing for theoretical understanding, demonstration, and initial practice," Showers, Joyce, and Bennett state, "fewer than 10 percent of the teachers will be able to engage in enough practice to add the new procedures to their repertoires" (86). The point is, a course that touches superficially on a complex concept or strategy is not likely to result in teachers being able to effectively implement the concepts and strategies in their own classrooms.

But what about separate courses in literacy as an integrated experience? Thirteen institutions report that they require all preservice candidates to take a course on literacy (which addresses both reading and writing). That requirement sends a clear message: that writing and reading are essential concerns for teachers of all disciplines; that prospective teacher candidates are, at least, being introduced to the concepts of process writing; and that preservice students are learning about the integral connection between reading and writing.

There are, however, a number of reasons that such an approach is less than ideal. First, reading and writing are such complex skills to teach that it's virtually impossible to do justice to both in a single course. Each deserves, at a minimum, its own separate course so that teacher candidates can learn to effectively incorporate them into their curriculum. And before teaching preservice students how to integrate writing and reading, faculty should provide a solid foundation in each area. Second, in a single course that incorporates both reading and writing, there is the danger that a professor partial to—or expert in—one area may unintentionally focus on it to the neglect of the other.

The remaining six institutions report yet another approach: they include the concept of process writing in the teaching methods courses for their preservice students. That approach is more than a little problematic since such courses generally include a wide range of topics (e.g., classroom management), concepts (e.g., motivation), theories (e.g., constructivism), and strategies (e.g., Bloom's taxonomy, cooperative learning, and questioning procedures)—many of which are complex. The breadth of topics virtually precludes the in-depth study needed to master something as complex as how to incorporate process writing and writing-to-learn strategies into one's practice. As I have argued elsewhere (Totten, under review), providing an overview of a complex topic or strategy is unlikely to have much of an impact on a future teacher's actual practices in the classroom.

Even based upon the small sample of my survey, it is reasonable to speculate that many colleges of education in the United States do not thoroughly prepare future teachers to use process writing and writing-to-learn concepts and skills effectively. It is a complex and time-consuming task for any teacher—preservice or veteran—to master such strategies and to be able to implement them sufficiently. In light of that, I strongly believe that preservice teachers, at a minimum, should complete at least one course dedicated to process writing and/or writing-to-learn concepts and strategies. Anything less will leave them ill-prepared to incorporate such ideas and methods into their own classrooms.

All college of education faculty should ask themselves the following: Are we preparing our students to be the most effective teachers possible? In particular, are we preparing them to help their future students use writing to think more deeply about subject matter? And are our teacher education programs at all levels up-to-date, theoretically sound, and research-based?

Setting a Course for Future Teachers

The results of my informal survey seem to indicate that there's a need for college of education faculties to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their curricular programs and to implement significant changes.

So what needs to be done to ameliorate this situation? First and foremost, schools of education must require every preservice teacher to take a course on how to incorporate writing effectively into his or her subject area. Ideally, the course should focus on powerful writing-to-learn strategies that can be used to facilitate student learning of content, to deepen their understanding of what they are learning (e.g., issues, theories, concepts, events), and to foster thinking at increasingly higher levels (e.g., analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Ultimately, I believe, future teachers need to understand and embrace the words of the late Ernest Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who said, "Clear writing leads to clear thinking; clear thinking is the basis for clear writing. Perhaps more than any other form of communication, writing holds us responsible for our words and ultimately makes us more thoughtful human beings" (Boyer 1983, 90).

Obviously, such a course could be constructed in a number of ways and still accomplish its goal. What follows is based on a course I designed and currently teach at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in the master of arts program for future middle level teachers.

Rationale. First, it is imperative to guide the students in constructing a solid rationale for incorporating writing into each and every discipline. This rationale should include specifics about how writing in each major curricular area has the power to increase student learning, comprehension, and retention of subject matter. For future teachers to incorporate writing into their instructional programs, they need to be thoroughly convinced that it is not a waste of time, that it won't interfere with teaching the content of their discipline, and that it will, indeed, assist students to learn the course content more thoroughly and comprehend it more deeply.

I emphasize these issues throughout the semester. At the beginning of the course, I have the students download the standards issued by the national organization for their content area (the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or the National Science Teachers Association), and I have them examine what these guides say about the incorporation of writing-to-learn strategies. I also require them to read a general work on the significance of writing across the curriculum and writing to learn in each curricular area. For this I use Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools, by the National Writing Project and Carl Nagin (2003). In addition, I require my students to read at least one key work that speaks directly to the value of incorporating writing into their curricular area. For example, I require mathematics majors to analyze Joan Countryman's Writing to Learn Mathematics: Strategies That Work (1992). Her text says much to convince future math teachers that incorporating writing is critical to help students deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts and that there are powerful, time-efficient ways to do this.

