Writing to Learn
How Alternative Theories of School Writing Account for Student Performance
George E. Newell
What are the promises and challenges of empirical and theoretical studies of writing to learn, especially in light of recent efforts to consider how mental functioning is mediated by cultural, institutional, and disciplinary contexts (Wertsch, 1998)? This chapter addresses three general areas of research that are relevant to the question of the relationship between writing and learning in school contexts. First, rather than being a more efficient way to cover content and test for memory of that content, writing assignments can become ways of exploring and making sense of new ideas and experiences (Langer & Applebee, 1987; Marshall, 1987; Newell, 1984; Newell & Winograd, 1995). Second, with more efforts to teach writing in all content areas, students may become more aware of a full range of conventions and genres used in various contexts, especially in the discourse communities of various academic disciplines (Langer, 1992; Rose, 1989; Sheeran & Barnes, 1991). Third, writing-tolearn approaches to instruction alter the roles of both the teacher (from evaluator to collaborator) and students (from memorizers to meaning makers) and transform the content area information as facts to be absorbed into ways of understanding ourselves and our cultural communities through the study of various academic traditions (Applebee, 1996; Moje & O'Brien, 2001; Jones, Turner, & Street, 1999).
In spite of rather convincing arguments for the value of writing in academic learning, two interrelated issues have plagued writing to learn reforms. First, earlier conceptions of writing-to-learn based on process-oriented writing instruction neglected the fundamental issue of "what constitutes learning," focusing instead on the development of new activities and routines. Accordingly, "transmission" views of teaching and learning that emphasize memorization and recitation coopted the more learner-centered underpinnings of writing for which theorists such as Janet Emig, James Britton, Donald Graves and Nancy Martin had argued. Second, although writing-to-learn approaches have provided insights into the role of writing as a tool for learning, they have largely ignored some of the unique ways of knowing and doing in various academic disciplines. This has led to two assumptions: (1) that writing should be the primary concern of the English teacher, who has the responsibility to teach generic strategies and forms for writing; and (2) that writing has no practical relevance to instruction in other content areas. Accordingly, any reform will have to consider not only how students make sense of disciplinary ways of knowing and doing but also the real-