But I'm Not a Writing Teacher!
How teaching writing skills in the science classroom will benefit your students as they transition to Common Core.
By Erin Bailey
Do you remember procrastinating until the last minute to write a paper in college? Do you recall the sinking feeling you got in your stomach when you realized there were still huge gaps in your understanding of the material you thought you knew well? For most of us, it is harder to hide our deficiencies when writing. While discussions are necessary and helpful, oftentimes in a classroom of diverse learners, discussion can’t reveal everyone’s understanding. Writing helps both students and teachers know what is understood and where misconceptions still lie. This can lead to more focused lessons as well as develop the metacognitive skills that are critical for conceptual understanding.
The CCSS Connection to Content Writing
English language arts teachers share many of the same goals as content area teachers. The Common Core State Standards for ELA reveal an increased focus on expository writing and the development of claims based on evidence and justification, both in written and spoken forms. The standards suggest that students should “build strong content knowledge,” “comprehend as well as critique,” and “value evidence…and use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking.” Likewise, the National Research Council published a framework for K–12 science education in 2011. In that document, they identified several important science practices that included “engaging in argument from evidence” and “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.” It also stated that scientists must “communicate their findings clearly and persuasively” and concludes that “reading, interpreting, and producing text are fundamental practices of science.” 1
Providing Writing Opportunities and Structure Is Key
Students will not learn how to read or write scientifically by reading novels or by writing short stories in language arts. Instead, they must have repeated exposure to a variety of science literature so they can learn how to combine words and symbols to create meaning in regard to science. Also needed is practice with this type of writing as well as good feedback about the quality of their writing so that they have an opportunity to improve.
The key to success in teaching writing in a content area is having properly constructed writing assignments that can help students connect with the topic. Well-designed writing assignments can deepen understanding, while also serving as a valuable assessment of the depth of pupils’ understanding. Well-designed science writing assignments essentially have three critical attributes:
- They provide an authentic purpose for writing.
- They motivate learners to want to write and “do” science.
- They help students plan and structure both their writing and their science activities.
Writing Assignments to Smooth the Way
Are you still saying, “But I’m not a writing teacher?” Here are three assignments to ease you into the role of writing coach.
Process Steps Analysis
- One good approach is a process steps analysis. After observing or taking part in a demonstration of a scientific process, learners discuss what they saw. After a thorough discussion, they can analyze and document the steps that they would need to completely replicate the demonstration. In some cases, you might even allow them to recreate the demonstration following their own written steps.
Identifying Critical Attributes
- When observation is the goal, small groups are asked to look at any kind of object, or even a plant or an animal. Each group has a different object. After they have made a thorough examination, young scientists are asked to identify the object’s critical attributes in list form. The lists are shared with the whole class, and pupils attempt to match the correct item with the critical attributes listed. If accurate matching is not possible, they are encouraged to revise their lists.
Preparing Descriptive Research through WebQuests
- WebQuests focus the learners' time on using information, rather than looking for it, and emphasize thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Essentially, the teacher provides a structured inquiry problem that students are instructed to solve using a series of specific websites. An example of a teacher-created WebQuest might ask scholars to determine which simple machines would be most effective in performing a particular multi-step task. WebQuests are designed to lead them to a set of websites that present verbal and pictorial information about the topic, in this case, simple machines. Pupils would use the information to develop a written solution to the problem.
1 National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Consider these Plans from Lesson Planet:
After researching an issue in environmental science, young activists write a letter to an elected official. They must state their position either in support or opposition of the issue. This lesson combines objectives from language arts, science, and social studies.
Pupils discuss superstitions/ wivestales related to health and then research the origin of them. They must consider why people may have believed these superstitions. Next, they research the real scientific reasons for ailments addressed in the myths. Several to consider include, thumb sucking causes buck teeth; touching a toad will give you warts; hair grows back thicker after it has been shaved.
In this article from 2010, the author suggests several ways to use interactive science notebooks in your elementary classroom. She also offers a few ideas for increasing student output in the notebooks.