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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: How to ‘Weave Writing Throughout Science Lessons’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 23, 2018 25 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you integrate writing in science classes?

In Part One, Mary K. Tedrow, Amy Roediger, Dr. Maria Grant, Diane Lapp,EdD, Mandi White, Tara Dale and Becky Bone shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mary, Amy and Maria on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Anne Vilen, Sheila Waggoner, ReLeah Cossett Lent, Jason Wirtz, Amy Benjamin, Jennifer L. Altieri and Fred Ende contribute their suggestions. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Anne Vilen

Anne Vilen is a writer and school coach for EL Education and an author of Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (2016). Previously, she taught language arts in middle and high school and served as director of program and professional development in a high-performing charter school:

The meme above went viral just a few weeks after Adam Savage said it on the popular science program Myth Busters. His off-the-cuff statement is funny, of course. And, it’s also true. Accurately communicating the results and implications of one’s experiments is what makes it possible to replicate, test, and even question scientific experiments. If methods are not documented, if data are not recorded, if patterns and relationships are not “written up” into scientific papers or shared through exhibitions and proposals, then scientific work has no impact. It’s just “screwing around.” But how do you get kids to do it in science class?

Writing for a Purpose

Most science teachers integrate some form of note-catcher into their science experiments. Some even go so far as to have students write lab reports using their own data that follow a standard scientific form, including an abstract, procedures, results, discussion, and conclusion. Challenging students to write in this way is a good start, but still squarely “in the box,” especially if the experiment students are doing is a cookbook lab from which all students pretty much get the same results. This isn’t what real scientists do.

You can start moving “out of the box,” bring authenticity to the task, and weave writing throughout your lessons by having students keep a science notebook. A science notebook, like the one illustrated in this video, is more akin to what scientists do in a real laboratory

Preparing for an Academic Conversation, Day 2: Constructing Arguments Using Science Notebooks from EL Education on Vimeo.

A science notebook a chronological repository not just for experimental data, but for the scientist’s learning and thinking about scientific evidence. As teacher Hillary Mills says in the video, “a science notebook serves a very real-world scientific role--the need to go back and check yourself.” When they revisit data, a diagram, or a conclusion drawn from a previous experiment, students also learn to see the minutia of each lesson or experience in a broader context, and to ponder the big ideas behind each lesson. They are seeking answers to real questions rather than just following a procedure.

A science journal is a good place to capture thinking and data, but students--just like scientists--also need to synthesize their findings into more formal writing. Scientists routinely synthesize their findings into journal articles, models, infographics, white papers, and advocacy-driven arguments. Students can try their hand at these kinds of writing too. Especially when written for an audience beyond the classroom, such real-world assignments will motivate students.

A first step toward supporting students to write well in any of these formats is to find and share a model of the same sort you want students to write. ModelsOfExcellence.ELEducation.org provides dozens of examples of high-quality, student-produced scientific writing and illustrations from all grade levels. Just to sample the cornucopia of the possibilities on this website, investigate these:

  • Tidepool Treasures: Kindergarten and first-grade students from High Tech High Elementary North County in San Diego learned about the natural phenomena of tides and the tidepool habitat. They created a beautiful interactive kit of tools and games and illustrated books about the topic, then led a public exhibition of their work.

  • Greenprint: High school scientists in Massachusetts used evidence-based arguments based on their own data to persuade city officials to change their energy policies and actions.

  • Wheelchair Hand Drive: High school students wrote about, drew, and built models of a better wheelchair, then explained the physics to the President at a White House science fair.

Learning the Art of Science Writing

Providing and critiquing models like these will help students envision and understand what scientific writing looks like. Students will also need targeted lessons in scientific writing. Although they may have been learning to write for years, most students (and most language arts teachers) are unfamiliar with the styles and formats of scientific writing.

Even in first and second grade, students can learn to describe the wonders of the natural world with precision and accuracy, as this second-grader does in a report on “The Cow’s Behind.” What reader could resist reading about the cow’s behind?!

Middle and high school students can be challenged to investigate the voice of science writing much more deeply. They can and should learn to use the scientific vocabulary appropriate to their topic in their writing. Scientific writing is also an opportunity for students to learn the difference between passive and active voice. Though active voice is preferred much of the time, scientists use passive voice to describe experimental work (because the action is more important than the actor).

