Developing Information Writing Muscles: Writing about Science

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I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about teaching kids to write about history, and about ways to embed more information writing in social studies class, but rarely have I put much thought into teaching kids to write during that other content area study, science. But when I have observed children writing about science, what I’ve seen astounds me. If it’s surprising that kids can write with voice and emotion about history, it might be even more surprising that kids can do so writing about science. But this shouldn’t be the case. After all, science is exciting! Like a great action film, it’s filled with explosions, cliff hangers, foreshadowing, and of course, chemistry (I couldn’t resist that last one).

Below are the biggest tips for getting successful writing about science going in your classroom, followed by more specifics.

Big Tips

  • Build on your students’ interests.
  • Stock your classroom library.
  • Teach a variety of note-taking strategies.
  • Build in ways for student to make choices about the topic and form of their writing.

Setting Up for Success

Build on your students’ curiosity and interests. You might follow your class’s lead. If you notice your students are particularly engaged during a science unit about plants, then that could be a great time to channel them to write more extensively. Or, you might plan ahead by choosing an upcoming unit that you know is usually a crowd-pleaser, and then preparing children for the writing work that is to come right at the start.

Of course, no writing about content could ever be truly successful without taking in plenty of information on the content, typically by reading about it. Make sure your classroom library is stocked with as many books, short articles, and printed out websites at a range of levels as you can get your hands on. Search out short videos on the topic and have those ready for viewing. Make plans to visit a museum, farm, nature center, recycling facility, or any other place that fits with your topic. Arrange for an expert on the topic to come to your classroom for an interview by the kids.

Begin With Research 

One really important skill to emphasize as students get ready to write about science is observation. Sharpening their powers of observation will have far-reaching effects. After all, what is a writer if not a keen observer of the world? A form of note-taking that goes perfectly with observation is sketching. Teaching students to add more and more detail to their sketches right at the start lays the foundation for teaching them to add more and more detail to their writing later on.

Of course, note-taking forms such a timelines, flow charts, and boxes and bullets will go a long way to help kids to write and, most importantly, to think more deeply about science. Teach these separately if you haven’t already done so. You might teach kids to assess their own note-taking, for more specifics click here.

Choosing Topics

We have written extensively on this blog about the power of choice. You might suggest that your students choose topics that are all related to common field of study (different kinds of animals, for example), or you might allow them to set up their own experiments from scratch and write about them. Regardless, the writing will be noticeably more successful if students have some autonomy in topic choice.

Forms of Science Writing

Likely the most common kind of science writing is the lab report. Perhaps surprisingly, teaching kids to write traditional lab reports can lead to quite engaging, detailed, thoughtful writing. Lab reports are procedural writing, an evolution of the How-To books our youngest writers create (and adore). Procedural writing can help children to get better at structure, as they must carefully organize their writing according to a sequence of events, and to get better at elaboration, as they must provide enough detail that each part of their experiment is clear. They also learn to make connections from part to part, for example, to describe relationships and causality in sophisticated ways.

Or, you might channel your students to study a variety of published science writing to get ideas about the kinds of writing they could do. For example, they might model one of the science trade books in your classroom library and create a text with a question/answer format, or a text with a clever structure like Deadliest Animals by Melissa Stewart, in which the animals are organized with increasing danger and thus excitement for the reader. Presentation programs such as PowerPoint and Keynote are particularly great ways for students to publish this kind of writing.

Celebrating Science Writing

End the unit with a celebration in which students share their learning with the world. You might choose an expert fair style of celebration, a term I learned from colleagues at the Reading and Writing Project. Have students organize their desks around the periphery of the classroom, and help them to set up “booths” at their desks. Then invite visitors to mingle from booth to booth, listening to each students’ summaries of their learning. Many teachers have found that pairing students with similar topics works particularly well.

Happy writing about science! Please share your own tips and tricks for getting kids to write with more engagement in this content area.