So, first day of the summer holiday and I’m in a conference suite above a museum on a training course. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and anyway it’s about something that I think can help my students; Enhancing Literacy Skills in Science. This is an area I think can always be developed in my teaching and something that I have found a particular challenge this year, as I feel that the level of general literacy of my students has not been great and I haven’t been able to use the methods I usually employ which have worked in other parts of the country as effectively as I wanted. Literacy also got a few mentions in the recent Ofsted report of my college where it was noted:
“In too many lessons teachers do not challenge students sufficiently to provide fuller answers, justify their ideas and use appropriate subject terminology. While some teachers take opportunities to develop literacy and numeracy skills within lessons, too many miss opportunities to develop these skills fully and imaginatively.”
Literacy is therefore a hot topic in the college and even though most of my A Level students will have at least a B in GCSE English they do not have sufficient literacy skills to do the best in the subject. This is of particular concern to me as Head of Biology as it is biology that is the most verbose of the natural sciences.
Here are my notes and thoughts from the course which I am writing up to consolidate and figure out what I want to do next year. The course was split into three sections Developing Talk, Developing Reading and Developing Writing. The idea being that even though it is the writing that most people care about as that what they are going to use in their exams the other two will help develop that too.
The biggest difference I’ve seen in my students this year is their lack of talk in lessons. Working in Portsmouth and Italy has given me an expectation that students can talk a lot, so having classes full of timid, quiet students this year has been a very unfamiliar experience.
Student talk in lesson can be used to:
- think through ideas
- express thoughts and opinions
- influence or convince other people
- articulate ideas
- rehearse thinking and reasoning prior to writing
- share knowledge
- feedback and review ideas
- adapt and refine ideas
Activities that could be used to develop talk:
The overarching theme for this section was about providing students with a definitive statement that they have to discuss. This reminded me of a section in Wiliam, D (2011):
“Asking questions may not be the best way to generate good classroom discussion. Asking which country was most to blame for the outbreak of the World War I invites students to plump for one country or another. If, instead, the teacher makes a statement, such as, “Russia was most to blame for the outbreak of World War I” students seem to respond more thoughtfully because they realise that just agreeing or dissenting is enough – reasons have to be given.”
Face to Face
Get the students in two lines facing each other provide a statement that the students are going to talk about. Give 30 seconds for one row to argue for the statement to the student opposite them then 30 seconds for the other student to counter argue the point. Then rotate one of the rows so that each student is now with someone new. After a couple of rounds of that so students can repeat, refine and enhance their arguments and counterarguments swap the rows round so they are now arguing for the other side.
Provide a list of different items and ask the students to decide which one they think is the best/most important etc. This then leads into a Think, Pair, Share type activity.
As an individual, students read a statement and decide where they would place themselves on the ‘Opinion Line’. They then discuss the statement and opinions with others in their group, providing reasons for their opinion. Does their position remain the same?
As much as this image is nice, I think I’d like to have an Opinion Line that doesn’t have a middle area so students have to place themselves on one side of the fence.
So these activities require some statements that students can discuss here were some ideas:
- All smoking should be banned
- Nuclear Power is the best option for combatting climate change
- Enzymes are the most important protein
- Haemoglobin is more important than Collagen
- Pick the most important organelle of the cell
- This is the most useful genetic technology
- Which drug has the worst effect on a person
It would be nice to come up with some of these statements/lists for each topic in the course as these activities could be used in any part of the lesson depending on what you wanted to do.
Build An Answer
Give a long answer type question then provide some keywords that students might want to use in their answer. Students can then discuss what order they would put those words in and what connectives they would use to create a answer. The students could provide suggestions for their own key words that could be added and slowly an answer is built. These words could then be placed on post its so students can write their answer at an individual level. Mini whiteboards could be used and moved about the room to generate answers.
Provide a list of keywords to do with a topic and get the students to write as many statements about that topic as possible. This could be used to test prior knowledge and check for misconceptions.
In pairs or small groups, students look at the pictures in the centre of the rectangles, They note down everything they can see. Then move on to the next rectangle; trying to make inferences or guesses about how the pictures or texts fit together. In the outer rectangle, they write down what they need to find out to get the whole story.
Honestly I’m not too sure about this one, I’ll have to have a think about where it could be used. One idea I had was for AQA GCSE ISA practice placing data tables from the source sheet that they need to analyse in Paper 2.