Other science writing lessons at all grade levels may include:

  • Using subheadings and print features to organize a paper

  • Using captions, charts, tables, and graphs to represent data and “illustrate” what’s happening in the text

  • Attributing information to other scientists

  • Citing sources

The characteristics of scientific style for a specific type of product and the “voice” of scientific writing are most helpfully captured in a rubric that you and your students can refer to throughout the drafting and revising phase of a project. Regardless of students’ grade level, accuracy, detail, and use of evidence should figure prominently in rubrics for scientific writing. These are the characteristics that ensure the writing is not just “good writing,” but also good science; both are essential to scientific communication.

Give Students a Seat at the Table of Scholarly Conversation

A “real audience” of stakeholders in a scientific issue can motivate students and encourage them to value the act of writing as much as teachers do. Scientists don’t just “do science,” they also communicate their ideas and their evidence to the scientific community and the community at large. When students use their writing to gain a seat the table and become part of a scholarly or public policy dialogue--like the students who produced the Greenprint report described previously--they embrace the hard work of drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revision, and rehearsing a presentation.

Whether students are writing a Ted Talk, a white paper, an infographic, or a science museum exhibit, they’ll need time to polish and practice presenting. Providing that time and a thoughtful structure for giving and responding to quality feedback is time well spent. Begin by asking: “What can my students contribute to the scientific conversation?” Then, stop screwing around and get them writing!

Response From Sheila Waggoner

Sheila Waggoner teaches primary grades at Parker Whitney Elementary School in the Rocklin Unified School District in Rocklin, California. She actively participates in the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford.

The NGSS and all Common Core Standards ask students to make claims, gather evidence, and defend their reasoning. These standards empower children to take charge of their own learning. My students express greater interest for making their own claims, and writing about their unique ideas, than in any other curriculum I teach.

When children get involved in meaningful investigation and learning from those experiences, teachers have the ideal opportunity to teach about expository writing. I use a variety of supports and strategies to provide direct instruction to children throughout the entire science-based expository writing process.

In my diverse classroom, students write during and following all investigations in an inquiry based science unit for a minimum of three hours a week. This approach is based on the work of the Seattle Science Notebook Program and the writings of Betsy Rupp Fulwiler, who writes about scaffolding instruction in writing.

My students use a simple, blank spiral bound notebook. During an inquiry students write the date and any interesting thoughts, drawings, charts, observations, questions - anything really that they think about during the inquiry. (Students do not write about methods and procedures.) It takes a few practice runs and a lot of teacher modeling about thinking processes, but as students become practiced at this, I find they need very little assistance. We follow the inquiry with a second writing session, usually the next day. This proves key to helping students critically think about the “Big Ideas” of science and to develop oral and written communication skills.

During the second writing session, students pair up and share their observations in their journals from the investigation. They pose questions, ask for clarification, and agree or disagree with assumptions. Then we come together as a group to discuss what we have shared. I model their thinking with a graphic organizer which they then copy in their own notebooks. Then I ask students to write a brief summary of their thoughts, observations, and new questions. Sometimes their questions will lead to new inquiries.

I provide a lot of scaffolding to support the writing of my students, from word banks, graphic organizers, graphs, tables, sentence frames, t-charts and more to help children to understand how to organize their thinking, to remember what they are learning, and to deepen not only their scientific thinking, but also their writing for communication. The important thing to remember about these visual supports is that they must remain clearly visible to all students for use in discussions and modeling during the writing process.

Finally, I have children share what they have written with a partner who can offer feedback or pose questions. I then select 4-5 entries to share with the class to honor and praise the great science ideas and writing skills the children develop.

As I have taught science and writing in this way, I have learned several things. First, model everything and use shared writing mini-lessons. Second, teach children to us the word “because”. Third, teach children how to give constructive criticism and practice it as a teacher. Most importantly however, working with my first grade writers has taught me to never underestimate the insights and areas of inquiry that students discover and explore every day.

