Writing Across the Curriculum: A Schoolwide Approach to Depth of Knowledge Implementation

By: Jane Patterson, EdD, CEO, Core Innovate, Inc. 

Grappling with Complexity: An Essential College-Ready Skill

Writing across the curriculum is a high-impact approach to engaging students in all four of Norman L. Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) levels. When students write, they are recalling information, applying concepts, thinking strategically about how best to convey ideas, and they are creating new meaning. All of these skills are essential to preparing for future learning, whether that’s the next grade level, college, or career.

Whether students intend to enroll in college or not, the expectation is that they will be equipped to do so upon high school graduation. Each state’s college and career-ready standards attest to this standard of practice. The data on post-secondary readiness reveal that, as a nation, we face a challenging task as we seek to ensure that high school graduates are prepared to pursue the future of their choice.

In a survey of 767 college instructors, 82% stated that less than half of their students were prepared to think critically; six in ten said that fewer than 50% were prepared in writing; and 80% were dissatisfied with students’ ability to comprehend complicated materials (Hart Research Associates). By the time freshmen enter college, they are expected to move fluidly among the four DoK levels and readiness for this demand requires a strategic and consistent implementation in secondary education. Writing across the curriculum is a highly effective strategy for engaging students in a variety of thought processes in the classroom (Forsman).

This bears out in a 2015 EdTrust report that sought to understand the level of college-ready standards implementation. Researchers analyzed 1,591 middle school assignments using Webb’s DoK framework to determine the level of cognitive demand. Only 4% of the assignments “pushed student thinking to higher levels” and only 9% were “linked to a piece of extended writing” (Santelises & Dabrowski). The researchers believe that extended writing is the strongest evidence of deep analysis and the construction of new knowledge.

A Schoolwide Initiative

Writing across the curriculum engages students in all DoK levels, and a carefully executed schoolwide strategy for implementation can create a culture where students are expected to engage in deep analysis and construction of new knowledge on a regular basis. This can happen when students are given opportunities to write in all of their classes. At one school, students in dance wrote about choreographic intent and analyzed their original choreography using rigorous performance criteria. At another school, freshmen explained genetic engineering and defended claims about the costs and benefits of genetic manipulation. The opportunity for improving students’ ability to communicate ideas has shifted from language arts teachers to the entire faculty. All teachers facilitate their students’ ability to think, but there is no better means of assessing this ability than looking at how students make meaning through writing.   

The benefits of writing across the curriculum are clear but how to begin may be anxiety producing to teachers whose expertise does not include academic writing. Rest assured, writing to learn is not focused on language conventions or style—areas of ELA expertise—rather, it centers on learning new concepts and using prior learning to construct new knowledge. Using DoK (Webb) as a framework for the level of cognitive demand associated with formative and summative assessments, the advantages of a school-wide approach to writing are:

  • Writing reinforces concepts. Students organize and process the who, what, where, when and why of an event, a process, or a theory.
  • Writing supports concept application. Students identify patterns, explain relationships, describe significance and interpret the impact of events, ideas, processes or theories.
  • Writing promotes deep thinking. Students begin to construct knowledge through investigation, forming hypotheses, and basing analyses on compelling evidence.
  • Writing inspires higher-order thinking. Students extend their thinking by connecting and synthesizing concepts and proving claims.

Schools can accelerate student learning when teachers implement a strategic, targeted and aligned approach to teaching writing. Schools that focus on instructional coherence create greater clarity for students and focused instructional improvement for teachers (Newmann, Smith, Allensworth and Bryk).


Forsman, S. 1985. Writing to learn means learning to think. Roots in the sawdust: Writing to learn across the disciplines. National Council of Teachers of English, 162-174.

Hart Research Associates Public Opinion Strategies. 2015. Rising to the challenge: Views on high school graduates preparedness for college and careers. Achieve, Inc., 7-16.

Newmann, F.M., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., & Bryk, A.S. 2001. Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(4), 297-321.

Santelises, S. & Dabrowski, J. 2015. Checking in: Do classroom assignments reflect today’s higher standards? The Education Trust, 1-20.

Webb, N. 2005. Web alignment tool. Wisconsin Center of Educational Research. Retrieved from http://static.pdesas.org/content/documents/M1-Slide_19_DOK_Wheel_Slide.pdf