Growing Writers in Science
by Christine Schepeler
The Challenge of Writing in Science
I spend a lot of time as a science teacher thinking about how to effectively integrate writing standards while keeping the focus on the content. To make it a mutually beneficial relationship I started to think about the literacy standards through the lens of science–how can the writing standards be used to help students better explain and understand the content?
Here are the two literacy standards that I have been focusing on in my classroom as I address this challenge:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2f Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented.
What I’ve been struggling with is getting students to not only use the science vocabulary appropriately, but also explain the meaning of that vocabulary (WHST.6-8.2d). Strong explanations also require students to make concluding statements that show the connections between concepts, and across different units/themes (WHST.6-8.2f).
I have identified a few areas where students struggle with this:
1. Students use the vocabulary but don’t explain it.
2. Students explain the concept but don’t use the specific vocabulary word.
3. Students use the vocabulary and explain it, but don’t make the connection between concepts or ideas within or across units.
Number 3 is by far the most prevalent, and what is usually missing is that one concluding sentence that ties everything together into a pretty little package. This often means that students are not using topic sentences or concluding statements and not transferring their writing knowledge and skills from English and history into science.
Facing the Challenge of Writing
My previous approach to writing in science has always been to keep the prompts more open-ended: allow the students to show me what they know and the connections they have made on their own. Students who fall into any of the areas of growth mentioned above get written feedback or get time to focus on that area if and when there is time to edit or revise their work. I also always ask for a diagram or visual because I love student art and visuals help students explain and support their claims and explanations.
To more intentionally support that third group of students in particular I’ve really started to focus on the writing itself using the standards as a guide. I realized that focusing on students’ writing in science required that I grade for and give feedback on their grammar, spelling, writing structure, etc. I always threatened to in the past, but usually was so focused on the content in their writing that I kind of let it go. In my project and writing rubrics I’ve started including categories like conventions, literary devices, persuasive tactics, etc. I have been partnering with the reading and writing teachers to incorporate the skills students are currently developing in their writing assignments into science. As a result, these categories change according to what students are working on with their reading and writing teachers.
The result of these collaborations and holding students accountable for transferring writing skills to science class has been awesome: I’m getting better written work because students know that I expect the same quality output as their reading and writing teachers.
Meeting the Challenge: Density Meets Continental Drift
For earth science, one of the themes that comes up throughout all my units is density. Last year many students didn’t realize this was a yearlong theme until we began to review for the final. And I got the “Wait a minute! Density was in every unit?!?” Oops. So I have been working on making these connections more evident throughout all units, and often use writing assignments as a means to do so.
My curriculum is designed to start really big picture and zoom in as we move through the units. We start the year off with Earth in the solar system (tides, moon phases, seasons) and move into our second unit: Earth’s layers, where density is initially introduced. Then we cover plate tectonics (plate boundaries and the reason for plate movement: convection, effects at boundaries, etc.). I wanted students to think about the connection between density and plate tectonics so I asked them: “Why do different effects occur at different convergent boundaries?”
To really dig into this question (and make that connection between the topics and concepts) students needed to craft a clear claim or topic sentence and a strong concluding sentence that explained the connection to density: how different convergent boundaries are caused because the density of the plates determines if a plate will subduct (the denser plate), or if they have the same density both will push up in a collision boundary. I wanted students to make the content connection on their own (I did not want to give it to them) but I also needed to be clear about what was required in their writing. As a result, we discussed in class the importance of topic sentences/claims and concluding sentences and looked at some examples and non-examples to analyze how it changed the quality of explanatory writing.
- I took student work from a previous open response (one that had a strong claim and a conclusion, and one that did not, both on the same prompt) and gave students a plus and delta chart. They analyzed each piece in groups.
- Once they had read through both pieces and filled out their charts I had students compare the two pieces and in groups pick the stronger writing piece and explain why (using evidence from both to justify their answers).
- We came back together as a class to discuss and determined that the writing with the strong claim and conclusion actually helped to better explain the science content.
Students were allowed to use any type of planning they wanted (planning counted as a classwork grade), and there was no length requirement. For written responses I don’t usually give a length requirement, instead I tell students to write as much as they need to in order to fully answer the prompt. During the planning in class I had a chance to check in with students to see if they were on the right track or if they were missing the connections in the content. You can see an example of student planning below, where it was obvious if they had not made the connection to density. This is also where I am able to guide those students who were restating the prompt as their topic sentence, instead of making that connection through stating their own claim.
In the student example above, the opening sentence was: “Different boundaries occur because of the plate movement and density of the two plates.” This student made the connection to density and how that changes the effects at the boundaries. In the student at the end of the post, the closing sentence was: “In conclusion, convergent boundaries are all caused by differentiation.” Again, the student connected back to differentiation (density). They nailed it. Giving students the framing and focusing on providing a concluding statement that supports the information (WHST.6-8.2f) helped students to make those connections in the content through their writing and use the appropriate vocabulary (WHST.6-8.2d) as well as improve their overall quality of writing.
Helping students become better writers in science class (i.e. holding them accountable to the same writing standards as their reading and writing classes) has also helped me bridge the gap between students simply describing content and ideas and moving toward explaining the connections between concepts and units. Finding ways for student to meet the expectations of the literacy standards, specifically through writing, has provided an excellent way to deepen student content knowledge. This realization has also helped me to collaborate across disciplines, make cross-curricular connections more obvious for my students, and strengthen both their writing and scientific content knowledge together.