How do you develop literacy in science lessons?

Carole Kenrick
Sep 24, 2017 · 10 min read

I’ve just read the EEF / Royal Society review of SES and science learning, and whilst I’m still reflecting on it as a whole, one thing seems pretty certain. Purposefully and systematically improving children and young people’s literacy in science is key to narrowing the gap in attainment and participation between pupils from high and low SES backgrounds. This is something I learnt early on in my teaching career, mostly from experience. This review of the literature has given me a better understanding of the theory and evidence that reflect and help explain my experience, and I will be following up by reading some of the studies that are mentioned in it. But in the meantime, I thought it helpful to consider how I currently develop literacy in the science classroom.

What follows are examples of what I have found to work in my classrooms and those of my trainees / colleagues. For context: I have taught in inner and outer London, to classes with high proportions of EAL learners, high percentages of pupils eligible for FSM, pupils with a range of SEND, and of ages ranging from EYFS to KS5 — although I won’t be focusing on EYFS here as it is something of a different beast. I also worked part-time in ITE for four years alongside teaching, training secondary science teachers in schools that had a similar profile to my own, and I regularly run subject-specific CPD.

I will start by outlining my underlying principles, before outlining my strategies grouped in four categories:

  1. Developing vocabulary in science
  2. Developing speaking in science
  3. Developing comprehension in science
  4. Developing writing in science

0. Underlying principles

In general I take what might be described as a meta-cognitive approach: I narrate and ask pupils to help narrate how to approach a task, goal or problem, and why it is helpful to approach it in that way; we describe our thinking; we are explicit about how to plan, monitor and evaluate what we are doing. Where possible I co-construct rules, processes and success criteria with pupils through scaffolded questioning and modelling. I have found this to be incredibly powerful at developing pupils’ independence, motivation and attainment. Shirley Clarke’s book Outstanding Formative Assessment helped me better understand how to do this and to refine my approach, which I had previously arrived at through trial and error along with patchy reading of research.

If you haven’t read the Deans for Impact summary of the Science of Learning, I would urge you to do so now. I shared this with my trainees the moment I first saw it, as it clearly summarises and explains so many things that I had been trying to get across to them in a much less clear and eloquent way. I won’t repeat it all here, but take a look as these principles underpin my strategies.

Transferring skills developed in English lessons to science lessons

[Note: skill = the ability to do something well; expertise.]

This deserves a sub-heading because understanding the need to do this was a bit of a paradigm-shifting moment for me. And yet when I realised, it seemed so incredibly obvious. So I want to make sure no-one else gets caught out.

One of my triple science GCSE pupils was consistently producing terrible extended writing — I’m talking garbled nonsense, lack of basic grammar or any kind of structure. When asked, he said he’d tried his best. I checked the system for any sign of a possible explanation, but to my utter disbelief, I discovered that he was on track for an A* in English! This baffled me, so I went to his English teacher and showed her his science book. It was her turn to be astonished —he could write brilliant essays in her lessons, and she showed me his English book as evidence.

I returned to speak with him, armed with evidence that his sub-standard writing in science was not an inevitability. I asked him to talk through his process for planning, structuring, drafting and redrafting essays in English. I asked him why he didn’t do the same thing when writing in science, to which he responded that science was about knowing science, not about writing. It was as though he was treating every subject as a silo, and not applying the skills he learnt in English to his writing in science. So we put together a little diagram to remind him to follow the same steps in science. That was all it took for him to be able to apply his English skills, and from then on he did much better in extended writing and assessments in science. That is also when I started to embed the explicit co-construction of processes into my lessons, which massively improved pupils’ ability to transfer and adapt skills developed in previous lessons and in other subjects.

1. Developing vocabulary in science

  • Word of the week: our past favourites include anthropomorphise, obfuscate and predilection as well as osmosis, threshold frequency and velocity. Sixth formers love this as much as Y4s do. At secondary level be clear about which words they must learn specific definitions of for their exams — those are such easy marks to get but only if you’ve put in the time to learn them. They will need reviewing regularly.
  • Topic start sheet: we give our pupils a topic start sheet, which includes the key terms for the topic, and ask them to RAG the words (Red = don’t know it, Amber = have an idea but not sure how to explain, Green = can tell you what it means). This gives you an idea of pupils’ prior knowledge, familiarises them with the words and gets them starting to wonder what they mean…
  • Glossary: in the back of their book, ask pupils to write the formal definition along with a picture to help them remember the meaning, and an example of how to use the word in a sentence. I’d give out merits and even make phone calls home when pupils do this for words that weren’t suggested in the lesson.
  • Playing around with root words: I love giving pupils a list of Greek and Latin root words and asking them to decipher ‘mystery words’ that they’ve never come across.
  • Write stories: using all of the key words. They will need support with planning their writing.
  • Spelling tests: the lower the stakes, the better. Mix up new words with words from previous lessons and even topics to review them regularly (cf Deans for Impact report: interleaving). Little and often best I think.
  • Reading: SO IMPORTANT. Choose some words from the text that you will focus on. Ideally some that are science-specific and some that are not.

See my previous post on how I start lessons for more ideas, e.g. correct the incorrect spellings, spot the odd one out, etc. — developing vocabulary is something I spend a great deal of time on.

