Writing-to-Learn in the Inquiry-Science Classroom

February 15, 2008

By Baker, William P Barstack, Renee; Clark, Diane; Hull, Elizabeth; Goodman, Ben; Kook, Judy; Kraft, Kaatje; Ramakrishna, Pushpa; Roberts, Elisabeth; Shaw, Jerome; Weaver, David; Lang, Michael

Abstract: Student writing skills are an important concern for every teacher. This is especially true when using inquiry-based approaches in the science classroom. Writing promotes critical- thinking skills and construction of vital scientific concepts and challenges ingrained misconceptions. Yet, many teachers encounter practical problems when incorporating writing into science-inquiry activities. In this article, the authors asked middle school science and writing teachers to generate a list of common barriers to implementing writing-to-learn strategies in science-inquiry lessons and suggest methods by which these difficulties might be overcome. The resulting suggestions should help teachers deal with the inevitable problems that arise when incorporating writing-to-learn in their classrooms. Keywords: inquiry, middle school, science, writing-tolearn activities

Writing skills are an important concern for every teacher. Research and experience, however, indicate that this is especially true when using inquirybased science activities (Keys 1999; Lawson 1995; Ryan and Walking-Woman 2000). Researchers have demonstrated that writing not only allows students to reflect on existing knowledge and experiences, but it also enables them to actively construct new understandings (Anders and Guzzetti 1996; Yore, Hand, and Prain 1999). Writing thereby promotes metacognition and conceptual understanding (Wallace, Hand, and Prain 2004). Ryan and Walking-Woman state, “Exploratory writing, written field observations, close description, and written discussion, among other activities, are essential components of scientific inquiry” (1). Not surprisingly, many teachers have enthusiastically embraced writing- to-learn strategies in their science classrooms (Keys et al. 1999; Klein 1999). The goal is to help students develop skills that enable them to think critically, construct vital scientific concepts, and challenge their ingrained misconceptions.

Yet, we found that many teachers encounter practical problems when incorporating writing into their science-inquiry activities. Therefore, in this article, we briefly describe how we identified some of these problems and suggest solutions. We argue that instead of viewing writing as “one more thing” added to science, writing should be understood as an integral part of doing science. We provide teachers with a list of potential barriers and solutions so that they may avoid common problems altogether or reduce their severity. In our view, it is vital that teachers work to effectively implement writing-to-learn strategies in the context of inquiry- based science activities.

Identifying Concerns

During a recent semester, we asked middle school science and writing teachers to generate a list of common classroom problems they experienced while implementing writing-to-learn strategies in science-inquiry lessons. We then ranked the problems by their severity (that is, not a problem, slight problem, moderate problem, or serious problem). We initially grouped responses based on common elements. We then narrowed these initial groupings into categories reflecting similar concerns and gave the categories a descriptive, summary title. We then asked the teachers to consider each in turn and suggest methods by which the difficulties might be overcome.

Solving the Problems

When first introduced to writing-to-learn strategies, virtually every experienced teacher agrees with the emphasis on creative and critical thinking. Nevertheless, when confronted with the task of incorporating such activities into science-inquiry teaching, many ask, “Will I be able to do it with my students?” The answer is an emphatic yes. None of the difficulties we identified is sufficient to prevent a teacher from using this effective tool.

However, to successfully infuse writing into the scienceinquiry classroom, specific learning strategies and practical solutions for problems encountered are needed. The following sections outline key writing-to-learn strategies and offer classroom-specific teaching tips for middle school teachers to handle common barriers.

Scheduling and Time Constraints (Serious to Moderate Problem)

Many teachers were concerned about having enough planning time for the management of both students and course work. Workloads for teachers are already high. Scheduling writing-to-learn activities in science necessitates coordination of two subject areas. Some teachers claimed this involved too much time and energy. This was particularly true for teachers who relied on text-based programs and commercially prepared materials for which daily planning is relatively easy. This objection is valid. Yet, teachers must keep in mind that just as with other teaching styles, although initial preparation is time-consuming, their time commitments decrease significantly each year once they have developed lessons.

