January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

ELA in My Science Class? Wait..What?

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Jill Grace

For many science teachers, the thought of having responsibility for the language development of students is a sobering prospect. Burned into my memory are the comments of many of my single subject peers in my credential program that could be summed up with the phrase, “I’m teaching science, not reading, that’s the job of the language arts teacher,” clearly unhappy over the prospect of having to take a course on reading and writing in the subject area. Over the years, these words still echo in staff meetings, on discussion boards, and even over meals between colleagues.

From day one, I was shocked by this mentality.

Maybe it was all of the great field research experience I got as an undergrad. Maybe it was the years I spent working “in the field” before discovering my passion for teaching. Whatever it was, I always knew that these skills were central to doing science.

You see, the little secret is, anyone who has ever worked in a science-related job can actually be taught techniques and a lot of the science on the job, but you had better walk in the door with the ability to think for yourself, analyze data, and effectively communicate in collaborative settings and in writing, or you’ll never make it.

This isn’t just important in the “real world,” students in a science class need these skills for another important reason. As a teacher, I have no idea what my students have learned if they can’t communicate about it. Just selecting the “right” answer on a multiple choice test doesn’t actually tell me anything other than they are good at memorizing or can guess a correct response.

From day one in the classroom, I made it my mission to work on literacy skills with my students. This was no easy challenge. On most days I felt like I was the only content teacher asking kids to write. The kids even seemed confused, “This is science, why do we have to write?” I even had parents object. Despite students doing their best to comply, what I would get from them looked like something pulled out of a dialogue between two friends hanging out on a Saturday afternoon, “When I saw my bacteria I was so surprised. It grew because I put it there. I really liked this experiment and I want to do more experiments. Bacteria is awesomesauce.”

It became apparent that I couldn’t just ask my students to write a conclusion, I had to teach them what that looked like in science. I also had the added challenge of helping students who struggled with reading and writing, no matter the reason. For some, this was because they were learning a new language, others were below average in reading comprehension, written expression, etc., and some just have what I call “literacy phobia.”

Now it’s 2014 and Common Core is pushing the issue. Turns out, a lot of the strategies that I started using to help my students be successful complement beautifully the Common Core standards. I know a lot of teachers, however, who are running into challenges. So here are three things that I think are pretty important to get off on the right foot: implement an interactive notebook, find some good supplemental readings, and provide scaffolds.

Interactive Notebook (IN)
In my article last month, I hinted about the way in which the IN supports literacy. The IN basically begs for students to regularly record observations, express reasoning, make connections in content, formulate conclusions, and so much more.

To illustrate this, I have opened up the NGSS page for the preferred model for California 7th grade science. At the very bottom of each Performance Expectation, relevant Common Core standards are identified. As a case in point, I’m using a personal favorite of mine, Earth Science, MS-ESS2 (1-3) (this PE is in the 6th grade in the discipline specific learning progression). Identified in this table I created are the Common Core ELA standards identified, and how I think the IN supports that standard.

Keep in mind that students can use both the source material and their IN as a reference for all of this work. Once students understand how the IN works and what outputs are, all of this work is entirely realistic – you’ll be amazed at what your students can do!

Age-appropriate sources of science information
I have always moved beyond the textbook with my students as I feel it is important to share up-to-date information as scientists are always learning new things. Common Core standards support this behavior. One of the challenges that I face is finding good quality readings for students that are age-appropriate, scientifically accurate, timely, and interesting. With the help of some awesome teachers on the California Middle School Science Teacher’s Facebook Group, here are some suggestions:

The Story Behind the Science
This has great biographical pieces on scientists behind important breakthroughs with strong nature of science connections. They are lengthy pieces, but very well done. I can see myself using a portion of an article with my middle school students – or guiding them through a full article over a few days.

CPO Science
When CPO Science™ released their materials in the last science textbook adoption, they had great “ancillary” materials that included one-page biographies of scientists that give a lot more information than the standard textbook nod. Fortunately, these are fairly easy to find on their website. From the home page, select the tab “for students” → choose your grade-level → Under “Ancillaries” (right hand column), select skills and practice sheets → choose a unit. Not all units will have the biographies, but most do.

The Nature Education Project
Brought to you by the folks who publish the journal, Nature, this site looks promising! I just discovered it this past spring and I’m eager to try out some pieces on my students (possibly with a little editing by me). Since they are intimately connected to a primary literature source, the information is reliable.

Science NetLinks
Brought to you by the folks who publish the journal, Science, this page has a lot of different resources. Do a little digging and you’ll find some age-appropriate articles that can be used with your students. As with The Nature Education Project, since they are intimately connected to a primary literature source, so the information is reliable.

