A few years ago, one of the speakers at our school’s career day was a graduate who was an environmental scientist. A student asked her what she did all day. The audience expected her to say things such as I do chemical tests. I spend all day on the river. I look at things through a microscope. I walk through the woods. I do experiments. But her answer surprised everyone. She said that she spends as much time on communications, especially on writing, as on anything else. She described how much of her work involves taking notes, writing reports, preparing presentations, writing articles for publication, writing brief updates for her funding agencies, writing and answering emails and letters, conversing with her colleagues, and writing entries in her daily log. I suspect that a similar response would come from those in many other professions and jobs, too.
So it appears that if we want our students to have authentic, real-life experiences in science, our classes will have to include more activities that involve communicating about what the students are learning. Fortunately, there are many resources to help us, including this month’s Science Scope with several articles that discuss writing in science:
- Learning to Write and Writing to Learn in Science describes refutational text – a type of persuasive writing. I was interested in this because in my state’s writing assessment, narrative writing is not assessed at the middle and high school levels. The emphasis is on persuasive and informational. The article has a copy of the rubric that the author has used and a description of how the process is modeled and integrated in the classroom.
- Using Science Journals to Encourage All Students to Write shows how writing can be a warm-up or summary activity, an assessment, or a discussion-starter. There are suggestions for modeling and guiding students through the process, a rubric, samples of feedback, and ideas for logistics.
- Science and Literacy—Making Connections Through Writing has suggestions for guiding students through responding to open-ended questions and makes an interesting connection between the inquiry process and the writing process.
- Science SLAMS—A Reading Strategy for Answering Open-Ended Questions goes beyond a description of the strategy and teaching suggestions. The author did an action research project to determine the effectiveness of using the strategy!
Another resource is SciLinks. Use the code SS110801 for websites on communications. Many of them deal specifically with reading in science. One that I like in particular is Connecting Elementary Science and Literacy. For each step of an inquiry process, this page has suggested resources for incorporating communications skills. (Although the title says “elementary” other grade levels can use this resource!)
You may also want to check out the November 2008 issue of Science and Children and the November 2007 issue of Science Scope for more articles and resources. Mention the idea of using a template for student writing, and you’ll get a variety of responses (for example, ask your English teachers about the five-paragraph essay). Some teachers feel that using templates constrains student writing to a cookie-cutter format, with little room for individuality or creativity. Others suggest that using a template can guide students through the writing process, especially students who have not had much experience in a particular style or in writing for a specific purpose. Most of us probably have a format we want students to use for a lab report or a journal entry. It’s been my experience that most students appreciate having a template (or a format or a set of guidelines) at first. After a while they can expand, customize, or embellish their work to express their creativity. It’s hard to think outside the box when you don’t know what the box is!