In many cases, teachers were able to overcome scheduling and time constraints by asking for opportunities to plan that were directly related to writing instruction. They stressed organization and flexibility, and frequently renegotiated and adjusted scheduled activities. Middle school teachers we questioned also said planning must take into consideration schoolwide interruptions such as holidays and test days. In their experience, no more time is required for writing-to-learn strategies than for traditional activities. Writing that is authentic and embedded into inquiry activities actually requires less time to teach because students soon become motivated and involved in the process (Lawson 1995). Writing becomes an integral part of the science and not simply an additional task to perform.

Regardless of school or grade level, teachers agreed that students need multiple opportunities to write in the same genre. For example, students should use reflective journal entries, short essay reports, written observations, and cooperative writing at several stages in the inquiry process. At the middle school level, teachers should repeat similar instructional activities over the course of a semester or school year. In this way, students have multiple opportunities to practice and hone particular writing skills, and educators have the opportunity to model the use of writing in scientific investigation.

Teacher and Student Attitudes about Writing (Moderate to Slight Problem)

Why are middle school teachers hesitant to add writing- to-learn activities to their inquiry-science teaching? Many of the middle school science and writing teachers consulted felt they need a stronger “buy in.” When teachers understand and accept a method, they actively include it in their classroom repertoire (Turnbull 2002). Our experience indicates the same is true for writing in the science-inquiry classroom. We found that teachers must feel comfortable with both the inquiry science and basic writing-to- learn strategies. Granted, leaving the comfort zone of traditional, expository, or text-based teaching takes some courage. Yet, the modest personal risk can be viewed as less than that of the risk to society if schools fail to provide students with effective writing and problem-solving skills.

To this end, teachers must become familiar with lessons ahead of time and modify activities to meet both science content and writing objectives. An excellent strategy is for writing and science teachers to develop projects together. Our science teachers recommended teaching science activities to cooperating language arts teachers prior to working with students to obtain feedback on writing ideas. They also suggested developing a repository of exemplary inquiry lessons that may serve as models for developing new activities. These might be centered on thematic units or tailored to the resources of a particular school.

An often-heard student objection is “Why are we writing in science? This isn’t writing class.” Usually, this concern is encountered not because the writing tasks are difficult, but because students have not been given adequate instruction in writing content and forms. As Hand, Wallace, and Yang (2004) noted, laboratory activities and reports are traditionally prescriptive in nature and mainly an exercise in memorization. In our view, encouraging students’ problem solving and creative thinking is far better than testing their ability to memorize. Effective critical-thinking and writing skills can be developed and are transferable to other content areas; however, rote recall of specific facts has limited value (for a review, see Lawson 1985). By consistently infusing writing into the science-inquiry classroom, teachers have the opportunity to model the use of writing as the norm in science.

Evaluation and Feedback (Serious Problem)

The middle school teachers identified evaluation and feedback as serious concerns. As Akerson and Young (2005) noted, “Learning to write well is a long process that comes through teacher modeling, instruction, practice, and feedback.” Direct instruction in writing skills is not sufficient. In the words of Wallace, Hand, and Prain (2004), “The data indicates [sic] that students are unfamiliar with and need enculturation into scientific report genres.” We define scientific genres as scientific forms of expression. We suggest that teachers model the use of appropriate genres so that students understand how the final product should be written (for examples, see Miller 1997). Then, provide them with a heuristic, such as the science writing heuristic (Hand, Wallace, and Yang 2004), to guide their writing and problemsolving activities. Wallace (2004) provides many good suggestions. Research has demonstrated significant gains in student achievement using these activities in an inquiry- learning environment (Rudd et al. 2001). Regular feedback and encouragement with ample opportunities for revision are also essential (Jones 1991). Teachers use written reviews, peer-response sessions, individual face-to-face conferences, and largegroup discussions of sample student papers. Based on our current understandings of writing-to-learn science, students who receive meaningful feedback regarding revisions and their rationale gain a better understanding of the writing process and the nature of science (Jones). This process also develops metacognitive awareness that stimulates science content learning (Wallace, Hand, and Prain 2004).

Ideally, evaluation of inquiry activities should emphasize both content and process skills (Lawson 1995). For example, while the class is engaged in an activity, many teachers observed each student’s performance. They used portfolio research notebooks to collect products of individual-student and group work, such as lab worksheets, drawings, journals of observations, self-evaluations, and answers to assigned questions. Many of the teachers with whom we spoke had students journal about their learning, write analytical or reflective essays, or use e-mail discussion boards for conversations about experiments. Such activities encourage students to reflect on their developing knowledge and demonstrate scientific-thinking skills in assessable ways (Akerson and Young 2005).

