Research School Network: Breaking it down (supporting writing in Science) Dr Niki Kaiser, Director, Norwich Research School

Breaking it down (supporting writing in Science)

Dr Niki Kaiser, Director, Norwich Research School

by Norwich Research School
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If you take one thing from the session today, I want it to be that writing is challenging, and you should break written tasks down”

We don’t write as much in Science lessons as they do in some other subjects. But we do still expect students to express ideas in writing. We ask them to demonstrate understanding of concepts by writing about them, and we even have long answer questions at GCSE, where students can earn six marks or so, by linking knowledge together coherently.

If I’m honest, I know I should do more written tasks in my lessons. I understand that it’s everyone’s responsibility to support children’s literacy, and I know that being able to write like a scientist” is a valuable skill to develop. Our recent whole-school CPD session on supporting our pupils’ writing really made me think about the expectations I have for my pupils, and consider how I support them to write in Science lessons.

Subject knowledge isn’t enough

It’s tempting to think that if they know about it, they can write about it. But we will all have sat with our head in our hands at one point, as we mark a piece of work from a pupil who has failed to convey an idea coherently, even though we know what they’re trying to say. They’ll quite likely have demonstrated a good level of understanding at other times, but it just hasn’t come across on paper. Subject knowledge is important, in fact it’s a prerequisite for writing in Science, but it isn’t enough.

Writing is demanding because it requires students to combine three processes. Students must be able to transcribe, that is, physically write or type and compose, generating ideas and translating them into words, sentences and structured texts. Finally, students must use executive functions, to enable them to make plans, motivate themselves and review and redraft texts.”
(EEF: Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools)

I know that I’ve taught lessons before where it’s all going really well, with interactions and engagement from pupils, high quality discussion and a range of good answers via mini whiteboards. I then ask pupils to write something longer or more complex in their books, and it all seems to unravel a bit. My pupils seem to switch off, and it’s evident that they’re less motivated than they were. It can feel like drawing teeth as I try and get them to focus and think deeply about a written task.

I now wonder if this is partly because I haven’t supported them enough with the mechanics of writing.

Break it down – some practical ideas

The Guidance Report suggests that we can break written tasks down in a number of ways, including teaching elements of writing structure, supporting use of tier 2 vocabulary, and explicitly teaching pupils to plan, monitor and review their work.

In our session, we looked at some examples of what this might look like in practice. I’ve listed a few of them here, with my reflections on them as a Science teacher.

- Modelling
– I’m already convinced by the power of teacher modelling – modelling your thinking is a key recommendation in the EEF’s Metacognition Guidance Report. I often find ways to articulate my thinking for pupils, making the implicit decisions that I make explicit to them. I do this regularly for calculations, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it for longer writing tasks, and I think this is something I could try.

For examples, I could make it clear how I plan sentences, and how I make (and change) decisions. As I write this blog post, I type words, then I read them to myself; I think ahead, and consider how everything fits together. Often, I delete words, sentences… sometimes whole sections. Maybe I should show some of this type of thinking to my pupils.

- Teach appositives
– these are nouns or phrases that qualify an initial noun in a sentence. So, for example, I could have said: Appositives, nouns or phrases used to qualify an initial noun, could be a useful tool to help pupils convey information in Science. I’ve read blogs by Science teachers before about how they use these, but had never actually used them myself. Tom, our CPD lead (see what I did there?), suggested we could even use these as a way of varying retrieval practice. For example:

Methane, …………… , has a low boiling point.
Ionic compounds, ……………… , form giant ionic lattices as solids.

To fill in the gaps, pupils will have to retrieve some descriptive information about methane and ionic compounds. They’re also practising structuring sentences in a way that conveys information efficiently.

- Teach conjunctions
– I know that scaffolding can be an effective way of supporting pupils in general, and I think I should probably give my pupils more support with written tasks. One way to do this might be to help them connect and contrast phrases by giving them as a list of conjunctions.

But encouraging pupils to use conjunctions could also be a good way to support their thinking in Science. For example, asking students to construct sentences using because, but, so” might focus their ideas about why things happen. In the session, I quickly constructed an example: carbon nanotubes have a high melting point because they contain covalent bonds, but only three electrons from each carbon atom form a bond, so they conduct electricity, because there are delocalised electrons that are free to move and carry charge.
Not the greatest example! You can find more here.

For a range of articles and examples of how Science teachers support writing in science, look at this Symposium on Writing in Science.

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