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“Writing to Learn” Can Be Sketchy by Paula Bourque

For many of us in our content area classrooms, we are encouraging more writing to learn.  We want our students to research and explore topics and concepts through writing.  I truly believe writing not only reflects our thinking, but it can shape our thinking as well.  As we choose the words we will put to paper we can often discover new threads of thought, more questions to explore, ideas we hadn’t emphasized before.  Sometimes the piece we started writing bears little resemblance to our final product.

 However we all know students in our classrooms who tend to copy down information verbatim, without analysis or interpretation.  They struggle to rephrase the words to avoid plagiarism rather than to reframe it into their own thoughts. They have difficulty determining importance and visualizing the information they are reading or researching. We need to find ways to help these students connect with what they are reading in order to learn more effectively. One approach may be a different kind of writing to learn…sketchnotes.

 I have been working with a 5th grade teacher in my district who wanted to to encourage students to engage more with their learning.  She felt they were passively waiting for others to tell them what to think, rather than extracting their own meaning from what they were learning. To begin we searched for high interest topics and had to look no further than the brilliant website Wonderopolis. Here students can explore the kid-friendly science behind some of most curious wonders in their world!

 The next step was to guide them through the process of visual notetaking (sketchnotes) as we shared these articles. We offered a few sketchnoting tips to help them organize the big ideas, but for the most part let them decide how they wanted to visually represent their thinking. We could use this as a formative assessment; gaining insight into what they visualized as they read and determined to be important.


We then took time to share the variety of sketchnotes created by the students and talk about what were the common images and ideas. We allowed students to revise their sketchnotes to include additional information or details they wanted to remember. We talked about how this type of note taking could be helpful. Students shared how it made it easier to picture the information, how they didn’t have to worry about copying down other people’s words in their notes, how they didn’t have to worry about word choice or spelling and then could focus on the big ideas.

We’ll keep Wonder Wednesday notebooks to continue this exploration of ‘Writing to Learn’ and mini-research, but students are already asking if they can take them home to work on their own. By adding the visual element of sketchnotes to our content area writing we are tapping into the motivation of our students as well as to other areas of their brains that can help them analyze, synthesize, and recall information by encoding thinking and memory in a new way.paula-bourque-2

 So if your students ‘writing to learn’ seems to be missing something, you might want to consider adding visual notetaking to their repertoire of strategies. It will offer more entry points for your students’ access to learning, give you a glimpse at their thinking, and teach their brains to process information in new ways. (Plus, it’s FUN!)



Paula Bourque is a K-6 Literacy Coach at four schools in Augusta, Maine. She is the author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6 (Stenhouse, 2016) and blogs about teaching and learning at You can follow her on Twitter @LitCoachLady or like her on Facebook Her first and favorite job is being a mom to two terrific teens!

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. She'Vonne W. #

    Hello Paula,

    I completely agree and can relate to the idea, that students gravitate towards waiting for others to tell them what to think, rather than having personal experiences with the topic to gain knowledge. In middle school, I’ve experienced teachers telling us (my class) what an author intended to say within their writing pieces, instead of allowing us to interpret the text in our own ways. This lead me to think and question, “How does the teacher know, what the author meant for their audience to take-away from their writings?” and began having frequent conflicts of views, in regards to what my teachers were “dishing out” and saying “just listen to me and don’t ask questions!” I grew to recognize the importance of students “exploring.” Being able to expose themselves to different topics, concepts, and perspectives through writing, also ensures for connections with student learning to be made. With this being said, I believe that creative experiences, such as sketchnotes, allows these types of connections and relationships with learning, to be formed and visually represented.


    March 5, 2017
  2. janiceewing #

    Paula, thank you for sharing these ideas and your experience with them. The combination of Wonderopolis and sketchnoting seems like a natural fit. I think this would meet the needs of students and teachers who are looking for a more creative, less formulaic approach to processing and building on information. I’m looking forward to sharing these strategies with other teachers.


    December 31, 2016

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