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Writing Across the Curriculum

by Betsy Gilliland |

As TESOL professionals, we often think of ourselves as English teachers whose primary work is supporting our students to learn the English language. Learning English entails learning how to use English for various purposes, including writing in school and college. Sometimes textbooks or required curriculum frame writing as an exercise for practicing newly learned grammar structures or vocabulary words.

As I have discussed in previous blog posts, however, writing is not a skill that should be taught in isolation of its applications in the “real world,” whether that real world is a university classroom or a medical office or a factory. Today, I want to introduce you to a vibrant area of discussion in the writing studies community that may offer you some additional ideas for teaching English to your students.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), also sometimes discussed as Writing in the Disciplines (WID), refers to discussions of writing as it is used for academic purposes in fields beyond the English department. It is grounded in the premise that writing is not done solely in English classes and not solely for the purpose of learning language on its own. Instead, WAC focuses on writing as it is done in other academic areas, including the sciences as well as social sciences and humanities. WAC scholarship and approaches acknowledge that writing differs in different disciplines and fields, and therefore students should learn how to write for those specific purposes rather than any assumption that learning to write in one field can be easily transferred to writing in another field.

In the United States, many universities include WAC as part of their core undergraduate curriculum. After taking a foundational writing course (first-year composition), students may then be required to take several WAC courses, where they learn the content of an academic discipline while also getting instruction in and support for writing the genres used in that discipline.

Why WAC?

In WAC classes, students learn how to write for real-world purposes. Most professional writing is not in the format of the traditional “essay” that we commonly teach in English language classes; instead, scientists write lab reports, psychologists write evaluations of patients, agriculture experts write recommendations for crop rotation, and athletic trainers write exercise plans for individual clients, among the myriad other types of writing done in the real world. In WAC classes, students learn how to analyze the genres and identify appropriate language, text types, and structures used for doing academic or professional writing in the discipline of their course.

WAC can also be used to teach and reinforce content learning even when it is not in the specific genres of a discipline. Dalporto asserts that writing helps students personalize and internalize new information, synthesize multiple perspectives, and remember facts, vocabulary, and broader concepts. Writing can offer students an additional resource for engaging with course content and can help them identify where they might need additional focus.

Who Should Be Thinking About WAC?

  • Elementary, middle, and high school teachers: The earlier students start seeing writing as an integral part of all their school subjects, the more they will be able to reflect on how writing differs across disciplines and what they can do to learn how to write for different purposes.
  • College teachers of just about all subject areas: Some fields, like history, are more clearly associated with writing as a frequent form of assessment (students write research papers and essay exams), and other fields, like those in the sciences, include particular genres of writing (like lab reports). Other fields are not traditionally taught with much writing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used either to help students learn the content or to prepare for professional applications of the course content.
  • Anyone who teaches language and writing: In English language teaching, our students need to learn how to write in other fields, both in their academic studies and in their professions. We can integrate topics and genres from fields outside of English to support our students’ success beyond our classrooms.

What Can English Teachers Do About WAC?

Collaborate with colleagues in other departments to support their inclusion of writing in their teaching. Many of us have had some professional development related to teaching writing, so we can offer our expertise to support our colleagues who may not have had as much opportunity to learn how to design writing assignments to support students’ learning about the ways writing is done in their particular disciplines, for example.

We can encourage colleagues to use writing for learning as well as for assessing: writing to learn activities engage students in writing as a way of processing new ideas, exploring concepts, and thinking critically about topics. These may be informal or ungraded activities, like brainstorming before a discussion or reflecting on a new topic at the end of a lecture. This document from the Michigan Department of Education has some useful WAC activities for middle and high school level Social Studies.

Design lessons and support students in our own classes to write about topics and in genres beyond the usual “English class” assignments. Here are a few activities that can help our students connect with writing in other fields:

  • Rhetorical analysis activity: Deconstruct a text to identify language, structure, citation, and other textual elements as well as who the audience is and how the text is shaped with that audience in mind.
  • Reading journal and jargon journal: Keep track of how texts are written and what kind of language is used in those texts. (Read more about these journals here.)
  • Convention analysis project: Students reach out to professors and other experts in an academic field (their major or other area of interest) and ask about the types of writing that are done, what citation style is preferred, and how writers in the field generally work. They can then report back to their classmates about what they learned and might share their discoveries in a web resource for future students.

Learn more about WAC. The WAC Clearinghouse is an amazing resource for teachers, with 150+ free ebooks, open access journals, and teaching and research resources, all on the general topic of WAC.

In what ways have you connected with WAC in your school or college? Share your thoughts in the chat!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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