Within the last 4 years, the Fargo Public School district has embraced
writing as a district-wide initiative. Each school within the district
has taken writing as a NCA target goal for the process of school improvement.
The impetus for this decision came from looking at both students within
our district and research across the nation. The results showed that
our students, like students across the nation, were not gaining in their
writing proficiency to a degree necessary to demonstrate much-needed
competency in writing for a variety of purposes.
Dr. Lana Danielson, an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction
at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, summarizes the research
According to a recent issue of Education Week, "More American
students have mastered basic skills in writing than in reading. .
. but few can write precise, engaging, and coherent prose appropriate
to their grade levels" (Manzo, 1999, p. 1). The most recent National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rated student writing using
three achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. Results
of the 1998 administration of the NAEP writing assessment indicate
that "16% of fourth and eighth graders, and 22% of twelfth graders,
have not mastered even basic writing skills" (Manzo, 1999, p.
Danielson goes on to further condense what the research tells us about
the critical connection between writing and learning.
Why is writing important to the learning process?
The connection between writing and learning has been well documented.
Research indicates that learning and writing are meaning-making processes
that facilitate the learner’s ability to discover connections,
describe processes, express emerging understanding, raise questions,
and find answers (Mayher, Lester, & Pradl, 1983; Langer &
How do students learn through the writing process?
Learning involves making distinctions between different types of
information. Schema theory provides an understanding of how prior
knowledge is used to comprehend new information. Sometimes their prior
knowledge helps learners to assimilate information; that is, it assists
them in remembering certain facts. At other times, learners accommodate
a new conceptualization. This occurs when learners reconstruct their
understanding by interpreting the new information in relation to their
prior knowledge (Rumelhart & Norman, 1977). While writing can
facilitate assimilation of information through the process of recording
new facts (transactional writing), it is especially useful in promoting
accommodation in which the shaping and sharpening of this information
occurs and new meaning can be constructed (expressive and/or transactional
How can writing be best implemented to support student learning?
Research (Applebee, 1977; Fulwiler & Young, 1982; Gere, 1985;
Martin, 1984) supports writing-across-the-curriculum as an approach
to learning. Findings suggest that activities in writing should not
be isolated from the subject matter itself. To fully understand any
discipline or subject, students must learn to write in the subject,
to understand the conventions used and the unique kinds of vocabulary,
which characterize it. Thus the time invested in writing can and should
enhance the desired understandings in all content areas.
Research in the use of personal journals (Mayher et al., 1983; Fulwiler,
1987) indicates that expressive writing accommodates such learning
across disciplines well because it employs a variety of functions
and audiences. The journal might serve as a reporting tool or as a
safe place for examining personal reactions. It might be used to foster
self-understanding or to communicate with others. It can be used to
record one’s thinking in progress, to process new ideas in relation
to what is already known or experienced, to ask questions, synthesize
ideas, and evaluate current thoughts about new concepts and their
applications. As Britton (1975) observed, when students become more
adept in their understanding and expression in the discipline, the
successful movement towards more transactional forms of writing can
The above research on writing serves as a backdrop for
this unit. In including it here, I hopefully have provided you with a
foundation for this unit’s purpose. Biographies of Eminent North
Dakotans, has been designed with the above research in mind. The intent
is not only to teach students the skills and processes of good research,
but also is to also have them learn how to think critically about the
contributions of prominent North Dakotans.