Writing to Learn… or Communicate? Or Both?


Creating authentic writing opportunities in math… whew, it’s hard. In this case, when I say authentic, I mean the kinds of math writing professionals do in the real world.   It’s hard because in the real world, math writing is often short and highly symbolic: maybe a data chart, an infographic, an expression, a labeled shape. Maybe a proof. As one of our math coaches pointed out recently, it’s not very authentic to write about how you used an equation to model the arc of a golf ball. But does that make such writing meaningless?

This is something I’ve been pondering recently. Luckily, Barrie Olson, an expert in teaching writing and rhetoric, helped shape my thinking on this. At a recent Literacy Design Collaborative convening, she discussed the differences between writing to learn and writing to communicate.

Writing to Learn

When we write to learn, we write to articulate and deepen our thinking. There’s research to support the fact that writing deepens learning- even more so than articulating something out loud. Writing tends to be more precise and accurate, for one thing. When writing to learn, the audience is typically the writer themselves or the teacher.

Writing to Communicate

When we write to communicate, we write to further knowledge in a discipline and communicate with an audience in need of that knowledge. As a result, we adhere to the specific conventions of communication in that discipline. You might ask whether students can ever truly write to communicate if they’re not experts in a discipline. Barrie Olson talked about this as well, and it seemed like her take was that we have to apprentice students into this kind of writing too, just like we do with everything else. I’d also argue that with research, etc., our students can know more than their audience, depending on the audience (I‘m thinking of first graders learning about and then creating a healthy granola bar recipe and writing it down to share with their families).

Do they ever overlap? Yes, I’d say that when we write to communicate, we’re often (always?) writing to learn as well, because that’s almost inevitable when we write. However, when we write to learn, we’re not necessarily writing to communicate. I think the example of writing about how you used an equation to model the arc of a golf ball is an example of writing to learn, and it probably doesn’t make sense to try to make it writing to communicate. Of course, what do we do if writing to communicate is also important to us? In math, I think we focus on things like expressions and proofs and infographics… but I’d love your thoughts on this too! What do you do that could be categorized as writing to learn vs. writing to communicate?




Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in Authenticity, Writing

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