In many schools, writing is largely reserved for English and social studies classes, which limits students’ ability to get writing practice across the curriculum. When students do write in math and science classes, they’re often asked to summarize what they’ve learned—they’re not given tasks that guide them to further learning through the process of writing. This can ultimately affect their ability to become strong, versatile writers—a basic proficiency in the modern working world.
Cross-curricular writing isn’t a novel concept, and research has consistently shown that by writing about connections between their lives and what they learn in science classes, students become more invested in the subject and achieve greater academic results.
“There is a common misconception that science is all about hands-on activities with writing embedded at the end to form a conclusion.... This could not be farther from the truth, as writing is part of every step in scientific inquiry,” writes Gina Flynn, a kindergarten teacher in Minnesota, in Literacy Today. When students document the entirety of their science experiences through writing, Flynn adds, “they are able to emulate real scientists by recording their ideas, observations, predictions, data, and findings.”
Here are three ways to foster authentic writing opportunities that allow students to think critically and learn deeply in science classes.
Assign Science Notebooks and Journals
When students write down their ideas, thoughts, and questions while learning a new concept, “they begin to make predictions and form a hypothesis, which can be represented using pictures or words in their science notebooks,” writes Flynn. Actively processing what they’ve learned through writing, she adds, motivates them to “think more deeply about what they are seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling.”
Young students might find it exciting to record their observations and thinking in drawings or pictures, but that doesn’t mean they can’t jot observations down in words in their notebooks as well. “Even at third grade, you could have students write lab reports,” writes Tammy DeShaw, an upper elementary teacher in Michigan, who adds that these notebooks don’t have to be as detailed as the ones high school students keep—these young students can learn a lot by writing the outline of a lab report.
Former middle school teacher Jeremy Hyler used notebooks and journals in his science classroom. He asked his students to get a composition notebook or sketchbook large enough to use throughout the year, and encouraged them to carry it wherever they went. “This would include when they do labs, experiments, are taking notes in the library, or when we go out on school grounds for certain lessons,” writes Hyler. At first, his students saw this as just one more thing to do, but they came to “see the notebook as a valuable anchor tool for all the things we do in science,” he adds.
Provide Low-Stakes Writing Prompts
A summary of scientific concepts is useful when students need to review the material, but writing about their process of acquiring that knowledge can reinforce and deepen students’ understanding of the subject as they’re learning.
When DeShaw was teaching a unit on plant life, for example, she had students write about what they learned using the RAFT (role, audience, format, topic) formula. Her students would pretend to be one of the structures of the plant (roots, leaves, stem, flower, or seed) and write to another part of the plant about any topic. Her students ended up with plenty of imaginative scenarios, such as writing an email to explain the work they do and to request a vacation, or writing a speech about why they should be voted “Most Important Plant Part.” “The kids love the creativity, and I can evaluate whether they understand (in this case) the parts and functions of the plant. Plus, it gives them practice at different writing formats,” she explains.
James Kobialka, a seventh-grade science teacher in Maryland, also uses low-stakes writing to foster students’ critical thinking. “The most important thing about it for me is that it’s not censored, and it’s not too highly structured,” he says. To open a unit on conservation of mass, for example, Kobialka didn’t define that term—he showed students a picture and asked them to write about these questions: “What do you notice about the atoms on both sides? How can you explain that?” Thinking those questions through, in writing, prepared the students for a long discussion.
Get Creative and Interactive
Once writing becomes an integral part of the learning process in the science classroom, there are numerous ways to make it an even more meaningful and productive experience for all students.
To get kids to write more in her classroom, DeShaw often starts off a lesson with a warm-up activity called “Science Picture of the Day”: She provides students with an everyday picture—like a butterfly or a girl jumping over a puddle—and asks them to write down all the things they observe about it, list any questions they have and things they infer, and finally list any science they see. “I love this activity because it makes students start to notice the science that is around them in their everyday lives, all while thinking critically, inferring, using reading skills, and writing skills,” DeShaw writes.
In middle and high school, traditional notebooks have a lot of benefits, but pivoting to digital versions has helped teachers open up more opportunities for students to be more creative and collaborative with peers, teachers tell us. In her high school biology class, for instance, Lee Ferguson requires students to submit digital notebooks to showcase their learning, and the response has been largely positive—students mention that they can personalize their online notebooks by adding in resources they selected and collaborate with peers, especially during asynchronous learning and on homework. They also like the fact that the digital notebooks “could easily be taken with them to be used in future biology classes,” Ferguson writes.