Response From ReLeah Cossett Lent

ReLeah Cossett Lent is an international consultant and author of several books and articles on literacy and leadership. Her latest book, This is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking and Doing. . .Content Area by Content Area (2016, Corwin), addresses learning in all disciplines:

For years, writing has been an important component of the English-language arts curriculum. English teachers, those persnickety grammarians, could instantly tell the difference between sentence fragments and compound sentences and, what’s more, knew exactly how to use them in writing. Science teachers, on the other hand, were more concerned with the difference between meiosis and mitosis.

Thankfully, we have moved away from the idea that all teachers are writing (or for that matter reading) teachers. Instead, content-area teachers are tasked with showing students how to use reading and writing as tools to do the work of the discipline, much in the way that experts in the field might use writing to communicate, explore, or reflect. Such a shift means that science teachers need to come together to discuss questions such as:

  • What does it mean to write in science?
  • What skills do students need to use writing as a scientific tool for communicating, reflecting, observing, and analyzing?
  • What is our goal in having students write in science?
  • What types of writing are necessary in science?

As an example, let’s compare the type of writing that teachers might expect in a science class with a piece of writing English teachers might assign.

In science, students often write lab notes in the form of phrases, notations, bullets and/or sketches to convey meaning. The language they use must be precise, accurate, and topic specific, but the organization may vary based on patterns, systems, or results. Students may eventually turn these notes into an explanation or analysis, but graphs and sketches may dominate the text in an effort to communicate clearly and with exactness. Most likely, little attention will be paid to the craft of writing.

In English/language arts, students compose poetry, fiction, and various types of essays; generally teachers expect students to engage in a process of writing (idea formation, drafting, revision, and editing). Graphs, drawings or charts are used sparingly. Students are expected to know how to vary the composition according to purpose and audience. Appropriately-placed metaphors, descriptions, and emotion may be included along with just the right voice and word choice.

Writing has always been an integral part of scientific study, but such writing is often so second nature to science teachers they forget to explicitly teach students how to engage in scientific writing. As a way to begin to integrate such writing instruction, start with and revise the following list, show students science-specific writing skills, and give them lots of opportunities to practice writing in the way of real scientists.

When scientists write, they

  • Use precise, accurate wording
  • Opt for quantitative over qualitative descriptions
  • Utilize phrases, bullets, graphs, or sketches
  • Seek objectivity
  • Favor passive voice
  • Rely on facts and theories over opinions
  • Include detail (but not extraneous material)
  • Use a systematic approach to log data, records, and observations
  • Paraphrase, interpret, respond
  • Rely on short sentences to avoid verbosity
  • Draw on scientific evidence

Response From Jason Wirtz

Jason Wirtz is Associate Professor in the School of Education and the School of Arts and Sciences at Hunter College, City University of New York. His also author of The Write Mind for Every Classroom: How to Connect Brain Science and Writing Across the Disciplines (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015):

The question itself seems to imply that writing and science don’t easily mix. What I’ve discovered from interviewing scientists is that writing in fact plays a vital role in the lives of scientists. For example, Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas shares:

“I end up writing three distinct kinds of documents and that has an influence on the nature of my writing process. As a scientist I still write academic articles and so that’s one class. I also blog pretty frequently and so that’s a second class of things that I write and then I have longer form of things like some of the books that I’ve done.”

Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, shares:

“I have a novelette and two novels that have been published. I’ve had letters to the editors. [Currently] most of my stuff is scientific writing in scientific journals, but I’ve co-wrote two articles that were in Newsweek. I’ve been invited to write an article for The New York Times Sunday Review, so that will be a new branch for me, but again about the science. So it ranges from very hardcore reporting of scientific results to review articles to commentaries on editorials.”

Building upon the fact that scientists are writers, there are several classroom strategies I’ve found that work particularly well in science classrooms:

  • Interview Scientists.

    Whole class, small group, or individual students can interview scientists. I’ve found having students conduct interviews is an engaging way for them to collect and analyze their own data as well as conceptualize what it means to think as a scientist.

  • Academic Language.

    This is a big one. Academic language has to do with having students practice using scientific language. If we want students to think like scientists then they must be encouraged to step into the actual discourse of scientists.