Think Talk Write
Dialogue and Talk are important in the classroom the work of Robin Alexander (2008) gave good effect sizes (if that’s your bag) of Collaboration vs individualistic: 1.03 and Collaboration vs competition: 0.82. Classroom management needs to be kept on the ball to ensure that students are talking about the work and not anything else, but I think that there is scope in some of these activities to get my students discussing science more. This leads to the nice teaching sequence of Think, Talk, Write:
“The ability to read about science with healthy scepticism is a key element of scientific literacy. Moreover it is a pre-requisite of citizenship and playing a part in democracy”
Wellington, J. & Osborne, J. (2001)
Reading isn’t just about knowing the words, it’s about decoding the text into meaning.
“Although… skilled decoding is necessary for skilled comprehension… decoding is not sufficient in the long term. Despite the plethora of research establishing the importance of teaching comprehension strategies, very little comprehension strategies development occurs schools (Collins, Block & Pressley, 2002, pp. 384–385)”
In Norris et Al (2008)
So we need to ensure students take part in Active Reading in lessons in order to meet the two main challenges in science reading: Technical language (science vocabulary) and The use of logical connectives (needed to express the key abstract underpinning ideas of sequence, chronology and causality) (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). According to Davies & Greene (1984), Active Reading should have the following elements:
- a clear sense of purpose
- generating and testing of hypotheses
- correction and interpretation of initial interpretations
- reference to visual and diagrammatic information
- a coach, who knows the material and tools and closely monitors pupil practice
- collaboration with other pupils
Reading also needs to be supported at different levels; the word (definitions) the sentence (meaning) and text (context) and so different student activities should be designed to allow all levels to be developed. There is a range of taxonomies of words in science; names, processes, concepts and mathematical words (and symbols) that need to be decoded and understood by students. The correct spelling of these words has seen a big comeback in exams and so students need to be made aware of this and spelling practice might need to be fitted into lessons. I am thinking that providing students with vocabulary books they they slowly fill in with keywords and definitions may be a good way of helping the students next year.
The use of textbooks to help students in their reading sounds like a good place to start, however it seems like this is not the best idea as the reading age of textbooks are often two/three years below that of the students age (TimeTabler.com) while exams are written at the expected reading age of the students and they are struggling to read them. (Daily Telegraph and BBC News Online, 2012). If we want students to be able to write complicated sentences then they must be able to read complicated sentences. After tweeting this I was given a link to work of Jeanne Chall (see Acknowledgements) who in her 2002 book The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom? where she summarised her research into textbook difficulty in The United States of America looking at the decline in textbook difficulty from the 1950′s to the 1970′s and that those students who used the more challenging textbooks did better in the SATs than those that used easier to read texts. Her continual research into the mid 1990′s show no improvement in the reading difficulty of textbooks. Another reply to my tweet (see Acknowledgements) gave me an article by William J. Bennetta, A Dumbed-Down Textbook Is “A Textbook for All Students” which criticises publishers for creating textbooks that are for the least able in the class (his language is rather more direct “dimwits” and ” backward students and dullards”)
Though I haven’t found anything that specially looks at A Level textbooks, I can’t help but assume that this same reading age issue is present at Post-16 too. Even if it isn’t my students are most likely used to reading textbooks at a much lower reading level so the jump up to A Level must be bridged in a supportive way so all students can access the material and then I can ensure that materials I use in lessons provide enough of a reading challenge for students so that they can improve their reading.
A Strategy for Shared Reading
Here we look to The KeyStage 3 National Strategy materials, which in retrospect were pretty good. They turned up just as I was starting teaching and I haven’t really thought about them much since I left the 11-16 sector, however I seem to remember someone (a lecturer maybe) saying that along with CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education) the KS3 National Strategy Materials were a few of the interventions that were actually shown to work at improve students’ understanding. Luckily due to the wonders of the internet if you’ve never had a look at the materials they are all available here: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081007160501/http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/secondary/keystage3/subjects/science/strandpubsc_/
A sequence for shared reading in science could go like this:
- Text is on a slide so that students and teacher can look at this together
- Teacher gives an overview of the text and the techniques used
- Specialist vocabulary will have been taught before reading and is highlighted in the text
- Teacher reads the text aloud, encouraging students to follow this
- Features of the text are highlighted – type, purpose, audience, voice, language
- Teachers and students annotate the text together
Students may need help on how to skim/scan read if it is a long piece of text and using techniques for verbal discussion will also help decode the reading. Vocabulary will need to be looked at as required and students will need guidance on how to highlight/annotate the text.
If pupils are to comprehend, i.e. create meaning from text, they need to engage, make decisions, try out ideas, talk, organise, infer, deduce – approaches which are not included in traditional reading comprehension exercises. Engagement will involve a high level of challenge, collaboration, conversion of information from one form to another and metacognition; it might involve activating prior knowledge and thinking, and scaffolding.
