Writing in Science: Guest post by Hochman and Wexler

I am incredibly excited to share a guest post from the authors of The Writing Revolution themselves: Juditch C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. They conclude the Writing in Science Symposium with a reflection on each of the contributions so far, and share their thoughts on how the ideas can be extended and applied to subjects beyond science.  The other contributors to the symposium and I are extremely grateful for their involvement. We hope this symposium has been useful, thought-provoking and sparks some ideas in the classroom.

Pritesh, Ben, Ruth, Tarjinder & Jasper. 

Writing in Science: Concluding the Symposium
by Judith C Hochman & Natalie Wexler

In his excellent introduction to a series of blog posts on writing in science, Pritesh Raichura writes, “The task of teaching pupils is not reserved solely for English teachers.  You cannot teach writing devoid of content, and you cannot truly say you teach a discipline unless your pupils become proficient at explaining the ideas of your subject in prose. So, teaching writing through your subject is inevitable.”  Although Raichura and other teacher-authors in this online symposium are writing about science, much of what they describe is applicable to all disciplines.

The strategies Natalie Wexler and I present in The Writing Revolution (Jossey-Bass 2017)— and which are disseminated to schools and teachers through a nonprofit organization by the same name—are as much a method of teaching content as of teaching writing. As Tarjinder Gill observes in her blog, too often students at the primary or elementary level have been asked to write only about their personal experiences or opinions, with an emphasis on self-expression and creativity. In addition, as both Gill and Ruth Walker point out, even when students write about topics beyond their own experience, a particular writing skill or “literacy objective” has been prioritized over the subject matter.

That kind of practice is unlikely to equip students with skills that transfer to the writing they need to do for subjects like science and history. And studies have shown that teaching the mechanics of writing in isolation as a set of rules and definitions generally has no positive impact. When embedded in the content of the curriculum, however, writing instruction not only develops skills but can also be a powerful teaching tool—at any grade level and for any subject.

In her blog about teaching primary science, Gill notes that she had to resist the urge—left over from her previous teaching experience—to push children to write at length. As she observes, “It is good to remember that pupils are simply reinforcing and practising poor writing habits if they are not secure sentence writers.”

But, as others in this symposium have recognized, sentence-level activities shouldn’t be confined to the primary grades or beginning writers. If teachers connect the activities with the subject matter they’re teaching, they’ll find them useful and challenging at any grade level. The form of the activity stays the same; the content is what determines the rigour.

For example, one of TWR’s sentence-level strategies involves the conjunctions because, but, and so. The teacher gives students a single independent clause and asks them to add on to it in different ways, using one or more of those conjunctions.

Primary students might be asked to complete the following stem: “Global warming is a problem for many species _________________” (The anticipated student responses in the activities below are shown underlined and in italics.)

Global warming is a problem for many species because they could lose their habitats.

Global warming is a problem for many species, but if people stop burning fossil fuels, it would help.

Global warming is a problem for many species, so scientists are trying to educate people about the dangers of fossil fuels.

Students in higher grades might be given this stem:

Aerobic respiration is similar to anaerobic respiration______________________ .

Aerobic respiration is similar to anaerobic respiration because both start with glucose and make ATP.

Aerobic respiration is similar to anaerobic respiration, but anaerobic respiration does not require oxygen.

Aerobic respiration is similar to anaerobic respiration, so  both autotrophs and heterotrophs use aerobic and anaerobic respiration.

In each of these cases, students need to return to the material they have been studying and mine it carefully for information to complete the stems. At the same time, they are practicing extending their responses by using conjunctions in their writing.

No matter what content you use with these kinds of activities, their specificity makes them far more powerful than an open-ended question such as, “Why is global warming a problem for many species?’ When students are asked to fill in a blank after but,for example, they must hold two contrasting ideas in their minds and find evidence in a text to support one of them. They are exercising judgment independently, but with the structure they need.

