Quick Writing Instruction for the Content Classroom

Linda H. Mason, Elizabeth Benedak-Wood, and Philip H. Wood


Quick Writing Instruction for the Content Classroom

By Linda H. Mason, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Elizabeth Benedek-Wood, The Pennsylvania State University

Philip H. Wood, West Branch Area School District


Researchers have established that when students use writing in content classrooms knowledge is acquired and demonstrated (Bangert- Drowns, Hurley, & Wilkinson, 2008) and critical thinking is facilitated (Deshler, Palincsar, Biancarosa, & Nair, 2007). Moreover, recent standards initiatives (e.g., CCSS, 2010) emphasize the importance of writing to support learning across academic domains. In this DLD brief, procedures for teaching struggling writers how to self-regulate one content classroom activity, quick writing, are described.

Quick writing is a short constructed response activity used to activate or assess students’ knowledge on a particular topic (Fisher & Frey, 2008). Quick writes can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson and can serve a number of purposes such as supporting students’ prior knowledge acquisition, recall, or summarization (Mason, Benedek-Wood, & Valasa, 2009). Teachers typically present quick writes by giving a prompt or posing a question related to content instruction, and then by providing students with up to 10 minutes to write. A math teacher may ask students to write about everything they know about probability to assess prior knowledge. To assess knowledge during a long unit on the universe, a science teacher may ask students to compare and contrast the three main types of galaxies. A social studies teacher may ask students to write a persuasive argument for, or against, Citizens United.

Although quick writes have been recommended for use in content classrooms since the 1980s, little research has addressed how to help students, including those with learning disabilities (LD), who have difficulty demonstrating what has been learned through writing (Mason, Kubina, & Taft, 2009). When given a quick write prompt, these struggling writers often do not use writing time efficiently to address the topic adequately. For example, when asked, “What did you learn about weather factors?” a student (a.k.a. Simon) used approximately 3 minutes to write:

I’ve learned that global winds travel all over the globe. Local winds travel through a small section. Land breeze is when there’s air from land and it flows to a ocean, lake, etc. Sea breeze is when there’s a breeze in the sea and it flows to the land. Energy from the sun is the sun’s rays, which produce energy. When winds curve it’s called the Coriolis [sic] effect.

Although Simon presented several details about weather, his organization is weak, missing the topic and ending sentence. Simon did not elaborate on details or use transitions from one sentence to the next. Simon’s response was disjointed and provided the reader with limited information about weather factors. Fortunately, we have found that deficits such as those illustrated in Simon’s pre-instruction quick write can be remediated by teaching quick writing within the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model of instruction.

SRSD for Quick Writing

SRSD instruction targets many areas in planning and composing in which writers struggle (Harris & Graham, 2009). SRSD, when specifically developed for a timed quick writing response, promotes students’ cognitive and self-regulation strategies so they can better understand and regulate this type of writing task (Mason, Reid, & Hagaman, 2012). In SRSD, teachers scaffold responsibility for strategy use during the quick writing process by gradually shifting from teacher-led instruction to student-led self-regulation. The six instructional stages—1) develop pre-skills and background knowledge, 2) discuss it, 3) model it, 4) memorize it, 5) support it, and 6) independent practice—facilitate the student’s mastery of strategy use during quick writing. Four self-regulation processes (goal setting, self-monitoring, self-
instructions, and self-reinforcement) are imbedded throughout instruction. Instruction is criterion based rather than time based. In other words, students must demonstratethat they have mastered each skill or procedure needed for effective quick writing before they move to the next phase of instruction.

Methods for SRSD for quick writing have been validated in one-to-one and small group instruction (e.g., Mason, Kubina, & Taft, 2006), and in whole class instruction (e.g., Benedek-Wood, Mason, Wood, Hoffman, & MacGuire, in press). To facilitate generalization across writing genres, quick writes are taught within a three-part umbrella strategy, POW (Pick my idea, Organize my notes, Write and say more). Students organize their notes for informative quick writing using TIDE2 (Topic sentence, Important Details, Elaborations, Ending sentence) and for persuasive quick writing using TREE (Topic sentence, Reasons: 3 or more + a counter reason: 3 or more + a refute, Ending sentence). Given the parameters of quick writing (e.g., short constructed timed response), instruction for adolescents can often be completed in five to seven 30-minute lessons plus two to three 10-minute practice sessions. We illustrate instruction for POW + TIDE2 for informative quick writing as highlighted in Benedek-Wood et al. (in press), a study conducted in Mr. Wood’s four 6th grade science classrooms. All quick writing instruction was situated within science curriculum and objectives.

Mr. Wood’s Instruction.

