Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

One of the most fundamental skills students in middle school ELA and high school English classes need to learn is how to evaluate sources and synthesize information. This skill is so vital for students because it is a skill that students will continue to use long after they leave our classrooms.

Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

I spend a lot of time focusing on synthesis skills in my classroom. Not only does this help prepare my students for state tests, but it also helps students build the skills needed to become informed decision-makers in society.

Here is a look at how I plan a synthesis writing unit in my classroom.

What is Synthesis?

So, what exactly is synthesis? If you haven't purposefully planned synthesis writing in your classroom, there's a chance you've done something similar without even realizing it. Essentially, synthesis is the act of drawing information from multiple sources. Whenever you assign students a writing assignment that requires the inclusion of numerous sources, that is synthesis.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

This free student handout about synthesis will help your students understand the synthesis writing process.

To take synthesis to the next level, I focus on teaching students how to evaluate multiple sources for credibility and reliability, and how to compare multiple sources reporting on a similar topic.

Now that you've got an idea about what synthesis is, it is time to start planning your unit. A successful synthesis unit includes four components: a high-interest topic that will grab students' attention, multiple sources across a variety of mediums, a clear task and objective, and a strategy for modeling critical reading to students.

Choosing High-Interest Topics

One of the best ways middle school ELA and high school English teachers can garner student engagement is by planning activities, lessons, and thematic units involving high-interest topics. One way to go about this is to survey your students. You can ask them to brainstorm in partners or small groups a list of 3-5 issues that interest them. These issues can be world issues, national issues, or teen issues.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Another way to incorporate a synthesis unit or project into one of your preexisting units is to come up with a high-interest topic that is related to a novel you are reading. For example, if you are currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with your students, perhaps you'll want to assign a synthesis project on social justice or racial inequality. Or, if you are teaching American Literature and currently studying colonial literature, you can assign a synthesis project on first-hand accounts from early settlers.

However, you don't need to tie-in your synthesis units to thematically fit with your current units of study. Sometimes, students like to take a break and focus on more modern (in their eyes) and pressing issues. For example, with more students interested in politics, students might enjoy a voting age synthesis unit. Additionally, with the rising cost of post-secondary education, students might also enjoy synthesizing information about the cost of state and community college tuition. In my store, I have a variety of synthesis writing units that will help your students build the essential skills of analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Gather Multiple Sources

Once you've selected a topic for your synthesis unit, it is time to gather multiple sources. If you haven't taught research skills yet, it might be a good idea to throw in a quick mini-lesson, or you can also provide your students with a list of pre-selected sources.

One of the best things you can do for your students as you gather multiple sources is to include a variety of sources. Not only do you want to include sources that include differing perspectives, but you also want to include different types of sources.

You'll want to include sources that have opposing viewpoints so that students can practice their critical thinking skills. As they read, you'll want them to evaluate each source for its bias, credibility, and accuracy. You can take this one step further by having them compare sources about a similar event or topic. If the pre-selected sources have different biases, your students will be able to see how the media acts as a gatekeeper. This skill is so crucial for students because it helps them become competent and critical contributors to society. It is also important to include sources from diverse authors so that students are introduced to multiple perspectives and viewpoints.

In addition to including sources with different perspectives and arguments, you'll also want to include a variety of sources. You can help your students improve their listening skills by having one audio source. For the audio source, have students listen to it multiple times and take notes as they listen. For audio sources, NPR is a fantastic site to use in the classroom. In addition to including at least one audio source, you should also include sources with visual and infographics. Students need to learn how to read, evaluate, and analyze infographic sources to be more informed media consumers, and it is also a skill that state tests assess.

When selecting sources, you'll want to include at least four different sources to analyze. As students become more confident in their research skills, it is valuable to have students include a valid, reliable, and credible source they've researched on their own. This way, students can also improve their research skills as they demonstrate their ability to find trustworthy and reliable sources.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Stating a Clear Objective and Task

Now that you've got your topic and sources, it is time to establish a clear learning objective and task. With synthesis writing, you can have students produce either informational or argumentative pieces. Furthermore, there is a lot of freedom for student creativity. For example, students can write a single paragraph or a multi-page essay. You can also incorporate more creative projects into your synthesis unit, including student-created podcasts, websites, and campaigns. You can also have students use their synthesized sources in a debate, Socratic Seminar, or fishbowl discussion

  • SAMPLE OBJECTIVE: Students will synthesize multiple sources to write an argument paragraph that takes a stand and includes multiple perspectives.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Model Critical Reading

Once you have selected a high-interest topic, gathered multiple sources that include different perspectives, and have clearly identified your assignment, it is time to get started by modeling critical reading to your students. You'll want to dedicate at least one 60-minute class period to this activity. It might even span across two class periods.

Select one of the sources and read that source aloud with your students. You'll want to read it slowly and deliberately. And as you read, you'll want to annotate along the way and look for evidence to use in the assignment. When I do this with my students, I usually chunk out the reading and focus on just a couple of paragraphs at a time. I read the paragraphs out loud and then give my students some time to annotate. They then think, pair, share their annotations, and then I use a document camera to show my annotations and to also add in student-generated annotations.

This process can easily take an entire class period to get through one article. However, since this is one of the most vital steps of the synthesis process, it is important not to rush it. Students gain so much knowledge and insight about critical reading when they see and hear their teacher complete the process.

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Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

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