Writing in Science

I’m looking for ideas to incorporate writing into my general biology classes. I’ve tried term papers but many of my students struggled and it took a lot of class time. Any ideas for other relevant writing assignments?  —V., Ohio

Writing in science has alternatives to traditional term papers or reports. Rather than making a formal writing project an “event” in class, it might be beneficial for students to experience how communicating information is an everyday science practice (as described in the Next Generation Science Standards).

A museum herpetologist told a group of teachers that although his research focused on snakes in their environments, a good portion of his time was spent writing—notes, memos, observations, summaries, reports, journal articles, blog entries, and letters. So 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 with the focused type of writing used in science and engineering.

You can’t assume that students have the writing skills they need (especially for a term paper or formal report). You can teach students about writing, but the best way to develop skills is to have them write through planned and purposeful activities in class. Modeling is essential. Show students what effective science writing looks like (incorporating both words and graphics). Show them examples of ineffective writing and ask them to clarify it. Do a “think-aloud” as you write along with the students. Show them the value of text structures such as bulleted or numbered lists, headings, or tables.

When students display or share their writing in the classroom or with the community through a webpage or other publications, having an authentic audience adds another dimension of relevancy.

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  1. Paula Young
    Posted January 27, 2017 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    There are so many ways to incorporate writing into science classes! Do your students keep a science journal or notebook? Do a 1 or 3 minute writing at the end of a lesson to summarize a lab or a lesson–very revealing formative assessment! Have students summarize evidence that supports their argument or hypothesis. When doing various projects, assign roles, one of which might be a researcher, one might be a scribe to record a group’s ideas. Have students write a one page reaction paper about an article they read, or a video they watch. Specify what criteria to include. Research and writing can be an important part of presentations of lab results, disease research, cell biology theories, etc. Alternative assessments can involve writing–wanted posters, telegrams (even singing ones), haiku, rap, cartoon, diary, etc. Google more ideas. Summarize anything!
    An excellent resource is WRITING IN SCIENCE IN ACTION (http://www.heinemann.com/products/E08934.aspx). It is an elementary resource, but demonstrates the scaffolding to support writing in science that can apply even in high school.
    This resource is a science writing heuristic from NSTA for lab reports: http://static.nsta.org/connections/highschool/201501ScienceWritingHeuristic.pdf
    Hope this will give you a few ideas to get started! For more activities and book reviews go to http://www.science-nook.com.

  2. Larry McPheron
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I have my students write about current events published in scientific journals or peer reviewed sites. Then we discuss several of their reviews in class on a rotating schedule to accommodate all.

    Larry McPheron
    Waubonsee Community College

  3. Bob Warasila
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always required students to write formal lab reports in my college level physics classes for just this reason. They need to learn how to write! I’m semi-retired now but I spent 40 years grading lab reports, more writiing than the English teachers at my college required!

  4. Jeff Ryan
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the last comment here especially the resource cited. Although this is an elementary focused resource, the ideas extend to the secondary science classroom as well.

    On a more simple level you should consider other pre-writing ways to organize thinking ahead of asking students to write construct an evidence-based explanation of a phenomena. You can begin by engaging students in the practice of modeling for the purpose of constructing an explanation of a phenomena. This activity should provide students with some scaffolding (a model template can be provided) that supports and focuses thinking at the onset of instruction. Students share their initial ideas within this provided scaffold and then revisit and revise their models as they gain more evidence through instruction. Modeling is a productive practice for organizing thinking and communicating understanding with clear ties to supporting student literacy development. You can use modeling as a science practice to support students in writing evidence-based explanations of phenomena (constructing explanations) as these practices are complementary.

    For a robust overview of Literacy For Science I would recommend reading through the National Research Council Workshop Summary.

  5. Daphne Bolden, PhD
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I think reading and writing in Science are seriously under emphasized in our schools in general. I’m not patting myself on the back, but my 9th grade Biology students write a ten page research paper on man’s impact on the environment with design solutions. I have them practice reading and writing in small chunks all year, so by the end of the year, 10 pages is doable. I have them do all of their reading and writing in class, I allow 3 weeks, and I monitor everything they write via google docs and turnitin.com. A lot of the reasons teachers don’t demand more, is that they don’t expect more.
    EXPECT MORE, do our country a real service.

    • Mary Bigelow
      Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      It sounds like you provide support and guidance for the students for this type of project. Thanks for sharing!

      • Daphne Bolden, PhD
        Posted February 6, 2017 at 5:02 pm | Permalink


  6. Maria Lyons
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    My 4th grade students are doing research and writing about Endangered Animals. Each student chose the animal they are researching. The writing is a report that I am encouraging them to write “like a kids science magazine” interesting and fun. They love this assignment because they own it! It’s their animal. Years later they come back and tell me news about their animal. They will also be composing a slide for an Endangered Animal Power Point Presentation to be shown throughout the school on Endangered Species Day.

