Why All Students Should Write: A Neurological Explanation For Literacy


Why All Students Should Write: A Neurological Explanation

by Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed., radteach.com

In terms of writing and the brain, there are multiple reasons for embedding writing throughout STEM courses. Writing promotes the brain’s attentive focus to class work and homework, promotes long-term memory, illuminates patterns (possibly even “aha” moment insight!), includes all students as participants, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.

There is an involuntary information intake filter that determines what sensory input is accepted into the brain. Input must also pass through an emotional filter, the amygdala, where the destination of that information. When stress is high, the intake filter favors information selectively admits information related to perceived threat, virtually ignoring other sensory input.

The high stress state also directs the amygdala switching station to conduct information to the lower, reactive brain, where long-term retrievable memories cannot be formed. In addition, the behavioral outputs of the lower brain are limited to fight (act out), flight (self-entertainment sometimes interpreted as ADHD), or freeze (zone out).

Writing Promotes Successful Neurological Information Processing

Fear of making mistakes in front of classmates is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for students. Writing is an opportunity to lower threat and to reduce the stress that blocks passage through the amygdala to the reflective prefrontal cortex. Descriptive written responses to math or science questions and written predictions, hypotheses, and questions provides all students with the opportunity to actively participate in learning, receive timely feedback, reflect, revise, and risk making mistakes as they build confidence, reveal gaps in foundational knowledge, share creative insights, and build their capacities to communicate of their ideas and defend their opinions.

Writing can include individual journaling, formal research-style formatted reports of student experimentation and data analysis, newspaper editorials about the evidence for environmental problems and a plan for intervention. Writing can be shared with varying degrees of scaffolding for students who need to build confidence, such as class blogs or wikis with code names known only by the teacher.

Writing done at home, without time constraint and with access to the Internet and other resources, can lower the barriers, but not the bar. Students can then participate more confidently in class starting with reading their written responses, perhaps after the confidence-building of first sharing them with a partner.

Written peer feedback on class wikis or blogs offers the opportunity to reflect on the day’s learning, ask questions, or demonstrate accountability for the night’s homework to increase whole class level of preparation for the next day’s instruction. Through these shared written responses about content and concept students have opportunities to express creative hypotheses, alternative perspectives, and concerns about their understanding, with the low-risk option of peer anonymity.

There is accountability and peer interaction, without the concern about mistakes that is so paralyzing to many students during class time, and as students consider and define in writing their opinions, conclusions, and predictions, their brains construct concept networks.

When learning is examined through shared writing, students are exposed to multiple approaches to solving problems (so important in building the flexibility and open-minded approach to other cultures as the science, math, and technology world is indeed global) and have the chance to communicate using their own words. They build communication skills they will surely use in their collaborations now and in the future science and math communities they will enter.

Why All Students Should Write: A Neurological Explanation For Literacy; image attribution flickr user flickingbrad


  • The intentions are great but caveats are needed. One is that some of these claims go beyond the scientific evidence. A second is that the empirical evidence (the effect sizes) of writing-to-learn methods are currently quite disappointing. That being so, we have to dig much deeper than we have done, if we are to help large numbers of people to write well about difficult topics and counter-intuitive concepts and to grapple with the fact that all serious issues pose many more questions than answers. One such issue is writing development itself, as is confirmed by leading scholars in that field.

  • HELP WANTED: Copy Editor for an online education magazine.
    “Input must also pass through an emotional filter, the amygdala, where the destination of that information.” …It seems part of this sentence got lost in a cut-and-paste somewhere. Maybe “the destination of that information is determined.” (??)
    THEN right after that:
    “When stress is high, the intake filter favors information selectively admits information related to perceived threat, virtually ignoring other sensory input.” … In this part, I assume that the word “favors” was supposed to be cut and replaced with “selectively admits.”

    As we tell our students, it’s best to have someone else proofread your work before publishing. I thought I was too stressed to read with comprehension at first…

  • It would be very appropriate to cite the authors when you make the kind of claims that you make. Of course it is a blog and it’s not required, but what if your readers want to dig deeper? You should understand (as a M.D., M.Ed.) that providing the sources is as important if not more than providing the information.

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