: How can we help all children to write better in science? How can we help all children to write better in science?

How can we help all children to write better in science?

How can we help all children to write better in science?

by Tudor Grange Research School
on the

Ellie bw

Ellie Caple

Ellie is the Leadership Advisor for Science at Tudor Grange Academies Trust and an Evidence Advocate for Tudor Grange Research School.
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I have often thought how lucky I am to teach such a practical, awe-inspiring, and thought-provoking subject as science. I have previously contemplated, usually whilst on a cover, how difficult it must be to teach a predominantly book based’ subject, where such subject teachers potentially face a daily battle to keep students’ attention. I did not envy colleagues from some other subjects, who every lesson would have to persuade students to engage with large amount of reading and writing. I felt a slight smugness, knowing that as a teacher of science I could bounce a lively group of year 8’s through a windy afternoon by doing a fully interactive practical lesson. I could latch onto children’s natural curiosity by sharing visual or verbal examples of strange phenomena and I could tap into a child’s instinctive problem-solving abilities by creating situations of discovery and exploration. I have even unashamedly energised a sleepy set of year 10s on a winter Monday morning with an exciting demo involving spectacular colour changes, mini-explosions, loud noises or if possible, all three. 

Science blog experiment

Beyond scientific vocabulary, literacy was never my priority as a science teacher. In truth, literacy was something I probably felt out of my depth trying to teach and something I feared would disengage learners in my lessons.

During the early part of my career in previous schools, I recall repeated attempts to launch various whole school literacy initiatives with the aim of trying to increase reading or writing in all subjects. Such literacy CPD was always delivered to all subject teachers by a literacy specialist, usually an inspiring and highly effective English teacher – who I respected personally and professionally but who had a completely different paradigm to myself. I found it difficult to relate their emotional, rich descriptive ideology of writing to my logical, concise and evidence based scientific principles. They wanted to develop a love of reading and encourage students to read for pleasure. As a science teacher I want students to read for knowledge, to be able to conduct factual interpretation or critical analysis. The two aims did not seem obviously compatible and so the messages I heard, although well-meaning and reasonable, did not speak to me as a science subject specialist. The result was I never fully bought in to the new literacy initiatives, and the impact on my practice was minimal.

However, over the past two years at Tudor Grange Academy Trust my stance, and that of many of science colleagues, has dramatically changed. Literacy in the science curriculum is now a key issue and driver of our curriculum development. I can see how our progress in developing literacy is benefiting all our students to raise standards in science.

So, what has changed?

Firstly, the research into the benefits of improved literacy for all subjects is now so widespread that it is impossible to ignore or deny this crucial skill. The EEF Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools guidance report reminds us that literacy is key to learning across all subjects in secondary school and a strong predictor of outcomes in later life”. I think of this when I hear that, year-on-year, science GCSE papers have the highest reading ages of any paper except English literature. The recent EEF Improving Primary Science guidance report has also made me much more aware of the potential lack of science writing focus in primary school science lessons.

More importantly, though, has been the way we have redesigned our curriculum to consider the disciplinary skills in science. Akin to the national picture identified by Ofsted in their 2021 Science research review, we realised our curriculum had become focused on substantive knowledge and over many years we had neglected disciplinary knowledge. This led us to reconsider the intent of our science curriculum and we identified the six most important skills we felt our students needed to master by the time they left school at the end of year 11. These are summarised by these logos.

Science blog talk like a scientist etc

Previously we had been too focused on thinking and acting like a scientist, and our curriculum mapping and schemes of work reflected this – theory and practical opportunities were mapped extensively but after that other skills were included sporadically and often left to chance teaching. We realised that we were neglecting many important skills we deemed valuable in a scientist. We did need students to be able to talk, read, and write – but as scientists. It was clear that as a science faculty it was a priority for us to develop our literacy teaching, but we needed a science disciplinary literacy version of the whole school generic initiatives.

"By anchoring literacy clearly in subjects, disciplinary literacy aims to support students to develop relevant ‘disciplinary habits of mind’. These are subtle but important differences in reading in subject specific ways." - EEF Guidance Report

We needed science disciplinary literacy initiatives and CPD adapted and delivered by science specialists, who understood the priorities of the science curriculum and delivered training using the concise, direct, and non-emotional language of scientists. The Writers’ Room was a system that supported us in developing generic literacy initiatives into disciplinary literacy; adapting and framing them from a science perspective to make them more relevant. Possibly the most critical step though, was being given the permission to be able to ignore specific details or follow a direction in more detail that we felt held no relevance to science. For example, our writing like a scientist genre has focused on the most common command words we meet in science extended language questions.

The first step towards considering disciplinary literacy

The outcome has been disciplinary literacy initiatives that science teachers really believe in. Literacy CPD is now delivered by a science specialist to our science teachers on INSET days. The result is as a subject, we feel listened to and trusted as specialists to apply whole school initiatives to our lessons in the way we think will work best. This is a refreshing approach to whole school initiatives, ensuring much greater buy into literacy initiatives and therefore greater potential impact.

To summarise, our trust-wide Science curriculum now has a much greater focus on disciplinary literacy. We have planned purposeful opportunities for students to read, write and talk like a scientist which we have sequenced across all three science disciplines to build in difficulty throughout the key stages. Science teachers are responding positively to their science subject specific literacy CPD, reporting they are much more relevant and useful to their practice than previously. Many more teachers are trialling new literary techniques and sharing examples of good practice. There feels a positive momentum about literacy in science lessons.

Most significantly, though, after 20 years of teaching science, I now understand how I can teach literacy in a way that makes sense to me, to benefit my science students. I have embraced scientific disciplinary literacy as a crucial part of my toolkit and finally lost the fear of teaching literacy.

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