Helpful Tools for Integrating Writing Across the Curriculum

By Dennis Pierce

In Daviess County, Ky., there is a push to have students writing across the curriculum. Next-generation learning standards require students to think more deeply and communicate their understanding both verbally and in writing, and one of the best ways to support this deeper learning is to have students writing in all subjects and not just English.

But a key challenge to writing across the curriculum is that teachers in subjects other than English often don’t see themselves as writing experts. To overcome this hurdle, Daviess County has teachers from all subject areas discuss and assess students’ writing together, so that teachers in non-ELA subjects feel supported in evaluating students’ writing. The district also uses a software program from Turnitin (called Feedback Studio) that makes the grading process much easier for everyone.

Daviess County’s emphasis on writing across the curriculum goes back several years, said Therese Payne, a teacher leader and English department head for Daviess County High School. It began when the county became a pilot district for a national initiative called the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC).

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the LDC developed a system—called LDC CoreTools—to help teachers design writing modules with best practices in mind and share them with other teachers nationwide.

These modules must include not just the writing task that students have to complete, but also samples of student work that are rated at each of three levels of excellence: high, medium and low.

As teachers from Daviess County and other districts upload the modules they have designed into the LDC CoreTools system, they are contributing to a free library of nationally vetted and calibrated content that anyone can draw from to embed writing practice into their instruction.

“Say you’re teaching The Crucible. You could search for an LDC unit that has an argumentative task that goes along with that text,” Payne explained. “You could copy that lesson and modify it for your needs, then have students write to that prompt and upload two student samples for each level of excellence.”

Daviess County High School teachers in all subject areas contribute at least one writing module per year to LDC CoreTools, Payne said, and they also have to teach using a second module they find in the online library. Having juried samples of student writing they can refer to for each lesson has helped teachers—especially those in subjects other than English—calibrate their own grading of student writing, she noted.

What’s more, Daviess County High School teachers give practice writing prompts during homeroom to help students prepare for the state writing assessment. They rate their students’ essays using this same three-tiered system, then meet as a faculty to talk about the results together. “We discuss: What can we glean from what students are doing well?” Payne said. “What are some the errors that students are making over and over again—and what do we need to work on as a staff?”

Even with samples of student writing at various levels of ability to guide them, some teachers in subjects other than English might not feel comfortable with grading the mechanics of students’ essays. Payne is excited about the potential for Turnitin’s Feedback Studio to help solve this challenge.

Feedback Studio supports teachers as they work with students to improve their writing skills by streamlining the feedback process. For instance, the software uses the e-rater technology developed by ETS to check writing submissions for grammar, usage, mechanics, style, and spelling errors—and it provides automated, in-depth feedback on these areas.

“What I love about Feedback Studio is that the e-rater feature takes care of those elements automatically, so all teachers have to focus on is the content of an essay,” Payne said. “If teachers are worried that they don’t know every grammar rule there is to know—well, they don’t have to.”

The platform also generates a “similarity report” that helps identify potential content matches, so teachers can ensure the originality of student writing and address how to properly cite sources. Another feature, called QuickMarks, allows teachers to create shortcuts for the comments they use most frequently when grading students’ writing, so they don’t have to type the same phrases over and over again.

This feature makes grading much more efficient—but it also helps bring more consistency to the evaluation process, Payne said. By identifying its own standard set of QuickMarks and sharing these with teachers, the district is creating a common language for how teachers in all subject areas talk about writing with their students.

In Payne’s department, teachers have quickly embraced Feedback Studio even though this is the first year the district has been using this online tool.

“In my English 101 class, there is a lot of research and writing, and I’m using it to help students understand how not to accidentally plagiarize. They turn in a rough draft after I conference with them about their topic, and they can see: Have I paraphrased enough? Have I cited correctly? They can see that for themselves, based on their similarity report. I don’t even check that; that’s for their own use. Then, I require them to turn in a revised version later, where they can make changes based on that feedback. I tell them that’s the version I will be grading,” said Payne.

She concluded: “I have seen incredible growth in writing across the curriculum at our school, and I have seen students’ writing improve as a result.”

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Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering education and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @denniswpierce.

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