During the semester, each student must develop and conduct two quickwrites, both of which must be related to key content in the student's main subject area. Before having the students try this, I model several quickwrites that deal with various subject matters. In doing so, I comment and model that quickwrites need to be highly engaging, thought-provoking, and brief (five to seven minutes total). This activity prompts the students to think deeply about how to incorporate writing into their curriculum in unique ways. It also shows them that they can do so without consuming an entire period or spending hours to develop a full-blown lesson.

Each student also must complete a major study and write a paper that examines the latest research on incorporating writing into his or her specific curricular area. This task often convinces students of the efficacy of using writing as a tool for learning in content courses inside and outside the English classroom.

Theory, theorists, and practitioners. Second, it is crucial that teacher candidates get preparation that is theoretically sound, research-based, and practical. Here, I provide the students with a solid overview of process writing theory (e.g., planning prior to writing, drafting ideas, obtaining feedback, revising, and not thoroughly editing until the end of the process) and help them compare and contrast this with past practices that did not take into consideration how "real writers" go about writing. Here I drive home the recursive nature of the process, providing students with key articles by such notables as Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Janet Emig, Toby Fulwiler, Donald Graves, James Gray, and Donald Murray. I want my students not only to gain a solid sense of theory and research germane to process writing but also to become conversant with the leading theorists and practitioners in the field. The latter is important, I believe, for the students gain role models as well as "colleagues" with whom they can "consult" at any time.

Strategies. Third, it is essential to introduce preservice teachers to engaging strategies that can assist their students to both deepen their learning and improve their writing. I accomplish this by having my preservice teachers experience what their students should experience in the classroom. More specifically, I either guide my students through a particular strategy (e.g., prewriting, quickwrites across the curriculum, double column note-taking, rhetorical stance, writing to learn in the social studies) or I bring in a dynamic teacher-consultant from the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project to conduct a demonstration about some aspect of writing (e.g., creating and using powerful prompts across the curriculum, student self-assessment of their writing, revision, editing, writing in mathematics, writing in science). Bringing in teacher-consultants allows me to have experienced teachers from a variety of disciplines and school levels—teachers who can both model and provide testimonials to the power and value of using writing-to-learn strategies. I also have the teacher-consultants, using examples from their own classrooms, address my students' fear that the incorporation of writing strategies will take precious time away from teaching content material. The teacher-consultants do an outstanding job of providing insights into how writing actually enhances the learning of subject matter.

By now, anyone who is familiar with the NWP model can see that I basically conduct the class along the lines of a summer institute—providing solid rationales; requiring lots of reading by luminaries in the field; immersing the participants in research; conducting the entire course through a hands-on, minds-on process; and bringing in top-notch teacher-consultants to demonstrate their best practices.

Practice. Finally, as often as possible, I have my students test various strategies either in a local school or in front of their classmates. In doing so, I require that they reflect upon their experience and write it up (e.g., what worked and evidence of that; what they would modify and why; and how the student work turned out, along with samples of such). Here I often have students select various strategies from Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process at the Elementary and Middle School Levels (Olson 1996). For use with students planning to teach at the secondary level, there is a volume entitled Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process at the High School and College Levels (Olson 1997).


In its recent report, The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution, the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges asserts that

American education will never realize its potential as an engine of opportunity and economic growth until a writing revolution puts the power of language and communication in their proper place in the classroom. Yet, although many models of effective writing instruction exist . . . both the teaching and practice of writing are increasingly shortchanged throughout the school and college years. (14)

My sense is that this clarion call will be answered only if those colleges and universities that prepare future teachers accept their responsibility to adequately prepare teacher candidates to incorporate writing into their classrooms in an effective manner. Certain organizations, particularly the National Writing Project, have taken on the task of working with current teachers in this regard, but they need the assistance of colleges and universities to reach those teachers who have not yet entered the classroom.


Boyer, E. 1983. High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Countryman, J. 1992. Writing to Learn Mathematics: Strategies That Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Eisner, E. 1979. The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs. New York: Macmillan.

The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. 2003. The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution. Princeton, NJ: College Entrance Examination Board.

National Writing Project. 2003. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Olson, C. B., ed. 1996. Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process at the Elementary School and Middle School Level. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.

Showers, B., B. Joyce, and B. Bennett. 1987. "Synthesis of Research on Staff Development: A Framework for Future Study and a State-of-the-Art Analysis." Educational Leadership 45 (3): 77–87.

Totten, S. 2003. "Completing the Paradigm Shift to Process Writing: The Need to Lead." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 25 (1): 8–13, 38.

Totten, S. (under review). "The `Perfunctory Curriculum': A Plague That Hinders True Understanding in Our Nation's Schools, Colleges, and Universities." Focus, The AASCD Journal of Research and Best Practices.

About the Author Samuel Totten is the director of the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project. He is a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

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