  • Translation

    . Ask students to explain an equation or concept in writing. For example, students can explain pi in their own words. Having students explain such concepts beyond their mathematical representations helps to confirm understandings.

  • Making Predictions.

    “How will the earth’s system change in the future?” “What would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather?” “You are standing in a canoe and try to jump onto a nearby dock, what will happen next?” These sample questions ask students to make predictions. Making predictions positions students to make inferences based on what they already know and/or assume.

  • Procedural Writing.

    This can be an amusing activity that works especially well in science classrooms where order of operations is of primary concern. A popular version of procedural writing is to have students write out directions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After they have completed writing out their directions the teacher can follow the written directions at the front of the room. Directions such as “put the peanut butter on the bread” can be interpreted as placing the jar of peanut butter directly onto the bread and “spread the jam over the peanut butter” can be interpreted by spreading jam over the peanut butter jar. This exercise dramatically illustrates the value of paying attention to detail alongside the need to avoid ambiguity.

  • Peer Review. A mainstay of any classroom focusing on writing, peer review is the gold standard of scientific writing and should therefore be emphasized in science classrooms. There are too many variations of peer review to go into detail here, but there are plenty of resources available to help science teachers shape successful peer review sessions.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin works with educators throughout the United States, with the goal of improving student performance through literacy skills in the content areas. She is the author of twenty books, the most recent of which is Infusing Grammar into the Writer’s Workshop (Routledge, 2016). Before becoming a consultant, Amy taught high school English in Westchester, New York:

Writing to Learn Science: Two Classroom Practices That Work Wonders

In school, the role of writing in science is usually as a follow-up to learning. Students write as an assessment: proof of learning. They may copy or create notes as learning is taking place: a way to retrieve and recall learning. However, the act of writing itself can also reinforce and create the learning of science, a way of making sense of new knowledge, of making it visible to the learner. We call this kind of writing--writing that causes learning--writing-to-learn. Writing-to-learn activities can be quick, informal, and collaborative. They do not have to be burdensome on the teacher, as they do not have to be collected and graded. When you incorporate writing-to-learn into classroom routines, you give many students a tool that will help them learn, remember, and use complex information far beyond classroom walls. The two practices described below strengthen learning in science because they offer opportunities for students to solve problems, and the learning that results from problem-solving is deeper and more durable than learning that comes from memorizing, copying bullet points, or filling in single words and phrases on a worksheet.

1. Generic Academic Vocabulary: Today’s Specials

Learning science entails learning a great deal of technical vocabulary, by which I mean the kinds of words found in a glossary. But those technical words and phrases appear in sentences in which are filled with generic academic vocabulary. Lists of generic academic words are easy to find. My favorite is Averil Coxhead’s High-Incidence Academic Word List. This list takes up only two pages, and I guarantee, if you look at it, several words that are relevant to whatever you are teaching in your science class this week will jump out at you. In “Today’s Specials,” you show students a handful of these words and then ask them to work with a partner to write a sentence about something they are currently learning. Then, ask a few students to read their sentences aloud, thus creating a quick review. “Today’s Specials” takes only a few minutes. If you were to employ this technique a couple of times a week, students would not only internalize their science learning, but they would also have the added benefit of becoming more proficient in their reading comprehension because they’ve engaged regularly in blending the generic academic words with the glossary words.

2. Coordinating Conjunctions: and, but, so: Understanding Relationships

Learning science is not just about knowing what things are. If it were, then students would be learning nothing more than definitions. An essential part of learning science is understanding relationships. Expressing relationships is what the coordinating conjunctions and, but, so are all about. In this protocol, you simply present students with a variety of very short sentences and ask them to join these sentences by using and, but, or so. Students will have to think about whether the two concepts are parallel (and), contradictory (but), or cause-and-effect (so).

Writing and talking have a reciprocal relationship, which is why writing-to-learn activities should be collaborative. Students, working together, can help each other express scientific ideas clearly and accurately. Think of collaborative writing-to-learn activities as a value-added classroom practice that, rather maximizes opportunities to learn science for good.