This is the kind of process Ruth Walker refers to when she discusses the power of certain words—like “whereas” and “similarly”—in guiding students to recognize the relationships between concepts. Like Walker, TWR has created lists of such words and phrases, organized into categories like “Time and Sequence” and “Change of Direction.” And, just as Walker does, we recommend that teachers display these lists so that students can refer to them easily when writing.

In the activity below, for example, specific transitional words guide students through the process of making connections between concepts:

  • All types of eukaryotic cells have many common structures, but they do not all look alike
  • For example, some types are long and spindly and others look like building blocks.
  • Therefore, each cell type has a different form.
  • However, they all contain the same core organelles.

Sentence-level activities can also help students understand and retain vocabulary that is crucial to building knowledge in science and other subjects. In his post, Ben Rogers discusses teaching specialized “Tier 3” words (Beck, McKeown, Kucan, Bringing Words to Life, 2007), noting that science teachers need to “help learners develop the rich abstract layers of understanding associated with even the most concrete piece of laboratory equipment.”As he argues, the key to accomplishing that objective is “practice, practice, practice.”

In addition to the various modes of practice Rogers suggests, teachers can also provide sentence stems that demand students analyze new vocabulary. For example, a teacher might give students the following activity to reinforce the meaning of mitosisand meiosis:

Mitosis and meiosis are similar because they are both types of cell reproduction.

Mitosis and meiosis are similar, but mitosis functions in the growth and repair of body cells and meiosis occurs only in sexually reproducing organisms.

Sentence-level activities can also be used to introduce students to specific ways of creating complex sentences using structures that appear frequently in written but not spoken language, like the appositive. Instead of simply giving students a definition—“a noun or noun phrase placed next to another noun to explain it more fully”—a teacher can first show students examples of appositives. Then students can practice underlining appositives in sentences like this one:

The building blocks of insulin, a protein, are amino acids.

The teacher can then provide students with a list of nouns—related to the content they’ve been studying—along with a list of appositives, and ask them to make the appropriate matches. After that, students can practice adding appositives to sentences they’re given or constructing sentences around certain appositives. After a while, they’ll begin to create their own sentences using appositives without being directed to do so.

Sentence-level activities also lend themselves to differentiation. Students who need more support can be provided with sentence stems, while those who are more proficient can write sentences after being given only a subordinating conjunction like “although” and specific words like “hydrogen” and “oxygen.”

When students are ready to embark on writing paragraphs and essays, they’ll be able to draw on their experience with sentence-level activities in drafting and revising. Because of the cognitive load imposed by writing at length, it’s also crucial that students first engage in effective planning.

In his post on lengthier writing, Jasper Green discusses various ways teachers can address the misconceptions that often appear in student essays without spending inordinate amounts of time on them. And, recognizing the demands that writing places on working memory, he urges that students use “context maps” to help them draft essays before they write.

Green is right about the importance of drafting, but in our experience having students complete a linear outline is an effective way of avoiding misconceptions and easing burdens on working memory. TWR’s Single and Multiple Paragraph Outlines, when quickly reviewed by a teacher, can reveal misunderstandings before students arrive at the drafting stage. And we have found that their linear structure provides a clearer guide for drafting than a “map” consisting of interconnected circles. An outline also helps students avoid repeating themselves and going off topic.

Below is an example of our Single Paragraph Outline. Students are taught how to use key words, abbreviations and symbols for their notes on the dotted lines.


It is gratifying and encouraging to see how the teachers who have contributed to this symposium are using strategies like TWR’s to build and deepen students’ knowledge while developing their writing skills. They may also have seen, as we have, that using these strategies boosts students’ reading comprehension and speaking abilities, as well as their analytical thinking. Their experiences and insights will be of great value not only to other science teachers, but to teachers of all subjects and at any grade level.


5 thoughts on “Writing in Science: Guest post by Hochman and Wexler

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