The Influence of Writing on Thought Processes

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (Einstein, as cited in BrainyQuote, 2012).
“The best [science writing] flows like poetry; the worst actually impedes progress of science” (Jared Diamond, as cited in Kovac & Sherwood, 2001).

In Orality and Literacy, Ong (2002) briefly discusses the impact of writing on thought processes. He indicates that written texts act as an extension of memory by permitting the reader to backloop and glance at details repeatedly, which in turn, allows for thought analysis, revision-making and selection of the most accurate wording. Given that the short-term memory has limited capacity, text certainly helps to think about concepts more thoroughly. How else does writing affect thinking? The purpose of this post is two-fold. It serves to further explain how writing influences thinking in general and in chemistry, and to provide examples of methods to develop chemical knowledge using writing activities. The post concludes with an activity for readers to apply the theory presented here.

To begin, Flower and Hayes (1981) developed the Cognitive Process Model to explain the interaction between writing and long-term memory when specific skills are used, such as planning, translating, reviewing and monitoring. Planning involves (1) generating ideas, which requires retrieving information from the long-term memory, (2) organizing concepts, which would have the writer structuring knowledge according to themes and (3) goal-setting, which guides idea generation by combining knowledge and purpose. Translating involves expressing a thought using words, symbols, images or any other means. It also challenges the writer to examine an idea in detail to accurately portray it. Reviewing consists of evaluating the text and revising it. These processes trigger further cycles of planning and translating by forcing the writer to reconsider the relevance of different sections and refining word, symbol or image choices. Monitoring involves deciding when to move from one step of the writing process to another, and as such, is a meta-cognitive skill.

While general writing skills are certainly useful for learning at a basic level, literacy skills in chemistry, for example, must be content-specific to be most beneficial (Hamilton-Wieler, 1988; Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misischia, 2011). One explanation is that “discipline-specific discourse conventions generate thoughts that […] would not be accessible without these conventions” (Bizzell, as cited in Hamilton-Wieler, 1988, p. 173).

Why are common practices insufficient for providing students with an adequate understanding of chemistry? While the need for disciplinary literacy skills has been known for a long time, students are often taught general literacy skills such as understanding of high-frequency words, reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (Shanahan et al, 2011). Additionally, there is too much emphasis on the mathematics involved in numerical problems and not enough focus on the concepts with which they are associated at all levels of education and writing exercises are excluded from undergraduate chemistry curricula (Kovac & Sherwood, 2001). For these reasons, it is suggested that students be taught disciplinary writing skills to improve their grasp of chemical concepts.

From experience, writing laboratory reports and literature reviews affect thought processes in many ways. Writing an introduction requires clarification of existing knowledge and justifications for performing new experiments. Data analysis causes scientists to both break information down into manageable components and to look at results globally. Describing data involves noting obvious trends, re-examining the data to find what may have previously been missed, and repeating the cycle in an attempt to develop a thorough understanding and interpretation. Throughout the process, research literature is consulted and cited, bringing to light errors, limitations and accurate claims. Ultimately, the writer must draw conclusions and in the process will make discoveries.

What kind of exercises can be used to develop relevant writing skills in chemistry courses? Kovac and Sherwood (2001) offer suggestions of informal, formal and “writing-to-learn” assignments which allow students to deal with concepts in increasingly challenging ways: listing, definition, seriation (writing an ordered list or a procedure), classification, summarization, comparison/contrast, analysis and argumentation. The assignments can vary in level of difficulty and the focus can change from the topic (explanation), to the audience (persuasion) or the author (expression). Types of assignment include project papers, abstracts, bibliographies, literature reviews, laboratory reports, proposals, popular science articles and essay examinations, among others. For those who are interested in learning more, I recommend purchasing Kovac and Sherwood’s book.

While the previous approach can be used sporadically, Esteb, Magers, McNulty and Wilson (2006) used methods that involve content spanning the length of a course. They had their undergraduate organic chemistry students write reactions according to type and mechanism in a notebook and write an end-of-semester paper about a total synthesis (complex multi-step synthesis reaction). The notebook helped the students to organize and better understand reactions, and consult lists of similar reactions to detect trends and make predictions about products in more difficult and unknown reactions. The end-of-semester assignment required students to determine the steps in a reaction to synthesize a specific product. This is an extremely complex task requiring understanding of the reactions covered during the semester. The students wrote a reflection explaining the goal of the project and predicted experimental results that would be obtained by analysing the final product.

Challenge! Select an article or video below and identify one to three terms that are sources of confusion for you. Do research on the term(s) or ask me questions. Write a short definition of each one. Then, view the article or video once again. Comment here on whether or not your conceptual understanding has improved and try to explain why.

A popular science article about a substance that is harder than diamond

A video from MIT about a laboratory technique called recrystallization (Just watch the first five minutes.)

A video of an instructor explaining an example of a total synthesis



BrainyQuote. (2012). Albert Einstein quotes. Retrieved September 30th 2012 from:

Esteb, J. J., Magers, J. R., McNulty, L. & Wilson, A. M. (2006). Projects that assist with content in a traditional organic chemistry course. Journal of Chemical Education, 83, 1807-1808. Retrieved September 29th 2012 from:

Flower, L. & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32, 365-387. Retrieved September 30th 2012 from:

Hamilton-Wieler, S. (1988). Thought process: Site of a struggle. Journal of Teaching Writing, 7(2), 167-180. Retrieved Sept 26th, 2012 from:

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy. New York, NY: Rouledge

Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T. & Misischia, C. (2011). Analysis of expert readers in three disciplines: History, mathematics, and chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43, 393-429. doi: 10.1177/1086296X11424071

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