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10 Activities for Writing to Learn

In Language Arts, students learn to write—narratives, explanatory essays, arguments, reports, and literary analyses. In other classes, they write to learn—notes, summaries, lab reports, emails, and reflections. Writing helps students gain knowledge, wrestle with it, and reflect on it.

You can use 10 simple writing-to-learn activities to supercharge learning in any class throughout the day.

1. Entrance and Exit Slips

When students file into your class, greet them with a quick writing prompt:

  • Name something cool that happened today.
  • What's the most surprising thing you learned yesterday?
  • If you could be anywhere right now, where would you go?
  • What would you ask Abraham Lincoln?
  • What's your favorite planet, and why?

Tailor the prompt to your situation. You might provide a warm-up for today's lesson, or a reflection on something you are studying, or just a check-in on how students are feeling. They can write their answers on little strips of paper you have in a basket by the door, allowing you to gather them and read a select few. Or students can write their answers in their notebooks and volunteer to read their own ideas aloud.

Repeat the activity at the end of class, writing a new prompt. Let some students share their exit-slip answers before you dismiss them, or gather answers to read at the beginning of the next class.

Entrance and exit slips help students tune in to the learning environment of your class and take what they learn with them.

2. Stop 'n' Write

At any point in a lesson, you can have students stop and write to reflect on what they are learning. Once again, you provide them a prompt, either written on the board or spoken aloud:

  • What question do you have about this topic?
  • Who do you know who is most like the Great Gilly Hopkins? Why?
  • What's the most important job of the president of the United States?
  • What's the coolest thing about trees?
  • In the Revolutionary War, what side would you be on?

After students write their responses, have volunteers share their observations. Writing deepens learning within a student, and sharing broadens learning across the classroom. Stop 'n' Write also shifts gears, engaging students who have begun to drift. Try this stop-'n'-write minilesson.

3. Nutshelling

To help students encapsulate new learning, ask them to "put it in a nutshell." Challenge them to summarize a key idea in the fewest words possible. Have students share their responses, and have the class discuss which summaries best capture the ideas. Select the top answers and count the number of words in each to determine which is most succinct.

Students enjoy the challenge of creating quick summaries. Discussing these summaries helps everyone review key concepts. Try this nutshelling minilesson.

4. Graph It!

Ask students to create a graphic organizer that captures their ideas. Here are some great graphic organizers to choose from:

  • Cluster: In the middle of a page, students write a topic and circle it. They write related ideas around it and connect these ideas in a cluster or mind map. (For example, "Create a cluster about the Boston Tea Party.")
  • Time line: Have students organize events in chronological order using a time line. Try this time-line minilesson.
  • Pro-Con Chart: Students make a T-chart and write the "pros" of a topic in the left-hand column and the "cons" in the right-hand column. (For example, what are the pros and cons of solar power?) Try this pro-con chart minilesson.
  • Cause-Effect Chart: Students make a T-chart and write the causes of a phenomenon in the left-hand column and the effects in the right-hand column. Or students can try this advanced cause-effect chart. (For example, what are the causes and effects of the Civil Rights Movement.)
  • Venn Diagram: Students draw two overlapping circles and label each side with a topic. They write similarities in the shared space and differences in the outside spaces. (For example, what are the similarities and differences between hobbits and dwarves?)

5. Sense It!

Ask students to write sensations connected to a topic: sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and touch sensations. The subject can be anything students have experienced or read about, or anything they could imagine.

Thanksgiving Senses

  • Sights: Shiny plates, gleaming silverware, gold candles
  • Sounds: Laughter in the kitchen, football on TV, boiling potatoes
  • Smells: Roasted turkey, fresh-baked bread, green-bean casserole
  • Tastes: Melted butter, savory gravy, sage dressing
  • Touch sensations: Hot rolls, soft napkins, straining bellies

Sense details can enliven any writing. Try this minilesson to help students write paragraphs that show instead of tell.

6. Journalistic Questions

When writing a news story, journalists seek to answer the 5 W's and H about their topic: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?

Second Continental Congress

  • Who? The founders
    (representatives of the 13 colonies)
  • What? Signed the Declaration of Independence
  • When? July 4, 1776
  • Where? The Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall)
  • Why? To declare their freedom from England
  • How? Those present signed, and the document was taken for others to sign.

Use this 5 W's and H minilesson.

Ask your students to answer the same questions about any topic you are studying, helping them to get the "whole story."

7. Ask "What If?"

Instead of asking students what did happen, ask them what didn't. Counterfactual reasoning lets students explore possibilities and thereby better understand what actually did take place:

  • What if an asteroid never wiped out the dinosaurs?
  • What if Rosa Parks had given up her seat?
  • What if we had a king instead of a president?
  • What if money really did grow on trees?
  • What if human beings set up a colony on Mars?

These sorts of questions invite students to use their imaginations to understand a topic in a whole new way. Also, some of the greatest inventions in history have come from answering "what if" questions. (For example, "What if books could be printed by a machine instead of being copied by hand?")

Try this "what if" minilesson.

8. Life Maps

Students can plot the major events in their own lives as well as those of historical figures or characters from literature. This life-map below shows one student's passage through time:

Use this minilesson to help students create their own life maps.

9. Freewrite

Have students write without stopping for five minutes about any topic. Tell them to just keep going. If they can't think of what to write, they should write about that fact until they come up with a new idea:

" . . . I don't know what else to say about mitochondria except that if these are powerhouses of the cell, I wonder if they ever have a shutdown. Can there be a blackout in a bunch of cells? Is that what happens when we get tired or fall asleep? I guess that the body has a way to get them going again. Maybe that's the point of ice cream. . . ."

Try this freewriting minilesson with your students.

10. Dialogues

Writing is communication, so why not have your students write dialogues back and forth with each other? Here are a few options:

  • Dialogue journal: Have one student write a paragraph about something you are studying or something that is happening. Then have students pass their paragraphs to a partner, who reads their work and responds with another paragraph. Students then pass their work back and continue the dialogue. Use this dialogue-journal minilesson.
  • Back-and-forth stories: Have one student write a paragraph to start a story and then hand the work to another student. That person writes the next paragraph and passes the story back, and so on. Use this back-and-forth stories minilesson.
  • Historical dialogue: Have students write a conversation between them and a historical figure. Students use their imaginations and what they know about the person to bring history to life. Try this historical-dialogue minilesson.

Writing to Learn

Writing helps students process what they are learning, creating deeper connections with what they already know.

For more help teaching writing, check out these handbook programs from Thoughtful Learning:


Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.