Low-Stakes Writing Exercises: 3 Tips to Get Started

Joan Didion quoteWhen we give students writing assignments, the purpose is often to share ideas and demonstrate understanding. We have students write persuasive essays to demonstrate their ability to make and support arguments, or write answers to questions that we use to assess their understanding. But, as Joan Didion explains, writing can also be a way to develop understanding.

Recently, Teaching Channel’s new professional development platform, Teams, partnered with Educate Texas to create a series of videos showcasing Common Instructional Framework. From these new videos, I learned about an instructional strategy called “Writing to Learn.” This technique encourages the use of low-stakes writing to allow students a chance to clarify their ideas and think critically. In this video, Andrea Culver explains how “Writing to Learn” allows students to process information without worrying about assessment or judgment.

I can attest that the low-stakes part is key. Whenever I struggle to start a writing assignment, I start with a free write — telling myself that I never have to show my writing to anyone. By taking the pressure off, I’m able to write more freely and figure out what I’m thinking. Through the very act of writing, I get clarity on my thoughts and prepare for writing a publishable piece (writing that other people will see). The same process can be used in the classroom by having students write to develop understanding in preparation for writing to demonstrate understanding.

Writing to LearnWhen using “Writing to Learn,” students focus on just thinking and organizing their thoughts. They don’t need to worry about how incomprehensible their writing may come across — they can relax knowing that no one will evaluate this writing. Using this strategy teaches students that writing does not have to be publishable to be valuable.

Here are three ideas from Writing to Learn that you can try in your classroom today:

1) Do a warm-up writing exercise. At 1:20 in this video, Kevin Sevin has his students answer questions about the effect of birth order. By participating in this warm-up, students have a chance to activate their background knowledge and engage with the activity before discussing their ideas with their peers.

2) Engage students in active listening. When students watch a video about American music at 2:55 in this video, they write down details about each kind of music they hear. By writing as they listen, students are actively engaged in constructing meaning from the video.

3) Write about reflections. At 4:30 in this video, we see how Jamila Thomas gives her students four questions to write about at the end of class. Through writing, students are able to reflect on what they learned in class. Instead of simply acting as an exit ticket, this activity gives students a chance to process and organize information. The students share their writing with each other in a gallery walk, but because the writing is anonymously posted, the writing is still low-stakes.

Explicitly talking about this strategy with students can make them aware of how writing can be used for many purposes. By teaching writing as a way to develop understanding, you can help students learn to see writing as neither product- nor process-driven, but thinking-driven.

Lily Jones taught K/1 for seven years in Northern California. She has experience as a curriculum developer, instructional coach, teacher trainer, and is also a contributing writer for Teaching Channel.

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