“Explicit teaching of writing makes kids better writers” and readers. Does writing improve thinking? Dan Willingham looks at the evidence in The Atlantic.
Not all writing instruction is helpful, Willingham writes. Students learn to write well if they’re taught “the nuts and bolts,” such as “text structure, how to use specific strategies for planning, revising, or editing text, and so on. . . . if a teacher does not show students how to construct a paragraph or a well-written argument, some will figure out it anyway, but many will not.”
Writing instruction improves reading comprehension, but again the details matter. When students write about what they’ve read — analyzing, interpreting, summarizing and answering questions — they build comprehension, Willingham writes. Explicit teaching of writing conventions helps students understand how authors use conventions.
It’s worth noting that these two advantages — better writing and better reading — will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets — exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Students need assignments that include writing in longer formats with some formal structural requirements.
The research is not as clear on the question of whether teaching writing improves thinking, he writes.
There is a certain logic to the idea that students can become better critical thinkers by completing writing assignments. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Writing encourages you to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages you to select your words carefully. Writing holds the promise (and the threat) of a permanent record of your thoughts, and thus offers the motivation to order them carefully. And indeed some forms of writing–persuasive or expository essays for example — explicitly call for carefully ordering thinking.
However, studies on teaching thinking through writing have “mixed” results. Asking students to write isn’t enough. They need to write about subject matter.
Willingham suggests asking history students to write about ” how World War II might have ended differently if the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded.” If they don’t have background knowledge about the war or German history, they won’t know how to research the question. They’re likely to write drivel.