Science as a catalyst for English

Carole Kenrick

“Who here is a physics teacher?”

Silence.

“Who here teaches children about space, electricity, forces, light or sound?”

One by one, hands gingerly rise — until the entire room of primary school teachers is waving back at me.

“That’s… physics! You all teach children physics. You’re all physics teachers!

I sometimes like to start primary physics CPD with this little ice-breaker. I find it helps to demystify the word “physics”, which can be associated in people’s minds with “nothing to do with me”. And to give everyone a bit of a confidence boost right at the start — I’ve been teaching physics for years, these are all familiar topics, this is going to be fine!

When I started teaching, I very much saw myself as a physics teacher.

But I didn’t think of myself as an English teacher too.

I remember an INSET day when a member of the English team exclaimed to the assembled school staff: “we’re all English teachers! We all have to teach children the meaning of words, how to write, how to express themselves verbally!” As an overwhelmed NQT, my first reaction was “eek, not another list of things to fit into my lessons!”

But gradually I came to understand how explicitly developing literacy in science lessons could help children succeed in science — last year I wrote a blog post on the subject: How do you develop literacy in science lessons?

And as I’ve thought more deeply about the links between science learning and English learning in the year since writing that post, I have seen more and more how science can be a powerful catalyst for children’s learning in English too.

Since the start of September, the children I work with have:

  • Read and reviewed books from the Royal Society young people’s book prize shortlist, discussing new vocabulary (e.g. entomologist, philosopher and palaeontologist) and adding it to their Science Word Book.
  • Used dictionaries to look up new words that have come up during lessons (whiskers, agenda, Cheltenham), then discussed their meanings and practiced using them in a sentence to make sure they really understand what they mean.
  • Planned, written, prepared and delivered an assembly to the whole school about their vision for their term as child science leaders, and sharing their experience of a workshop during which they recycled plastic.
  • Started writing a letter to local shops on the subject of gender inequality in the way that books and toys are presented and marketed, and how this can make children feel that certain things (such as science, sports, long / short hair) are not for them.
  • Written enthusiastically about the new scientific ideas and techniques they have learnt recently, for our science scrapbook.

The majority of these presented the children with opportunities to apply knowledge and practice skills that they had already learnt in English lessons. In some cases they were a bit rusty, and clearly benefited from the practice. And thanks to their strong intrinsic motivation — they wanted to do every single one of these things —they tried hard, which helped them focus and do these things well.

The more I learn about the science of learning*, the more I seek opportunities for children to make links between topics, to see and understand how their learning in one subject can support in another, and to revisit and practice new ideas and skills regularly.

So I am thinking more and more about how curricula can be designed with this in mind.

Last week I had the pleasure of delivering one of four workshops that make up the Ogden Trust primary physics professional learning days. The workshop title is Working Scientifically with Electricity, and the specific focus is on teaching children about how scientific ideas have changed over time (an area identified by my colleague Amanda Poole, who developed the workshop, as one that many primary teachers find especially tricky to teach). The workshop is grounded in the science curriculum but is infused with history, features a heavy dose of maths, and is absolutely packed with opportunities for practicing children’s English knowledge and skills.

Which means that, whenever I run it, someone will usually ask “wait, so would you do this in your science time, or your history time, or your maths time, or… in your English time?” In theory, it could be any of them. But in reality, science time is heavily squeezed as is. So my advice: use the science time for learning and practicing the science concepts and processes, for asking questions and investigating them. Then use the science learning as a catalyst to provide a meaningful context for children’s writing — once they have learnt, for instance, about the features of persuasive writing, they could apply them to communicate their scientific findings in their English “writing time”. Or their science learning can provide motivation to choose a book that they will devour at home. All of this builds on and embeds their science learning, and also their English.

We have been working on this at my school — using science learning as a stimulus for writing is something that our Science Lead introduced a couple of years ago, and we clearly see the benefits. It just takes a bit of time, with a cuppa and some curriculum maps, to work out how make it all fit together.

Now to have a proper sit-down and plan the links with maths…

Useful resources and opportunities:

  • The Ogden Trust puts on Primary Physics Professional Learning days to support primary teachers with teaching physics topics. One of the four workshops for this year features many examples of how the topic of electricity can be used as a catalyst for English learning. The next one is in London, on 1st November.
Electricity Primary Physics Professional Learning flyer
  • The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize — every year they shortlist six books, and you can apply for your children to be a judging panel. This means that you will receive a free copy of each of the books and a judging pack, and the children’s views on the books will help choose the final winner!
Pictures of the covers of the six shortlisted books
  • Whizz Pop Bang and Science+Nature are brilliant science magazines for children (I’m sure there are others but these are two I’ve seen and used and can recommend).
Cover of Science + Nature magazine
Covers of Whizz Pop Bang magazine
  • The Marvin and Milo experiment cards from the Institute of Physics are a lovely example of one way in which children can present their investigation method and findings — as a storyboard.
Example of a Marvin and Milo experiment card
Example of a primary science cross-curricular planning web

*I’m currently taking the STEM Learning online course on The Science of Learning, which I am enjoying very much so far!

Carole Kenrick

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