A Writing Strategy for All Content Areas

 //  Sep 19, 2019

A Writing Strategy for All Content Areas

Grace Long is the author of ACE: Short-Response Writing.

As leaders in education, we can easily get bogged down by the hustle and bustle of the day to day. We get consumed with various tasks—putting out fires, listening, and problem-solving for teachers, parents, and students—as the school year whizzes by. We may miss having our own students in the classroom and contemplate our impact on education. But once in a while, we may have an interaction that makes us pause and remember why we do what we do. I was blessed enough to have this moment with a former colleague and friend of mine.

While I consider myself a “language arts person,” my friend is a “math person” and an amazingly effective middle school math teacher. After not seeing him for a few years, we ran into each other and he said, “You know, I still use the ACE strategy in my classroom with my math students. You really supported me when I was a new teacher and showed me a strategy I still use with my students today.” He doesn’t know how much his comment meant to me, but this was the reminder I needed. This is the kind of influence we can have as instructional leaders. We can support our new teachers by providing resources and strategies that transcend and are applicable in all content areas, for all students and in all school districts.

Success, according to today’s rigorous standards, requires students to work with current knowledge and apply their skills, to focus on process rather than just the answer, and to use multiple ways to explain thinking. The ACE strategy—which stands for Answer, Cite evidence, and Elaborate—teaches students how to do this. After an introductory lesson and often throughout the year, I remind my students: “Don’t forget, your learning goes beyond these four walls. So whether you’re in history class, science class, or math class, and even the next time you’re having a conversation with your parents about where to go out to eat, don’t just say it—ACE it!”

At every grade level, being able to articulate and effectively express your thinking, justify your thoughts, or win an argument, is an academic skill as well as a life skill. We need to make this integration of skills clear and explicit for our students, offering them common academic language to use throughout the day, in various content areas, and in any classroom. Opportunities to ACE a response are already there, embedded in curriculum and other instructional materials teachers are currently using. Anytime there is a debatable topic, an open-ended question, a prompt to cite evidence for an answer, or a need to explain or reason, students have the opportunity to exercise integration of content by ACEing their response.

Does a class need to vote on what kind of end-of-year party they should have? Have them ACE their reasoning. Are students going to make a hypothesis on a science experiment? Have them ACE their response. Are students going to analyze another student’s strategy to attack a math problem? Have them ACE their answer. The book, ACE Short-Response Writing, provides eight strategies with lessons and scaffolds that can be practiced and utilized in any classroom, not as “one more new thing” to remember, but to help bridge learning across content areas. The following are examples of various ACE elaboration strategies applied across multiple content areas and grade levels. 

2nd-grade language arts class:

  • Question: What is one character trait you would use to describe the third pig in “The Three Little Pigs”? 
  • Answer: The third little pig was smart. 
  • Cite evidence: According to the text, he took his time to build his house out of bricks. 
  • Elaborate: If he hadn’t built his house out of bricks, then the wolf would have been able to blow the house down and gobble up all three pigs. 

4th-grade math class:

  • Question: There is an equal number of children and dogs. There are 60 legs altogether. How many children and dogs are there?
  • Answer: There are 10 children and 10 dogs.
  • Cite evidence: 10 children have 20 legs, and 10 dogs have 40 legs. 20 + 40 = 60 legs
  • Elaborate: To find the answer, I thought about the fact that dogs have two times as many legs as children. Knowing that there are the same number of children and dogs also helped. So I used the “guess and check” strategy until I came up with 10 children and 10 dogs. 

6th-grade science class:

  • Question: What is the base of the ocean food web?
  • Answer: Phytoplankton are at the base of the ocean food web.
  • Cite evidence: According to the article we read online, these tiny organisms, which live near the ocean’s surface, make their own food using the sun’s energy.
  • Elaborate:This is significant because phytoplankton are food for zooplankton, which in turn are food for small fish and other ocean animals. These small animals, in turn, are eaten by larger animals, and so on. Without phytoplankton, the ocean food web would collapse, and most ocean animals would die out.

A key goal of teaching is to provide students with sustainable learning opportunities. As shown in the examples above, different elaboration strategies can be applied and woven throughout multiple content areas. The more we provide broad strategies that students can utilize across subjects, the more we can see evidence of true learning being practiced, applied, and internalized, both in and out of the classroom. Our impact as educators goes beyond teaching students skills for the classroom, but also for life.