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Writing in Science Classrooms

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Many students (and teachers!) don’t see many connections between science and writing. But scientists are inveterate writers. They write down hunches and sketch possible arrangements of whatever they are studying. They observe carefully and write down their observations. They conduct experiments and write down what they think will happen as well as what they actually observe. Writing and sketching are important tools real scientists use to help themselves think. Here are some specific ways that science teachers use quick writes, journals, and lab reports to help students think and communicate.

Quick Writes

As previewing activities, science teachers ask students to

List as many different animals with backbones as you can in thirty seconds.
Draw and label the parts of a tomato plant.
List ways that chemistry is important to us in real-life activities.

To synthesize what was learned at the end of a class, you might offer students these prompts:

Define in you own words what an ecosystem is.
Your book says, _______. Write what that really means in English.
Use the words _______ and _______ and _______ to write a true sentence.

To help students self-assess understanding, attitudes, and so forth, you could offer these prompts:

What did you not understand about today’s lesson?
List one or more terms you cannot clearly define.
I have the feeling many of you are not “with me” on this topic. Write what you are feeling about what we are doing and if there is anything I could change to help you feel more involved and successful.

Journals

Journals call for more extended entries than quick writes and are most successful if used on a daily basis. Both high-structure and low-structure journals can be used in a science class. Here are some examples of high-structure journal prompts science teachers use:

Draw and label the parts of the digestive system.
Arrange the following words into a web that shows their relationships.
Analyze how you did with today’s experiment. Were you able to follow the directions? Did the experiment turn out as you had predicted?
Explain to a younger person (brother, sister, cousin) why it is important for everyone to understand about toxins in our environment.

In addition to content-oriented journal entries such as these, science teachers may want to use “personal history” journal entries early in the year to help students come to terms with their science “attitudes.” Many students have not had good experiences with science and in spite of all the recent efforts to have science classes be “hands-on” active learning environments, many students associate science with hard-to-read textbooks and big unpronounceable words to memorize. If students see themselves as inadequate and uninterested learners in science, their attitudes will affect their motivation, learning, and thinking. Science teachers can engage students and begin to alter self-concepts in a number of different ways, including having students reflect on their own personal science histories.

To use journal entries in this way, tell students that we all have personal experiences in all areas of our lives that affect how we feel about things. Use a few examples to which your students can relate, perhaps telling about some of your life experiences which helped you to feel positively about something and negatively about something else.

“My mom made me take piano lessons for four years and I hated it. I generalized that hate to all music and only in recent years have I learned to enjoy jazz and some other types of music.”
“When I was your age, I had a friend who was a great baseball player. All he ever talked about was baseball. Eventually, I got interested in baseball too, even though I didn’t play well. I still love baseball.”

Let students share some of their earlier experiences with real life—not science—topics and then tell them that since your job is to teach them science and their Page Number:201
past experiences with science will affect their attitudes, you would like to know about those experiences. Explain that each day for a week or two you will ask them to write about specific science experiences. After students write, you can let them tell about what they have written, either to the whole class or in small groups, or you can collect their journals and read them so that you get to know their science stories. Be sure that if you read them, the students know that the entries won’t be graded (although doing them may add some points to their grade) and that you want to know both the high points and the low points of their experiences. Here are some possible prompts that could be used across several days of journal writing time:

  • Of all the school subjects you study, is science one of your best or one of your worst? Rank it on a 1 (worst) to 10 (best) scale and explain why you chose the number you did.
  • Regardless of how much you like science, some of your science teachers/classes were probably better or worse than others. Write what you remember about your worst science teacher/class. What grade were you in? What made it so awful? How did things work in the class? Change the name of the teacher of that class to X to protect the guilty.
  • Today reflect on your best science teacher/class. What grade were you in? What made it good? How did things work in this class? No need to change the name of this teacher!
  • How do you feel about science experiments? Can you usually do them? Do you like to do them? Do they help you learn?
  • Have you ever done projects for the science fair? What did you do? Did anyone help you? Did you like doing this? (If you never did, talk about why not and tell about your feelings about science fairs in general.)
  • Do you do anything out of school that is science related? Do you like sci-fi TV shows, movies, books? Do you like to read National Geographic and similar magazines? Do you like any science/nature shows on TV? Have you ever belonged to the scouts, 4H, or another group through which you had any wilderness experiences? Do you have a microscope, telescope, or other science paraphernalia?

While recognizing, expressing, and taking ownership of attitudes will not alter these attitudes, it is a first step. Students who don’t like science will enjoy telling you why, “ranting and raving” about their awful experiences. They will get it out of their system and be amazed that you, a science teacher, know and accept the fact that some of them don’t like science. If you let them share their responses, they will discover that others have had different experiences with science and begin to realize that with different experiences, they might have developed different attitudes. Science teachers are always concerned with helping students recognize their misconceptions. If your students have misconceptions about science, spending some of your journal time exploring personal science history issues will help you and them begin to change those misconceptions.

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