Writing across the curriculum (Spotlight on best practice series)
Writing skills are the hardest element of language to develop to an academic level. The level of precision in both semantics (sentences) and in lexical (word) choice needed to write in an academic manner across the curriculum requires a high level of accuracy in terms of language understanding as well as in production. This is often considered to be the domain of languages and humanities, but in fact writing is important across all subjects. In terms of language development, the more students write in different domains, the more broad their academic vocabulary becomes. Writing for mathematics, in particular, is a type of writing that helps develop precision in expression and explanation, and can positively impact students' language development in all areas. Writing short answers is common in mathematics classes, but extended writing for the purpose of explanation is often neglected for a variety of reasons.
In January I attended a conference in Amsterdam (The European League for Middle Level Educators) and had the chance to attend a fantastic session by Christian Streit and Julie Spurr (American School in London) about a project they have been working on to introduce extended writing in middle school mathematics. They have developed this approach, now ending its third year, to build on the current mathematics programme, Common Core Standards (Mathematical Practice No. 3) and linking in to Criterion C (Communicating) and Criterion D (Applying mathematics in real-life contexts) from the MYP. Working in collaboration with the Language Arts teachers, they developed a series of rubrics for three functions of writing: informative, argumentative and exploratory. At the end of a unit, the students are given a choice of reflective writing tasks using these three functions as a base. This allows for differentiation across levels of English usage, with informative being more accessible to students who are newer to English, for example.
In reflecting on the success of the approach, both Streit and Spurr feel that writing reflections on mathematics has benefits both for students and teachers. From the student perspective, they feel that students focus more on process and less on rote learning or simple product, are developing skills for error identification and correction, and improving their reasoning skills as well as their mathematical vocabulary. From a teacher perspective, it allows insight into how students are understanding the tasks, and well as providing information about gaps or inaccuracies that can be addressed in follow-on sessions.
Introducing a reflective writing programme is not without its challenges, the main ones being buy-in (from students and teachers) and the time required to allow for reflection, writing and revisions. The potential benefits for EAL/ELL students are significant though, and a clear focus on language development rather than only content will better enable them to develop their academic English, and therefore their understanding and production in mathematics in general.