Response From Jennifer L. Altieri

Jennifer L. Altieri, Ph.D., is Coordinator of the M. Ed. in Language, Literacy, and Culture Program in the College of Education at Coastal Carolina University. She has written books and articles on content literacy including Reading Science: Practical Strategies for Integrating Instruction (Heinemann, 2016):

When we hear the phrase integrating writing in science classes what comes to mind? I am sure many of us immediately think about students in the upper grades writing research papers on scientific topics such as stem cell research or malaria or perhaps students creating elaborate science fair projects. While those may be great ideas, there is so much more to linking writing and science. We need to think about creating links that can easily be made within the time constraints of the classroom.

I remember once reading that “writing should glue thinking to paper” (Holliday, Yore, and Alvermann, 1994, p. 885). That is exactly why we have students write in science. With our limited time with students and a great deal of scientific content to teach, there are many ways we can use writing on a regular basis to strengthen our students’ scientific knowledge.

A few quick suggestions:

Consider having students keep personal science dictionaries with key terms, a visual they create, and a definition. They can individually choose the terms to include in the dictionaries. Some teachers have found that an added incentive for students to keep up their dictionaries is to let them use the dictionaries when taking quizzes on material.

Have students look at the scientific terms for a science topic a lower grade level is learning. Allow them to work individually or in pairs to create a page for one of the terms. Use the pages to create an informational ABC book on the topic to share with the younger students.

Give students a list of morphemes, or word parts, that they are frequently encountering in science text (e.g. -osis, -ology, hydro-) or let the class brainstorm some on a chart paper. Ask students to use the meaning of the various morphemes and combine two or three of the morphemes to create a unique word. Have them write the word, its meaning, and how it can be used in a sentence.

After a science lesson, ask students to complete a 3-2-1 activity (Zygouris-Coe, Wiggins, and Smith 2004). Have students write three facts they learned on the topic, two ways they can relate their learning to the outside word or even the text they are reading, and one question they still have on the topic.

Teach students to take two-column notes, or Cornell notes (Pauk, 2001). Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. List key points in an experiment down the left hand side of the paper. Give each student a copy of the paper, and as they conduct the experiment, have them respond to what is occurring and how it relates to prior learning in the column on the right.

The Power of the Writing and Science Relationship

Our goal with integrating writing and science is to enable our students to see the power of writing as it relates to science. With our assistance, students at all grade levels can use writing to expand their vocabulary, aid with comprehension and retention of information, and communicate their learning. If we seek out ways to integrate writing and science on a daily basis, our students will not only become stronger writers but also more knowledgeable about the field of science.

Holliday, W.G., Yore, L.D., & Alvermann, D.E. (1994). The reading-science learning-writing connection: Breakthroughs, barriers, and promises. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31(9), 877-893.

Pauk, W. (2001) How to Study in College. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Zygouris-Coe, V., Wiggins, M.B., & Smith, L.H. (2004). Engaging students with text: The 3-2-1 strategy. The Reading Teacher, 58(4), 381-84.

Response From Fred Ende

Fred Ende is the author of Professional Development that Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators? (ASCD). Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, one of New York’s 37 regional education service agencies. Connect with Fred on Twitter @FredEnde:

One of the biggest learnings I took during my time as a science teacher was that I was also a teacher of reading and writing. On some level I understood the reading part, but it took me a number of years to see how writing made my work as a science teacher more complete, and my students’ experiences more balanced.

There were a number of changes in my practice that led me to this realization. For instance, providing choice in homework assignments led to more free-form writing from students, and redesigning my assessments provided greater opportunity for students to write with voice and enjoy themselves while doing it.

But the biggest change in practice was rethinking lab reporting. After being exhausted with the nature of canned lab experiences, I began the process of designing inquiry-based lab reports. There, students generated the questions to explore, defined and ran through a procedure, collected and analyzed data, and used evidence to support their conclusions, as well as identifying what next steps could be pursued. This shift not only led to students seeing the class as a more writing-focused one, but also helped them to see how research and reporting can be an experience to enjoy. And, my experience grading these reports was drastically improved; it is a lot more fun to read one hundred different investigations, than one hundred that are exactly the same!

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Anne, ReLeah, Jason, Amy, Jennifer and Fred , and to readers, for their contributions!

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