Active reading strategies, including Directed Activities Related to Text (DARTs) are intended to help pupils make active use of a text, not simply remember, regurgitate or rehash it. This puts the onus on the teacher to ensure that; students need to use their skills of inference and deduction in order to extract meaning (this will sometimes mean modifying a text – cutting it up, reordering it, leaving parts out) and students have a real reason to carry out the task (such as solving a problem) – they have to make decisions and so they have to engage with the text. There needs to be a real reason to collaborate (such as having to come to a consensus), active reading is often collaborative. Strategies to be used such as: skimming, scanning, close reading, organising, prioritising and justifying are made explicit. Above all, students need to actively engage with the topic and the text.
For students to become engaged, the reading task must:
- Have a purpose (a real outcome that involves using the text and perhaps changing the form of information or ideas)
- Be challenging (often the format in text books does all the hard work: organising the information, underlining key words, etc.)
- Be collaborative: most of us work better and develop our thinking when we can try out ideas on others and receive feedback – this is particularly true of EAL learners
- Involve metacognition: thinking about thinking – or considering the skills that were useful in carrying out the task. It is important to allow time for pupils to review the thinking skills they have used
- Convert ideas/information: in order to take ownership, the pupils need to change the information into a form that suits the purpose.
It might also involve:
- Activating prior knowledge or thinking: finding ‘a way in’, a picture to discuss, a thought shower, speculation about one small part of the text
- Scaffolding: complex tasks such as problem solving make great demands on a novice.
- A grid, or pre-teaching of certain categories can help the students to focus on one thing at a time.
There are two main types of DART: reconstruction of text or analysis of text. I’m guessing the most used DART is a classic fill in the blanks (cloze) passage but it’s good to be reminded that there are other ways that students can interact with text:
I have used the Reconstruction side much more than the Analysis side, this is something I should work on next year. I think using Biological Sciences Review and Biology FactSheets (http://www.scribd.com/collections/2301008/A-level-Biology-Factsheet) would be an excellent source of text that should challenge students.
The text can be analysed in three possible ways according to Wood et Al (1992) in Wellington,J. & Osborne, J. (2001)
- literal – searching for words, statements which appear in the text
- interpretive – understand and interpret the text e.g in order to make inferences
- applied – apply this comprehension of the text e.g in evaluating evidence or making comparisons
One of the key ideas that I got from the course was how much guidance the students need when working on literacy activities. I suppose just like with their maths skills, it is assumed by science teachers that students can just transfer skills and ideas from one lesson to the next, which really isn’t do-able. A lot of the literacy techniques the students have done before in English but unless they are reminded that they have done them before, guided through the activity and familiar terminology is used then they will not get the most out of the lesson.
By ensuring that students are talking and reading well in lessons then that means when they come to writing they should be able to apply their knowledge and skill in a more productive way. As when it comes down to it, the writing is the aspect of literacy that matters the most in science education as that is how they are assessed in the exams.
Research completed by Professor Lynne Cameron for Ofsted highlighted the following weaknesses in writing:
- At text level, Students are not clear about the different text types used in science. They often fail to structure and organise their writing.
- At sentence level, their writing lacks detail and they can’t express their ideas clearly
- At word level, their writing lacks a range of vocabulary and punctuation errors are common
Though these conclusion were originally for advanced EAL students the research sample had been in the UK education system for an average of 10 years, and had therefore had most of their schooling in the UK, these writing errors persisted to Key Stage 4. These errors are also common weaknesses for many pupils whose first language is English.
Therefore at these levels students need guidance and practice so that they can improve. At a word level students need to be able to spell accurately and use key words appropriately. At sentence level, they must be able to construct meaningful sentences using the keywords, the correct use of abstract models as well as using complex writing techniques such as subordinate clauses. . There are many different types of text in science writing so students need to be able to write well constructed paragraphs to persuade, evaluate, analyse, discuss (argue), inform, explain, recount and instruct. These different text types have different levels of demand. Most students can explain, recount and instruct, but the higher mark questions towards the end of exam papers require them to be able to evaluate and discuss complex issues often relating them to a new context.
Differences between the Sciences?
Even at GCSE the difference between the writing requirements of the three natural sciences can be seen. The Summer 2012 AQA Higher Papers were analysed for command word frequency, the results are shown below.
The ability to explain things correctly is much higher in Biology whereas the calculation aspect of Physics is key and Chemistry seems to have a big question requiring evaluative writing. It would be interesting to expand this analysis to Foundation GCSE papers and look across the exam boards and more years as well as see if the patterns are similar or different at A Level.
