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Why We Need Writing Instruction in Science

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

I work with a lot of science teachers while visiting schools to deliver literacy professional development. The Common Core literacy standards call for teachers of all subjects to provide reading and writing instruction. Understandably, many science teachers tell me they don’t understand why literacy instruction is something they should be doing, especially given classroom time demands placed on them to cover a lot of science content. My response: look at the science standards!

In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards were released and described as the “national science standards”.  A large number of the standards across all grade levels require students to complete science tasks for which they must have solid literacy skills. I have listed numerous examples below. It is not just a matter of presenting students with science information and opportunities to see science in action through experiments and observations – students must learn how to use reading and writing to process science content as well as learn how to access science information when they do not have teachers there to present it to them through speaking and listening.

Another reason why we need science teachers, especially in grades 8-12, to teach literacy skills has to do with the need for students to develop disciplinary literacy skills before they graduate high school. In April, 2015  I wrote a Literacy Lines piece titled “What is disciplinary literacy?” where I noted that disciplinary literacy skills are much more specific to a subject area (such as science) than general content literacy skills that can be taught and used across all subjects (e.g., how to summarize, how to take notes). In other words, to prepare for college and the work force, older students need to learn how to read and write like a scientist. And the best teachers to teach this are science teachers because they know how reading, writing, thinking, and reasoning is done in the field of science.

Based on my experience, the good news is that once science teachers have access to quality literacy professional development that shows them how to embed literacy instructional practices into classroom instruction and science reading materials, they are readily able to start teaching reading and writing skills.

Examples of science standards that require close reading and argument writing skills:

  • Grade 4 (ESS1-1): Construct a claim with evidence that changes to a landscape due to erosion and deposition over long periods of time result in rock layers and landforms that can be interpreted today. Use evidence from a given landscape that includes simple landforms and rock layers to support a claim about the role of erosion or deposition in the formation of the landscape.
  • Grade 5 (LS1-1): Support an argument with evidence that plants get the materials they need for growth and reproduction chiefly through a process in which they use air, water, and energy from the sun to produce sugars and plant materials .
  • Middle School (LS4-2): Construct an argument using anatomical structures to support evolutionary relationships among and between fossil organisms and modern organisms. Include evidence showing that: a. some organisms have similar traits with similar functions because they were inherited from a common ancestor, b. some organisms have similar traits that serve similar functions because they live in similar environments, and c. some organisms have traits inherited from common ancestors that no longer serve their original function because over time, their environments have changed.
  • High School (LS3-2): Make and defend a claim based on evidence that inheritable genetic variations may result from: a. new genetic combinations through meiosis; b. mutations that occur during replication; and/or c. mutations caused by environmental factors. Recognize that in general, only mutations that occur in gametes can be passed to offspring.

Examples of science standards that require close reading and informational writing skills:

  • Grade 4 (ESS3-1): Obtain information to describe that energy and fuels humans use are derived from natural resources and that some energy and fuel sources are renewable and some are not.
  • Grade 5 (ESS3-1): Obtain and combine information about ways communities reduce the impact on the Earth’s resources and environment by changing an agricultural, industrial, or community practice or process.
  • Middle School (ESS2-2): Construct an explanation based on evidence for how Earth’s surface has changed over scales that range from microscopic to global in size and operate at times ranging from fractions of a second to billions of years.
  • High School (LS1-6): Construct and revise an explanation based on evidence that macromolecules are primarily composed of six elements, where carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms from carbohydrates may combine with nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus to form large carbon-based molecules.

Examples of science standards that require students to take notes from sources:

  • Grade 4 (ESS2-1): Make observations and collect data to provide evidence that rocks, soils, and sediments are broken into smaller pieces through mechanical weathering and moved around through erosion by water, ice, wind, and vegetation.
  • Grade 5 (ESS3-1): Obtain and combine information about ways communities reduce the impact on the Earth’s resources and environment by changing an agricultural, industrial, or community practice or process.
  • Middle School (PS4-3): Present qualitative scientific and technical information to support the claim that digitized signals (sent as wave pulses representing 0s and 1s) can be used to encode and transmit information.
  • High School (LS1-9): Research and communicate information about features of virus and bacteria reproduction and adaptation to explain their ability to survive in a wide variety of environments.

Examples of science standards that require students to generate comprehension questions:

  • Grade 4 (PS3-3): Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.
  • High School (LS3-1): Ask questions to clarify relationships about how DNA in the form of chromosomes is passed from parents to offspring through the processes of meiosis and fertilization in sexual reproduction.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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