Talking and writing about science, using scientific phrases correctly won’t happen by osmosis. It takes practice and encouragement

Developing literacy is a bit like driving a car. You don’t get better at it by talking about it, you must actively use your skills to improve. As an ex-teacher in a special school, literacy featured in the planning of all lessons (how to improve the literacy skills of pupils and then how to make sure their ability to demonstrate what they have learned isn’t hindered by their weak literacy skills). 

Over the course of a topic, I’d try to fit in these literacy skills:

  • Vocabulary and keywords
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking

They’re just as applicable to science teaching. 

Vocabulary and keywords

A picture of a Chemistry student

Source: Getty Images

Promote and encourage the use of scientific language in class

Never shy away from science vocabulary – embrace it and encourage students to do the same. Introduce new words and get pupils to practise saying them (especially with long words like electrolysis). Break words into syllables and have students practise using the word in a sentence (an answer, description or explanation).

Word banks, word walls and keyword sheets give students required vocabulary and a non-threatening way to look these up when required (rather than asking in front of peers). Look at word roots and where these words come from (again, electrolysis is a good example). Make sure GCSE command words are included as every year the examiners’ report mentions students who threw away marks due to confusing their command words.

Reading

Consider the typeface, size, colour and spacing of the text provided to students. While the aim (for most) is to read the exam paper independently, this doesn’t mean that students must be reading exam material in the exam font at the start of year 9!

Shared reading is a powerful tool for developing literacy (I read three Harry Potter books before I discovered the correct pronunciation of Hermione from hearing someone say it on TV). Text can be shared on hard copy (good for text marking by highlighting or underlining to identify key points), by using a visualiser (good for teacher workload and reading exam questions or textbook excepts) and on screen.

Reading can feature in comprehension activities, DARTs (directed activities related to texts), interpreting and annotating exam questions and reading about science in the news – match the news source to the students’ reading age or literacy level.

Writing

When developing writing, leave enough room on worksheets for your students to write in. Otherwise you could be limiting what they write. Look to your English department for guidance on how they tackle persuasive writing, explanations, arguments and instructional writing so you use a common approach, familiar to students. The English department will also have a technique for drafting and creating a structure for written work – make sure you aren’t reinventing the wheel.

Encourage students to rewrite a passage of text to improve or summarise it (also a good technique for correcting mistakes). Get them to read the text back and see if it still makes sense.

Scaffolding is a useful technique as then students focus on the science rather than the structure or framework into which they are writing. As students become more confident at structuring their writing, you can remove the amount of support. Scaffolding can be as basic as a set of headings or as detailed as a cloze activity (but with longer gaps rather than just missing words). If you haven’t used structure strips, these are long thin strips of paper with questions or headings that students stick down the margin of their books and use as a framework to structure their text (download examples as MS Word or pdf).

Scaffolding is a useful technique as then students focus on the science rather than the structure or framework into which you write. As students become more confident at structuring their writing, you can remove the amount of support. Scaffolding can be as basic as a set of headings or as detailed as a cloze activity (but with longer gaps rather than just missing words). If you haven’t used structure strips, this are long thin strips of paper with questions or headings that students stick down the margin of their books and use as framework to structure their text.

Speaking

To get students speaking you can use a variety of techniques like sentence starters (on the whiteboard or printed – download examples as MS Word or pdf) that students can complete and speaking activities like Taboo, in which students must describe or explain a scientific principle without using the keywords given to them. Encourage students to ask rich open questions (ones that don’t have a yes/no answer) and to answer similar questions. Finally discussion work needs to be carefully planned but giving students a scaffold (for example viewpoint cards) can support those who find this difficult.

To get students speaking you can use a variety of techniques like sentences starters (on the whiteboard or printed that students can complete. Use speaking activities like Taboo, in which students must describe or explain a scientific principle without using the keywords giveen to them. Encourage students to ask rich open questions (ones that don’t have a yes/no answer) and to answer similar questions. Finally discussion work needs to be carefully planned but giving students a scaffold (for example viewpoint cards) can support students who find this difficult.

It is easy to pay lip service to these strategies, but to make them work you must embed them in the culture of your lessons. Make sure students have the confidence to make mistakes and that other students are accepting and offer feedback in a supportive away. In my last school we adopted this culture and consequently students were willing to read in class and attempt a wider variety of activities without support, which I’m sure was a factor in the improvement in results and progress 8 scores.

Rob Butler is SOME WHEELBARROWS TO COME

Download examples of starter sentences and structure strips from the website: URL TO COME