A Sequence for Teaching Writing
- Establish clear aims: what is the purpose of the writing that is being done?
- Provide example(s): this could be student work if long answer exam questions or sourced from the internet if looking at journalism or other forms of written communication.
- Explore the features of the text: students work on their own/small groups so they can…
- Define the conventions: what commonalities can be found in the exemplar text?
- Demonstrate how it is written: Teacher led construction of an opening paragraph/section so that the class…
- Compose together: the first part of the writing, this enables a….
- Scaffold the first attempts: to be made.
- Independent writing: students work on their own to produce their own work. Good examples can then be shared with the class in order to…
- Draw out key learning: go over some students work, maybe with the use of a visualiser on the interactive whiteboard so that all can…
- Review: looking back at what was required and if the work produced meets the initial aims.
I think I can speak for most science teachers when I say that usually I start with number 1 and go straight to number 8. No wonder students find writing hard if they are not given the opportunity to see examples of good and not so good writing and help co-construct the success criteria before picking up a pen. I think some teachers might worry about the amount of lesson time that this sequence would take up when there is so much content to cover, however I think that there is no reason why a piece of extended writing of different styles could be used as the summative assessment task instead of an end of topic test. Only if students are given the time to write scientifically will they improve. I think I shall look into getting some students’ papers back from the summer exams so I have examples of writing in the long answer questions. Teacher generated ‘student answers’ are usable but nothing compare to the real thing.
Long Answer Questions
When preparing students for the long answer questions at GCSE and A Level they need to be given guidance on how to decode the question. Teaching them and giving them support and practice in: Identifying key words in the question, Planning the required structure of the answer and Using good literacy techniques to write is key so they can gain as many marks as possible.
Highlighting/circling command words and keywords in the question is always a good idea in the exam, students are allowed highlighters and I’ve often read in Examiners Reports that scripts often do not have any student annotations in which could be used to assist them in their answers. Good literacy techniques some with practice and by also reading work that has good literacy techniques in. When it comes to planning an answer students can often find the blank page an intimidating so the following method looks like a good way to get the students through the steps required to answer a long questions.
Divide a piece of paper into 4:
- Section 1 (4mins): Write down as many keywords as you can think of that you might want to use in your answer.
- Section 2 (4mins): Draw any pictures/diagrams that you think might help with your answer e.g. particle diagrams, equipment, structures
- Section 3 (5mins): Write down some sentences that you think you might want to use in your answer. Don’t worry about the order/sequence.
- Section 4 (5mins): Construct a full answer ordering your sentences in a suitable sequence.
This whole activity can take 15-20mins which the students do not have in the exam, but with practice they should be able to refine their technique so they can write good long answers when it comes to the real thing.
In order to get the best writing marks students need to be able to write well. The use of connectives is one of those things that many struggle with here are a few that might help if used as a ‘placemat’
As before, sharing success criteria with the students is key in making sure they are going along the right lines. Here is what’s required for the long answer questions: Students…
- Show a sound knowledge and understanding of the subject area
- Use a wide range of key words accurately
- Answer in continuous prose
- Organise information clearly, putting points in a logical order and linking them together
- Use all the information provided to give a clear and detailed answer to the question
- Have faultless spelling, punctuation and grammar
With the upcoming changed to the KS3 and 4 National Curriculum, I think that students will be required to answer science questions with well written long answers showing a high level of literacy. It is important that science teachers are able to assist students in developing their literacy. The students know enough science to be able to pass the exam but it is their writing that is letting them down. The best thing we can do as science teachers is develop students talking, reading and writing so that they can communicate what they know clearly and accurately.
It is important that any literacy activity is not slotted in abstractly into the lesson/scheme of work. Ideally the activity should be there to help deliver knowledge as well as the literacy skill. Embedding these ideas into lessons will ensure that the focus of the lesson is on the science and all the extras complement the work so that students can develop and progress. My plan is to make sure that every week there is some kind of speaking, reading or writing activity in my lessons so that students have ample opportunity to practice. It is clear that as well as the usual collaboration with Maths Departments with Science to ensure commonalities in equations, graphing and data analysis, links with the English Department need to be developed so that the correct language of literacy is used so that students are comfortable with what is happening in their science lessons. As a Biology teacher I think that this is a high priority.
Dialogic Teaching Essentials: Robin Alexander
Education as Dialogue: Robin Alexander
GTC Research for Teachers: Effective classroom talk in science
GTC Research for Teachers: Improving learning through cognitive intervention
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Enhancing Literacy Skills in Science: Course Materials written by Martin Reece
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