Writing-to-Learn Activities

Many of you are probably familiar with writing-to-learn (WTL) activities—“Short, impromptu or otherwise informal writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class…” (Definition from the WAC Clearinghouse). Writing-to-Learn activities can be used in any situations where students could benefit from thinking deeply about what they are doing in class, or why they’re doing it. In today’s blog entry, I synthesize the information that I found about writing-to-learn activities and share the activities’ purposes, how to implement them at different times during class periods, and how they can be used across the skills.

Purposes of WTL Activities

  • Make learners think actively about the materials, and thus help students retain the material better;
  • Serve as classroom assessment: help the teacher see how much the students are learning and what they are not learning;
  • Improve students’ writing skills;
  • Help students learn about themselves, including their learning strategies, cognitive processes, learning strengths and weaknesses (Nilson, 2003, p. 141).

Class Implementation

At the beginning of the class:


  • To bring students back from “their own lives” into the context of the lesson
  • To assess how much students retained from the previous lesson
  • To prepare students for class (The National Teaching & Learning Forum)


  • Yesterday’s News: Students spend five minutes at the beginning of class writing a note to a student (real or fictional) who missed the previous class. In their note, students explain how one idea from that class (they can select which concept or point to discuss) is particularly important to their lives.
  • One-Liners: At the beginning of class, have students write down, in one sentence, the importance or relevance of something they learned in the previous lesson. Award the writer of the most succinct, accurate, thought-provoking one-liner extra credit.

In the middle of the class:



  • Crystal Ball: Stop the lesson at the key juncture, and have students predict in writing what they think will happen next. (This is especially effective with topics that involve a cause-and-effect relationship or narrative text.)
  • Fast Food for Thought: After explaining a particular concept, process, or vocabulary term, have students write a question they still have about that topic. Then have students exchange papers and either answer the writer’s question or suggest resources they could use to locate the answer.
  • Your Strategy: Have students share a strategy that they were using in the activity. (The examples of the activities are taken from Southeastarcoaching.pbworks.com)

At the end of the class:



  • In a few sentences, tell about the lesson from the previous day to a person who missed the class the day before.
  • Imagine that you have to explain today’s lesson to a little child. How would you do it?
  • Imagine that you have to go home and tell your parents about today’s lesson. What would you tell them?
  • Tell me about your two favorite activities from class today.
  • What is the top single concept that you learned in class today?
  • The most difficult concept/topic/principle/rule/word for me today was…because…
  • Tell me what the most interesting/important word that you learned today was. How and in which situations will you use this word?

Across the Skills 

WTL activities can be used in:

Grammar Class

  • Students will write a short explanation of why this particular rule is necessary for them to know.
  • Students will provide a few examples of situations in which they would use this particular grammar principle.

Reading Class

  • Before reading a book/a story/an article, students will write about what they know about the topic.
  • Before reading a book/a story/an article, students will express their predictions about what they think the text will be about.

Listening/Speaking Class

  • After listening to a conversation/lecture/dialog, students will write about how they think the listening is connected to the day’s lesson.
  • Students will explain the purpose of a particular listening or speaking activity.

Writing Class

  • Students will explain the differences between different types of paragraphs.
  • Students will summarize the lesson using transition (linking) words learned that day.

Grading or Reviewing

  • Collect just a few WTL assignments. Don’t read every word, but skim quickly to identify areas or tasks students might need help with.
  • Use different colored pens or highlighters to note points in selected entries.
  • While students are writing at the beginning and end of class, walk around the room and read over shoulders. Stop to talk to or jot a note on the writing of three to four students.
  • Ask students to select their best or most provocative WTL writing for you to review.
  • Collect WTL assignments and give a holistic score from 1 to 3 based on the amount of thinking evident in the response.
  • Read assignments and write one positive comment.
  • Read assignments and offer one to two suggestions.
  • Ask students to share WTL activities with one or two classmates.
  • Ask students to send the WTL writing that contains questions about course material to you via e-mail.
  • Ask students to post provocative questions or summary/analysis of readings on an electronic bulletin board or Web forum for class comment.
    (Adapted from the WAC Clearinghouse)

References and Sources

Nielson L. B. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
The WAC Clearinghouse: Alternatives for Evaluating WTL Assignments
The WAC Clearinghouse: What is Writing to Learn?
The National Teaching & Learning Forum

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to Writing-to-Learn Activities

  1. Anna Morris says:

    RETAKE! Please excuse the spelling errors, too any late-at-night work sessions! I am not so enthralled with the activities, as most of them are upper-grade oriented. Do you have activities for Kindergarten?

  2. Elena I like this strategy and need to incorporate it into my own classes. I did very little free ESL writing exercises. I can see how it creates immediacy in the learning and allows the students to process the here and now – what they are learning and how they are reacting to it in the moment. Most importantly it provides focus and activity. I found giving the students an activity after the initial greeting stage of class was a great way to get them warmed up.

    The exercises are well thought out and easy to implement. I also like that you mentioned walking around and interacting with the students while they are completing the exercises.

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