By Amy Russell
Instructional Science Coach, League City Elementary, Clear Creek ISD
“I can’t get students to write. I don’t have time because my students take forever!” These are just a few of the frustrations elementary teachers express when sharing their will to want to implement more writing into their science instruction. Writing as a means of formative assessment in science is desired by teachers of all grades because they know it is the highest level of application to use when seeking student understanding of the science content. Betsy Rupp Fulwiler’s (2007) Writing in Science approach is a researched based practice that not only gets students to communicate what they learned, but an avenue for building language, strengthen communication, and accelerate higher order thinking skills. Fulwiler’s work has become the foundation for developing a science writing approach in schools to strengthen K-5 science programs. The idea is perceived as “killing two birds with one stone” because students are proving their science knowledge while expanding their cognitive abilities through writing.
In schools where science is taught daily and writing is embedded two to three times a week, students are being successful in K-5 science classrooms. When questioning teachers who have adopted this practice in primary grades, a first grade teacher who followed her students from kindergarten stated that guided writing and word banks/walls were a necessity for students to be successful science writers. In early grades where literacy stations are used during balance literacy time, students have a science literacy station where they can apply science vocabulary into their writing or extend upon their writing they began during science time.
Over the last five years, while working in K-5 classrooms, new techniques were developed to support and scaffold students when applying science thinking into writing. Through trial, error, and case studies, a group of teachers and science coaches collaborated to help develop a continuum called the Stages of the Early Science Writer (Russell, 2015.) The first foundational component needed to focus students on the science is to always start the lesson with a focus question. This overarching question allows teachers and students to stay focused on what is being learned and will lead to supporting the focus during writing. Stage one begins with students’ exposure to completing a sentence stem and includes choral reading together. This stage allows students to get acquainted with basic science writing.
Stage two, teachers use guided writing where students begin to write with the teacher and play a role in deciding what they should write about based on their learning. Letter formation and integration of the literacy word wall supports writing development during guided or interactive writing time. Over the five stages of the early science writer, students become accustomed to the structure of science word banks and the teacher pushes them to write without structured sentence stems. Sentence stems serve their purpose when learning how to write but can restrict students from developing their own writing if not encouraged to be an independent writer. Older students begin to think writing is a formula and stems can rob them of creativity.
During stage five, the teacher asks students to brainstorm words needed to answer the focus question as a writing composition. While the teacher probes students thinking, the solicited words are added to chart paper. Science talk and being able to explain thinking is essential to the writing process for all elementary aged students. This also allows the teacher to guide students thinking in the event he or she hears a misconception. The science talk can prevent students from including misconceptions in their writing and the opportunity to address misunderstandings. This support called the student generated word bank is proven to help students be successful in expressing their science learning in all elementary grades and for all levels of writers. Although the continuum Stages of the Early Science Writer was written based on a kindergarten classroom, there are components that support older elementary aged students.
We cannot act on the assumption that older students will be able to apply the science independently in their writing. It is up to science educators to provide students the supports and scaffolds during their science instruction in order for the science writing approach to be successful.
Reference: Fulwiler, B. (2007) Writing in Science: How to Scaffold Instruction to Support Learning. Heinemann.
Russell, A. (2015) Stages of the Early Science Writer. [submitted for publication] Clear Creek ISD, League City, Texas.