2. Developing speaking in science

  • Sentence starters: provide these on the board or on conversation cards to discuss a question / review new learning.
  • Concept cartoons: are a valuable way of stimulating discussion.
  • Use the key words in a sentence: take it in turns to use each one in a sentence.
  • Repeating back: repeating what the pupil said word-for-word sometimes helps them to identify how to improve a sentence.
  • Clear expectations: as with everything but I think more so with speaking, you need a clear purpose, time limits and guidance to keep pupils on task and getting the most out of it.

Writing this list makes me realise this is an area I should think about more and develop!

3. Developing reading comprehension in science

There is some interesting research on the difficulties that pupils have with language in science and how to overcome them — see the chapter on this in Good Practice in Science Teaching: What Research has to Say.

  • DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Texts): this is another example of where I learnt something from a colleague in the English department! In this case it was a fellow ITE tutor, who we invited to run a workshop for our science trainees on developing literacy. The idea behind them is that they develop comprehension, either by getting pupils to analyse or reconstruct text (see p.265 of this epic document, where the below table comes from, for more on these).
  • Interpreting images and data: scientific writing is often accompanied by images (illustrations, photos) and data (tables, graphs). Children need to be taught to interpret these to help understand the writing.
  • Re-reading: many children are more used to reading fiction, which they often race through to find out what happens next! Non-fiction often requires re-reading, pausing to think and relate to prior knowledge, to consider whether you’ve understood what you’ve read and to think of questions you’d ask about it. In other words, it’s reflective. Pupils need to know this, and this is where reading together, with the teacher narrating their thoughts and asking questions to model reflective reading can help.
  • Questions: read in lessons, and prepare questions about the text. Some about the factual content, some more analytical about how and why, others about opinions. Making meaning is an important part of developing understanding and learning something new.
  • Inferring meaning of new words: ask pupils to start by skimming the text and underlining words that they are unsure about the meaning of. Then ask them to try to work out what they mean from the context, before sharing the definitions (to add to the glossary). They will often find that they can infer quite a lot — and be clear that this is a good approach, but it’s often worth double-checking in the dictionary.

4. Developing writing in science

  • Primary teachers: bring science into your writing! For instance, if Y6 learn about the Victorians as their topic at the same time as they learn about classification and microbes, introduce John Snow (of cholera fame) as your scientist to research. Then ask children to write a letter as John Snow, attempting to persuade his scientific colleagues and the authorities that cholera was spread by contaminated water. This will need careful planning to ensure that they have learnt the tools of persuasive writing and also have the necessary scientific knowledge. Our Y6 teacher did this last year and it was worth it, as it gives children a fantastic opportunity to practice and transfer skills. It’s challenging and they feel a great sense of achievement from doing it. It also helps children realise why it is so important for scientists to be able to write well — and gives them an insight into an often forgotten aspect of what scientists actually do as part of their jobs!
  • Secondary teachers: find out what the English teachers in your school are doing and use the same terms / processes / scaffolds / acronyms if possible to help pupils transfer their skills. Ask pupils what they would do if this question were asked in an English lesson, and you were their English teacher.
Example of a writing frame, with first two steps started (at this point I check them and my feedback would be to add more detail to the diagram, including EVERY key word and relationship before starting on the bullet points)
  • Planning and writing frames. I often see these used for writing up experiments, but less so for extended writing. At GCSE and A level, pupils are often asked to describe and explain a process, for example the photoelectric effect. I divide a piece of paper into four, and in each quarter in turn I: 1. Draw a picture to represent the process, and annotate it, 2. Write a list of the key words and relationships relevant to the process-if any of these aren’t in the picture I add them, 3. Write bullet point notes to describe the process (using the drawing as a reminder and ticking off key words as I go along) and 4. Write bullet points to provide the explanation (again, using the drawing and key words). We decide on the order of the bullet points (numbering them, often they will alternate between description and associated explanation) and then expand them into beautifully structured, grammatically correct prose. Every time we come across a similar question we use the same approach, but I provide less guidance until they can do it themselves (the scaffolding has been taken down…).
  • Analyse models: of writing that we are aiming for, and identify the features and underlying structure that make it good writing. Use this to develop success criteria for own writing (an example of co-construction).
  • Correct the mistakes: visualisers are so helpful in the classroom, especially for this — but if you don’t have one, take a photo of the writing / type it up. This is a good intermediate step between analysis of models and writing their own answer.
  • Rehearse orally: this helps my pupils and it works for me too!
  • Think, pair, share: I use this a lot as it gives everyone thinking time, then an opportunity to rehearse and refine their answer before we discuss and come to a “best approach”, identify key points that must be mentioned or define success criteria as a class. Pupils are then in a strong position to write their answer.
  • Mini-whiteboards: can be a helpful tool for drafting, especially for pupils who are less confident and don’t want to write down something that might be wrong.

This list was written off the top of my head on a Sunday morning, so I will keep adding to it as I think of more things that work for me, as I read more and develop my practice, and as I receive suggestions from others! For instance, I am only just starting to read about and reflect on how to develop pupils’ speaking in science — I often give pupils structured opportunities to speak in lessons but want to develop this further.

Carole Kenrick

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