    • Daphne Bolden, PhD
      Posted February 6, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      That sounds like a wonderful project, Maria!

  7. Heidi Smith
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Piktochart has been effective in my classroom to help students get the essence of the essential information. They can incorporate data charts and supplement their understanding of the science concept through the use of graphics. The format and the research piece are taught in blocks/ panel’s to help them with organizing their information. It is manditory they use a bibliography, footnote, and present their research. Infographics also teach the application of text features and forces them to paraphrase information. Their infographic guides them through the structural elements of writing a good paper, which sets them up for success.

  8. Chris Carson
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    I love this discussion especially the emphasis on identifying an audience (Mary Bigelow), identifying effective pre-writing strategies that allow students to clarify thinking and construct arguments (Jeff Ryan), and using a standard science writing heuristic that can build students’ confidence through repeated practice and goal setting (Paula Young). These are all essential practices for science teachers who work with emerging bilingual students (ELLs), and they are the focus of some new professional development resources, tied to the NGSS, for teaching writing in science in diverse classrooms, created through department of education funding for the eCALLMS project. These online workshops are free for use by teams of teachers who want to improve linguistically responsive teaching: https://sehd.ucdenver.edu/ecallms/writing-in-science/
    Chris Carson
    University of Colorado, Denver

  9. George Caroff
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    My students in Biology write every day. We begin each class period with a 1-2 minute assignment. It will either be an introduction to a topic such as “Tell me what you know about photosynthesis; Write a minimum of 3 lines”, or it could be a quick review quiz from the day before “List the steps of mitosis in the correct order”. Then as I go through each unit we do more formalized writing where I will have them write in paragraphs with a specific topic such as “Trace the process of photosynthesis, both light dependent and independent reactions, and describe what is happening at each stage. Make sure to use the following vocabulary terms in your description……….Write in complete sentences.” These types of writing are all part of the John Collins writing program. I also use a guided reading technique to allow students to tackle text material that may be more difficult. It involves both reading and writing and I have found can cover the more vocabulary “heavy” topics in biology much more effectively and efficiently.

    • Mary B
      Posted February 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the suggestions! It sounds like you use a variety of ways to encourage writing as a process.

  10. Joy Hakim
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    How about narrative? I write stories about science, especially scientific discovery, and that seems to lead directly to the big ideas behind the discipline.

  11. Donna Denney
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I teach science to all the Kindergarten to 3rd grade students at my school. At every grade level the students are writing in their journals.

    For Kindergarten, I have mostly pictures, fill in the blanks with word boxes to help them, and sentences for the students to copy from the SMART board. Labeling and getting use to writing about what they are actively doing during class is important. 1st graders are starting to answer questions, writing and drawing about their observations. Now they are able to write their own thoughts down, graphing and collecting simple data. Propose a question, give them time to write the answer in their journal. Go slow, then go to the next question. By 2nd grade they are beginning to write about Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning when doing an experiments. By 3rd grade they are pretty good at documenting everything we do in class, using CER in their writing, illustrations, data charts, and graphing data. When they watch a video, students take notes while watching so they can answer the questions I give them about the video, and concepts in science they saw.

    This is a predominately Hispanic school so most of my students are ELL students. Practicing English helps them learn it faster. If they are not English speaking, they are paired with someone that can translate for them. They will answer questions in Spanish but I make sure they understand the concepts for that day. All their work is authentic. I don’t have time to make copies of assignments unless if there will be a sub in the room.

    So my advice, start early, practice makes perfect. (They journal, or should be journaling in every subject.) But, mix it in with the fun hands on stuff. For example, do step one of an activity, now sit down and write what happened. Do step two, now write down what you observed. It will become second nature to them. They are graded based on their notes unless if they have an IEP. Then it is differentiated depending on the IEP.

  12. Elaine Woo
    Posted February 9, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Just FYI, the author of the books, Writing in Science and Writing in Science in Action, will offer a Short Course at the NSTA’s National Convention in Los Angeles on Friday, March 31st from 8:00 – 11:00 AM

    This science-writing approach is mentioned above in Mary Bigelow’s statement.

    • Mary B
      Posted February 9, 2017 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the info on the Short Course!

  13. Tina Campbell
    Posted February 13, 2017 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard of multiple ways to use for writing for students in science. Some keep a science notebook in which they are required to keep track of hypothesis or data. Some have it in their curriculum to be able to write a lab report by the end of a class. I love the current events idea. It might be useful to have students watch current events as part of homework assignment and write a summary about it and possibly a reflection to what it means to them

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