Classrooms Chalk Talk: Writing in the science classroom


Published: 3/14/2017 8:32:18 PM

Imagine being in science class and asked to look at a picture of a skull and write about what animal you think it came from. Not a difficult task, but also not one that gets you too excited about doing any kind of writing. It’s only a picture after all.

Now, imagine being shown a pile of real animal skulls and asked to pick one to gather evidence through hands-on observation, exploration and research to make a claim as to the name of the animal that the skull came from, its habitat, hunting habits and diet. You are, no doubt, now motivated to want to learn. You can’t wait to get your hands on that skull, to run your fingers over its grooves and bone, and ponder all of its mysteries. You can’t wait to start learning and writing about it.

This is an example of inquiry-based science that uses writing as the heart of learning. Students in this setting are engaged in all aspects of their own learning through discovery and investigation. This also gives students the opportunity to develop and use a variety of literacy skills, such as writing, reading, speaking and listening, as they learn the content of science.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a new science and technology/engineering curriculum framework in April 2016 with the vision that students’ “ability to engage in scientific and technical reasoning through relevant experience results in better understanding of science and engineering, increased mastery of sophisticated subject matter, a better ability to explain the world.”

Students make sense of their world by exploring their world and making connections. If we do not ever give them opportunities to do this, how can we expect this of them? In many elementary schools, science has become the subject that is “fit in” if there is time left over in the school day. Who has time left over in the school day with the demands of the rigorous English language arts and math frameworks that teachers must teach to?

This is the shift that must happen, though: What if science was not taught independent of reading and writing? Instead, what if literacy skills were incorporated into the teaching and learning of science content? Now, we no longer have to try to find time for science. It is a natural part of the school day where students are exploring, asking questions, finding answers, and sharing their understanding, while at the same time practicing and reinforcing literacy skills.

This school year, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project has been hosting a Literacy in Science Leadership workshop for more than a dozen science educators from around the Pioneer Valley. This workshop series is designed to give teachers an opportunity to learn and practice strategies to teach science literacy; how to integrate literacy skills into the teaching of the science content.

The hope is that these teachers, including myself, will then bring these practices back to their own schools and districts. They can then educate and support colleagues in implementing strategies which embed literacy skills into the everyday teaching of the science content, while at the same time engaging students through inquiry and investigation. Science should foster the inquisitive minds of our students. When given opportunities to explore and investigate, students are engaged and excited about the world around them. Acquiring and sharing this knowledge becomes opportunities to read, write, listen and speak about their world.

Lisa Rice teaches sixth grade at the William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton and is affiliated with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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