Implications for Teaching Practice

As Keys (1994) noted, “The task of creating a written product can be a powerful tool for developing science understandings because it requires the writer to retrieve, synthesize and organize information.” Yet, as we mentioned earlier, we found that many teachers encounter practical problems when incorporating writing into their science-inquiry activities. Clearly, a great deal must be kept in mind when implementing writing-tolearn strategies in the context of inquiry-based science activities. Developing the needed teaching skills takes considerable practice and commitment. However, once those skills have been acquired, the inquiry classroom becomes an exciting and rewarding place. The middle school teachers’ suggestions featured here are intended to help teachers new to inquiry deal with the inevitable problems that arise when implementing writing-tolearn in their classrooms. We encourage you to give these suggestions a try. The potential benefits to your students are great.


Akerson, V., and T. Young. 2005. Science the “write” way. Science and Children 43 (3): 38-41.

Anders, P. L., and B. J. Guzzetti. 1996. Literacy instruction in the content areas. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Hand, B., C. Wallace, and E. Yang. 2004. Using a science writing heuristic to enhance learning outcomes from laboratory activities in seventh-grade science: Quantitative and qualitative aspects. International Journal of Science Education 26 (2): 131-49.

Jones, B. 1991. Writing-to-learn assignments for secondary- school earth-science classes. Journal of Geological Education 39 (3): 176-77.

Keys, C. 1994. The development of scientific reasoning skills in conjunction with collaborative writing assignments: An interpretive study of six ninth-grade students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 31 (9): 1003-22.

_____. 1999. Revitalizing instruction in scientific genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing-to-learn in science. Science Education 83:115-30.

Keys, C., B. Hand, V. Prain, and S. Collins. 1999. Using the science writing heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 36:1065-84.

Klein, P. 1999. Reopening inquiry into cognitive processes in writing-to-learn. Educational Psychology 11(3): 203-70.

Lawson, A. E. 1985. A review of research on formal reasoning and science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 22 (7): 569-618.

_____. 1995. Science teaching and the development of thinking. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Miller, T. 1997. Functional approaches to written text: Classroom applications. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. ERIC Doc. Rep. No. ED417422.

Rudd, J., T. Greenbowe, B. Hand, and M. Legg. 2001. Using the science writing heuristic to move toward an inquiry-based laboratory curriculum: An example from physical equilibrium. Journal of Chemical Education 78 (12): 1680-86.

Ryan, P., and L. Walking-Woman. 2000. Linking writing to the process of scientific inquiry: Strategies from writing teachers in the disciplines. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. ERIC Doc. Rep. No. ED458655.

Turnbull, B. 2002. Teacher participation and buy-in: Implications for school reform initiatives. Learning Environments Research 5 (3): 235-52.

Wallace, C. 2004. An illumination of the roles of hands-on activities, discussion, text reading, and writing in constructing biology knowledge in seventh grade. School Science and Mathematics 104 (2): 70.

Wallace, C., B. Hand, and V. Prain. 2004. Writing and learning in the science classroom. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer.

Yore, L., B. Hand, and V. Prain. 1999. Writing-to-learn science: Breakthroughs, barriers, and promises. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. ERIC Doc. Rep. No. ED441688.

William P. Baker is academic dean at Southwestern College, Phoenix, Arizona. Renee Barstack is a faculty member of Glendale Community College, Arizona. Diane Clark is a faculty member at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Arizona. Elizabeth Hull is an associate professor in biomedical sciences at Midwestern University, Glendale, Arizona. Ben Goodman is a teacher in the Dysart Unified School District, El Mirage, Arizona. Judy Kook is program coordinator of the National Center for Teacher Education, Tempe, Arizona. Kaatje Kraft is a faculty member at Mesa Community College, Arizona. Pushpa Ramakrishna is a faculty member at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Arizona. Elisabeth Roberts is a graduate student in the College of Education, University of Arizona. Jerome Shaw is an assistant professor in the Education Department, University of California, Santa Cruz. David Weaver is a faculty member at Chandler- Gilbert Community College, Arizona. Michael Lang is director of science in the National Center for Teacher Education, Tempe, Arizona. Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Jan/Feb 2008

(c) 2008 Clearing House, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

comments powered by Disqus