Writing in science class

We’re having a discussion in our secondary school science department. Some of us think our lessons should incorporate more opportunities for students to learn how to write, while others maintain there’s little time for writing and that’s the job of the English teachers. Who is correct?
—Mitch from Ohio

Yours is a timely question. I’m currently reading The Framework for K-12 Science Education  The Framework describes eight “practices” scientists and engineers use, including Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.* As described in the Framework, “…learning how to produce scientific texts is as essential to developing an understanding of science as learning how to draw is to appreciating the skill of the visual artist.” (p. 75) Even if our students do not become professional scientists or engineers, writing is part of many jobs and careers in business, medicine, the arts, and the social sciences.

At an inservice event I attended, a museum herpetologist described his work to a group of teachers. His research focused on a longitudinal study of frog populations in the Northeast United States, but he said that a good portion of his day was spent writing—notes, memos, observations, summaries, reports, journal articles, blog entries, and letters.

This type of writing is different from the narrative and creative writing that students do in Language Arts (LA) classes. While our LA colleagues teach sentence structure and correct usage that applies to all writing, it’s unrealistic to assume they will also teach students the nuances of writing for science purposes. So it is indeed the job of the science teacher to help students learn to communicate what they know and understand through informational writing.

In terms of writing, according to the Framework, by grade 12 students should be able to

  • Use words, tables, diagrams, and graphs to communicate their understanding.
  • Recognize the major features of science and engineering writing and produce written and illustrated text that communicates their ideas and accomplishments.

Writing in science is not necessarily limited to traditional term papers or reports. If you have students write lab reports, make journal entries, summarize their learning, contribute to a class blog, take their own notes, or respond to open-ended items on an assessment, you’re already helping students develop their writing skills.

It’s interesting that the Framework seems to go beyond traditional writing to include organizing information and communicating through diagrams, graphs, mathematical expressions, tables, and other illustrations. I attended a professional development workshop during which a college physics professor eloquently described graphs and tables as ways of telling stories. He displayed a graph and asked the teachers to create a narrative of what the graph said. Seeing their questioning looks, he modeled how to do this. When the light bulbs went off, he displayed another graph and the teachers responded enthusiastically.

You can’t assume students will come to your secondary classes with all the writing skills they need. You can teach students about writing, but the best way to develop skills is to have them write—often and a lot—through planned and purposeful activities. Just as the physics professor did, modeling is essential. Show students what effective science writing looks like (using both words and illustrations). Show them examples of ineffective writing and ask them to clarify it. Write along with the students yourself and display your work. Show them how to format text structures such as bulleted or numbered lists, headings, or tables.

When evaluating student writing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to edit their work. Commenting on every misspelled word and every grammatical error is time consuming, and seeing a page full of corrections can be discouraging for any writer. I took the advice of the LA staff and focused less on conventions and usage and more on the content and clarity of the writing (I did require students use complete sentences, spell the words on the word wall correctly, and label all numbers). I framed this in the context of communicating clearly—”You have important things to say. When you write clearly, we can all understand what you mean.” Your rubrics may need to be adjusted for the grade level of the students, their prior experiences in science writing, and their facility with the English language.

Like many of your students, I was a reluctant writer. But thanks to the persistence and feedback from one of my high school teachers (thank you, Sister Elizabeth), I realized I could write informational text. I hope you will take the time to help your students develop their own skills and confidence in science writing.


 The Framework for K-12 Science EducationFree PDF version from National Academies Press

The NSTA Reader’s Guide to A Framework for K–12 Science Education – Free e-book with overviews and synopses of key ideas, an analysis of what is similar to and what is different from the NSES, and suggested action to help readers understand and start preparing for the Next Generation Science Standards.

NSTA will be hosting a web seminar on Preparing for the Next Generation Science Standards—Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information. In addition to the live session, it will be archived for future viewing.

From NSTA Press:
How to… Write to Learn Science
Science the “Write” Way

Images: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3072/3110638201_0b7e66a19a.jpg and http://farm1.staticflickr.com/66/198046070_730a2474d2_q.jpg

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  1. Dave Webb
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Somewhere along the way, the people who run our schools and even our universities forgot that division of education into subjects was merely an arbitrary matter meant to deal with the day-to-day running of departments and finances, and of course to provide specialists who are better suited to teaching the specifics and finer points of those subjects. But the key thing here is that these divisions are ABITRARY. One cannot do any science without reading, writing, and arithmetic. The problem has been emphasized more and more in recent years as schools and universities move closer to the corporate model of management and hire administrators and planners who may be great in a corporate setting, but know next to nothing about education or pedagogy. Yes, English teachers should teach writing skills, but in doing so, they do not have to divorce the subject from the requirement for technical writing skills suitable for a science environment.

  2. Jack Ganse
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Communication in all forms is fundamental to science; therefore, writing should be a regular part of the science classroom. Teaching the writing process should not be the exclusive domain of just one teacher or department, but should be shared as part of school, grade level, and/or department goals and curricular expectations. Arbitrarily injecting writing exercises into the science classroom is neither the most efficient nor most effective approach to the task—common language among teachers and students as well as common writing strategies are needed to help maximize student progress in writing.

    Including the process of writing into the science curriculum takes time, effort, resources, and collaboration—it’s tough to go it alone. It takes a shared vision and commitment to help students become better writers in all disciplines.

    While it may be (and is) daunting to add “one more thing” to the science classroom, better writers ultimately enhance all learning. Start small—incorporate one simple, manageable, and authentic strategy into your existing science repertoire, such as writing descriptive titles or writing scientific questions—then slowly build from there. The key to success is modeling and practicing the process until it becomes routine and comfortable to you and your students.

    As a science teacher, I shared the exact same questions and concerns as you when we first started emphasizing writing at our school many years ago. Now, writing (as well as reading, math, and other shared practices) is a regular and natural part of our everyday science experience, which is a source of pride and achievement for our students, our teachers, and our school.

  3. Andrew Nemiccolo
    Posted October 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Scientists are in the businesses of understanding complex processes and explaining them simply to the rest of us. The ability to write and speak clearly is vital for success. Just ask Alfred Russel Wallace, whose early thinking and writing on evolution was eventually overshadowed by Darwin’s landmark Origin of Species.

    Written communication doesn’t have to be viewed as something that takes away from “science time” in the classroom. Indeed, the two can be integrated at multiple steps, not just publishing conclusions.

    Students with the skill of creative expression, who can “story like a good scientist” are likely to make see the right patterns in the data. http://sevenstorylearning.com/story/story-like-scientist/

    Biologist Paul Grobstein says it this way: “There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.”

  4. Posted September 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Wow, this article is good, my sister is analyzing these
    kinds of things, therefore I am going to inform her.

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