Many students lack the critical skills needed for understanding and writing about content material. During develop pre-skills and background knowledge, Mr. Wood remediated these deficits prior to introducing quick writing with planned focus lessons. For example, many of his students did not use content specific academic vocabulary in their writing. Mr. Wood delivered a mini-lesson on how to use science vocabulary words correctly in complete sentences. Mr. Wood first modeled writing a few sentences and then asked students to help him write sentences in a guided practice activity.

When introducing the quick write strategies during discuss it, Mr. Wood explicitly explained, while referring to the mnemonics chart below, the purpose of each strategy step for the learning process. Model paper examples of quick writes were read and students’ pre-instruction quick writes were evaluated. The first self-regulation procedure, setting goals for learning and applying the strategy, were established.

In model it, Mr. Wood thought out loud the before, during, and after writing processes while using all instructional materials (e.g., writing notes on the graphic organizer above) and self-regula- tion procedures (e.g., self-monitoring by charting performance, self-instruction through self-talk, and positive self-reinforcement). Mr. Wood included statements that addressed his students’ specific needs throughout his modeling. For example, several students had difficulty writing simple notes for “Organize my notes” in POW. Mr. Wood demonstrated how to write notes by talking through the process (e.g., “For the O step in POW, I want to write down a few words for each part. I will write interesting sentences when I get to the W step, Write and Say more”). Mr. Wood used modeling twice during instruction: (1) to model how to write an informative quick write with POW + TIDE2, and (2) to model how to write in a 10 minute time frame.

During memorize it, students recited the steps of POW + TIDE2 and, more importantly, they described what is required at each step level. For students with memorization difficulties, Mr. Wood provided cue cards and other visual cues. Memorization was practiced throughout POW + TIDE2 lessons.

In guided practice, the support it stage, Mr. Wood worked collaboratively with student groups, with student pairs, and with individual students. Instructional support materials were faded, and responsibility for POW + TIDE2 application was shifted from the teacher to the student. Lessons transition from 30-minute heavily supported lessons to 10-minute practice sessions. Mr. Wood scaffolded support until his students’ demonstrated mastery in applying the POW + TIDE2 strategies to write in 10 minutes. For example, when Simon was asked, “What did you learn about the Earth in Space?” he used the full 10 minutes to write:

Today I’m going to tell you what I learned about Earth’s move- ment, the seasons, and the effects of gravity. First, I’m going to talk about Earth’s movement. The Earth moves in two main ways. One way is rotation. The Earth makes a full rotation every 24 hours. The other way it moves is revolution. Earth revolves around the sun. The moon revolves around Earth. Next, I’m going to talk about the seasons. There are 4 seasons. Their names are spring, summer, fall, and winter. Spring and fall both have an equinox. An equinox is when there are 12 hours of day and night. Winter and summer both have a solstice. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year. However, the winter solstice is the shortest. Finally, I’m going to talk about the effects of gravity. Inertia is the moon’s gravity. It and Earth’s gravity keep the moon in orbit. That is what I learned about Earth’s movements, seasons, and gravity.

In this quick write, Simon included a topic sentence that clearly introduces the terms to be discussed. Simon then presented details about each term and elaborates on each detail by providing more information and/or examples. His elaborations not only better informed the reader, but also demonstrated his level of under- standing for this particular topic. Throughout the response, Simon included transition words such as first, next, however, and finally. Lastly, Simon included a clear ending sentence that wraps up the response.

After SRSD instruction and during independent practice, students worked independently while Mr. Wood monitored their quick writing performance. At this time, Mr. Wood began to plan instruction for a new genre (e.g., POW + TREE for persuasive writing) and planned for students’ generalization practice of POW + TIDE2 to other tasks. Students and Mr. Wood celebrated their success in learning and applying quick writing for learning in science!

Tips for Instruction

Prior to instruction, teachers should consider the academic content, the genre, and the prompts to be used during instruction. For example, introducing quick writing in conjunction with difficult, dense content can frustrate both teacher and students. Although genre order for instruction can be flexible, only one genre-specific strategy should be taught at a time, teaching until students are independent. Writing prompts should be scaled in complexity. For example, a teacher may ask, “What did you learn about the effect of The Great Depression on American farm families?” when students are first learning to apply a strategy. Later, the teacher may ask students to, “Define The New Deal, and note resulting programs that are still in effect today.”

Students should be encouraged throughout the support it stage to check for academic vocabulary use and to always write and say more. Graphing charts are especially effective for developing this aspect of students’ self-regulation. Once students are efficient quick writers, performance should be generalized to other tasks such as journaling and homework. Quick writes should be ungraded for writing mechanics (e.g., punctuation, spelling, and grammar), as the purpose of a quick write is to provide students with an opportunity to reflect, articulate, and elaborate on what they have learned. But, most importantly, teachers need to continue to provide opportunities for the students’ writing success by maintaining quick writing in their content classrooms.



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