New York Science Times
Issued every Tuesday (you can even pick one up at your local Starbucks) this has good quality science writing and is one of my favorite go-to sources for science reporting (I find a lot of problems with other newspapers taking liberties with scientific information or generally presenting incomplete and therefore misleading conclusions). Since it’s written for a non-science audience, it’s fairly readable for many middle school kids.

National Public Radio
As with the New York Times, NPR also has writers with science backgrounds and therefore has good quality science pieces with the added benefit of many also being archived as a podcast students can listen to.

Science Daily
This is a really robust site that features a summary of the latest research findings with links to the original literature.

Scholastic Science World
With options that include print, web, and even an iPad app, students usually love their articles and find the reading more “user friendly” than the ones I’ve previously listed, so it’s great for a more relaxed reading source.

California Department of Education Recommended Literature List
Recently updated and with suggestions on how to use books for classroom instruction, this is a very comprehensive list of literature with a powerful search engine.

Appendix A of the ELA/ELD Framework
This Appendix provides a rough outline of strategies as well as references sites with recommended reading sources (you’ll have to dig around for science-related information).

Achieve 3000
With countless articles that can be searched for by topic and even Lexile level, this is a large collection of articles. For the full experience, your school needs to be a subscriber. I know a lot of teachers who have been using this, but my science colleagues and I in particular have mixed feelings (our predominant view is that the science-related articles are out-dated). I still share this, however, as it is a powerful site and I keep hoping they will add more science articles.

ReadWorks
With a free registration, you’ll have access to some research-based readings that include follow-up materials.

News ELA
This site has numerous articles from the news that allows for adjustments for various reading levels (so cool!)

Scaffolds
The third big challenge I have faced is supporting my students who have difficulty with putting ideas on paper. Quite frankly, everyone, even strong students, have rough days and just need a little more help. Scaffolding for students generally helps most find success and align work towards the expectations of the teacher. Here are a couple suggestions:

Brainstorm tables
Many times, even high achieving students have good ideas, but it’s intimidating to put it into a sentence on the first try. One example of this is when students need to make an evidence-based conclusion. A simple “claim/evidence table” usually helps them be successful:

Grace_Brainstorm

Sentence frames
When one’s brain turns to mush, a simple sentence frame can both help students understand what is expected, and also get the writing mojo going. The beauty of frames is that once students have used them once or twice, they don’t need them anymore. Here is an example of a frame for writing out that full conclusion sentence:

In conclusion____ insert claim____ My evidence is ____ insert evidence____.

Obviously sentences will need a little tweaking, but this is usually a big help to students.

Paragraph structure directions
Give students directions for how to construct a paragraph in science! This helps everyone understand exactly what the expectations are. Students who are more advanced writers won’t need this and can branch out on their own, but this little bit of guidance helps reduce anxiety and help students understand your expectations. Here is one example:

  • 1st sentence: thesis sentence where you identify your main point. If you are responding to a question, you should rephrase the question in this sentence.
  • 2nd sentence: first supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 3rd sentence: second supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 4th sentence: third supporting concrete detail with example or commentary
  • 5th sentence: concluding sentence (rephrase your thesis)

At least one example should come directly from something you learned in class. Use your new vocabulary!

I also often have the whole class brainstorm the structure, and I record the conversation on the white board. (Oh, and those funny little purple icons are a little thing called Depth and Complexity, it takes student writing to a whole new, glorious, level.)

Grace_Conclusion

Hopefully these suggestions will be helpful to you and your colleagues. No doubt there are other wonderful techniques and resources that have helped you blend ELA and science. I encourage you to join the discussion on our California Middle School Science Teacher Facebook group and share what has worked for you!

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is the President-elect for CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. I read with interest your Sept. post, especially the revealing
    comments that (1) you often needed to help students understand
    HOW to write (a conclusion, for example), not just what to write,
    and (2) scaffolds provide a key bridge to cognitive maturity.

    Several years of wrestling with this same challenge of “technical
    writing for science class” has yielded some shared background,
    examples, and activities at
    http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html
    and a two-day professional development workshop, repeated each
    summer at the Edward Teller Education Center,
    education.llnl.gov/teachers/teacher-research-academies/communications
    with a content overview posted at
    http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/hsst/ccss.themes.prac.html

    The Common Core standards have indeed made literacy the
    responsibilty of every teacher.

    T. R. Girill
    LLNL Visiting Scientist
    trg@llnl.gov

  2. Dear T.R. Girill,
    Fabulous – thank you so much for sharing!

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