The University of Massachusetts Amherst
HFA - College of Humanities & Fine Arts view HFA submenu

Principles for Teaching & Learning Writing in the Disciplines

Why should students take a writing course within the major? Because we grow as writers throughout our lives and we face changing writing demands in light of changing school, community, and professional contexts, universities, as well as K-12 schools, have embraced integrating writing across the curriculum. An effective writing curriculum for college students is one that is sustained across their undergraduate studies and that challenges them to tailor their writing deftly as their purpose, content, and intended readers shift. Such programs are based on research in writing studies, especially work on Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID). 

Teachers across the curriculum may design write-to-learn activities as well as learn-to-write activities. Write-to-learn activities typically invite informal writing in order to help students grapple with course readings, discussion, and even one’s writing. Write-to-learn approaches reflect the principle that writing is a means for thinking through complex ideas within a discipline.

Learn-to-write assignments ask students to compose genres--in WID courses, genres that will help them participate in discipline-specific communities. Learn-to-write approaches reflect the principle that writing is a diverse, complex, and communicative activity that requires practice as well as explicit teaching and reflection. Whereas writing in academic contexts is commonly understood as composing generic essays for scholarly audiences, writing is vast: literature reviews, proposals, research articles; narratives; op-eds; oral presentation slides and scripts; website content development; social media messaging; figures, graphs, and tables. 

The complexity here isn’t simply about learning the many forms of writing. Within WID courses, then, students are not only learning to write discipline-specific forms, but also they’re learning the kinds of thinking that drive those forms and that disciplinary experts value. Moreover, writing scholars assume that good writing is rhetorically effective: effectively conveying a writer’s purpose to an audience is the goal. Students in WID courses may be writing for the disciplinary community and/or from the disciplinary community to other audiences.

Teaching WID courses can be complicated. Students are grappling with discipline-specific content at the same time that they’re being asked to write from and/or to disciplinary communities. As you design your course curriculum and develop your teaching practices, you might keep in mind the following principles about teaching and learning writing in the disciplines. For more context, see the Statement of Writing Across the Curriculum Principles & Practices (2014).

  1. How do we learn to write? 
    • Critical Awareness about Writing Strategies. We develop critical awareness about how to write through explicit teaching, learning, and reflection (e.g., explanation, modeling, reflecting).
    • Fluency through Writing Practice. We enact that awareness and develop writing fluency through regular practice of writing (e.g., brainstorming, drafting, revision).
  2. Learning to write in a discipline is connected to learning to think as a researcher and/or professional in that discipline. For example, what questions matter, and what do readers care about? What kinds of evidence and logic are persuasive? How do the most common genres in this discipline reflect that thinking?
  3. One’s writing development is not typically linear, partly because we are always facing changing demands related to purpose, content, and audience. A writer who has written beautiful prose in the past may struggle with sentences when articulating new and complex content. Or when writing an essay assignment, a student may begin with a tidy, edited draft, then turn this into a confused, verbose revision, and finally achieve clarity with one more round of revision. Learning to write is an ongoing process as we must continually adapt to new demands.
  4. Writing as communicative act. The most effective writing assignments ask students to engage in a meaningful task that helps them attend to purpose, content, and audience.
  5. Teachers can foster good writing through scaffolding activities. Scaffolding is about providing focused, structured activities that help students work toward the goals of a given writing assignment. Scaffolded activities should recognize the non-linear and recursive nature of thinking and writing; that is, a building blocks model (start with a sentence, then a topic sentence, then a paragraph, then all body paragraphs) or other models that atomize writing don’t work. Rather, scaffolded activities should support the assignment goals at the same time that they give students the opportunity to explore before closing off possibilities.
  6. Language conventions are dynamic as well as varied based on context. For this reason and because language and dialect discrimination are real, teaching editing skills can be fraught. Rather than focus on a singular notion of language correctness, writing scholars encourage educators to help writers harness linguistic resources (brought from home, learned together in class) and focus on language choices that are effective for a given purpose and audience.