Writing to Learn (not Learning to Write)

A first draft using Slow Writing techniques.

A first draft using Slow Writing techniques.

Writing is a process of deep thinking. It slows and clarifies thought: paragraph by paragraph; sentence by sentence; word by word. It allows the writer to go back, challenge and improve. It is perfect for science teaching.

Science lessons should be full of writing. Exercise books should be full of wonderful texts written by learners – phrases, sentences, paragraphs and complete pieces – because every piece of text involves deep thought.

Primary teachers know how to teach writing. Plenty of thought has gone into developing programmes and strategies to help pupils develop their writing skills. I love the Ruth Miskin Literacy and Language programme and everything by Pie Corbett – particularly Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum.

Both are brilliant at teaching children how to write different nonfiction writing styles, but their strategies promote the writing above the content. When I am teaching, the writing has to support the science, not the other way around.

Another challenge is time. To create a single piece of writing, most programmes take many days and involve talking, reading and practice before students settle down to write. I don’t have that time.

So I have to adapt the methods. These are my 5 key principles:

  1. Teach the content. Make it concrete. Teach it so the students can explain it to someone else.
  2. Talk before writing; pupils write better sentences when they rehearse the language first.
  3. Model the text. Show students what their work is supposed to look like. This is easier with fiction than nonfiction – fiction can’t be made “incorrect” by making changes. Making changes to nonfiction texts can make it factually wrong. You have to be very clear about what to change and what to keep. Choosing the right model text is vital (I write my own – it’s quicker than finding one that fits). High attaining learners may be able to use a model from another topic (or even subject) and take useful elements from that, but most learners need a model that is similar. In the food web example above, I gave pupils a model text using a different food web. The structure and even some of the sentences from the pupil’s work have been “magpied” from mine. That’s fine. The example in the middle paragraph is the student’s; that was my priority and that’s how we completed the whole lesson in one hour.
  4. Support the heavy lifting. Remember what you are asking your students to do:
    1. Learn a new and challenging scientific concept or skill.
    2. Put individual thoughts into clear sentences using new, sophisticated terminology.
    3. Sequence those ideas so that it makes sense to a reader.
    4. Add in the structural sentences that draw readers in and guide them through the text.

I find @Learningspy’s Slow Writing strategies helpful and I’m not the first to adapt Slow Writing for science (see here). In the food web example above, I asked my pupils to do the following:

Introduction:

  • use the word complicated to describe the feeding relationships in a pond.

Middle Paragraph:

  • give an example of a predator.
  • give an example of prey.
  • give an example that is both.

Conclusion:

  • describe how a food web helps us understand the environment.

You can see where my writer has used these in her draft.

5. Piggy-back on English lessons – plan the science curriculum to benefit from the English teaching. When students are learning how to write an explanation, that’s the time to get them to write explanations in science too.

When students have taken the time to explain a scientific concept in their own words, they have been engaging with the idea for an extended period of time. They have challenged their understanding. There is nowhere to hide. Writing is a window into a learner’s mind; it reveals understanding and misunderstanding to both the learner and the teacher. You don’t get much better than that.

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