If you teach science, you should be paying attention to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. The last section of the document is explicitly written for Grade 6-12 teachers in content areas other than English language arts (ELA). This section articulates reading and writing standards that students should experience through their specific content (e.g., science in science class). Therefore, science educators must understand the expectations set by the CCSS in regard to science. These standards are not asking science teachers to become ELA teachers; however, we are being challenged to apprentice students in the kinds of writing with which scientists are engaged. While the process might be demanding and a bit messy, we need to do our part to better prepare our students for the challenges they will face as they enter college and the workplace.
In this blog entry we will 1) highlight the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing, 2) identify the two key text types and purposes for writing in science, and 3) clarify differences between argumentation and explanatory/informational text to support achievement of the CCSS.
First, here are the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing. They are important to science teachers because they provide broad standards that define the skills and understanding that all students must demonstrate in science as well as other content areas.
Second, the two key text types/purposes for writing in science as identified by the Writing Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (WHST) 6-12 are
These two types of writing represent the kinds of writing practiced by scientists. Incorporating this type of writing and thinking has been encouraged in science since the introduction of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) and the National Research Council (NRC) National Science Education Standards (1995). Often it is incorporated into goals around the Nature of Science or apprenticing as a scientist. As science students engage in writing it should be authentic to the content of science rather than considered "add-on" assignments. To achieve this level of writing in science classes, students need opportunities to practice and improve on the skills and understanding of writing like a scientist (further defined in WHST Standards 4-10). Scaffolded experiences need to be embedded into your science curricula to support on-going development of these writing skills.
Last, there has been some confusion in the world of science education about these two types/purposes for writing in science because of terminology. Science education literature has used two terms, "scientific explanation" and "scientific argument," as a way to organize writing involving claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaim. Here are WHST standards #1 and #2 side-by-side.
#1. Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
#2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/experiments, or technical processes.
WHST standard #1 (argument) is looking for writing that explicitly incorporates claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaims. So that means that you use WHST 1 (argument) whenever you assign writing that involves a clear relationship among claim(s), counterclaim(s), evidence, and reasoning whether you call this a "scientific argument" or "scientific explanation." While explanatory text may be part of an argument (for example, applying knowledge of a scientific theory or principle as reasoning) the main purpose for writing an argument is to develop a scientifically persuasive document supporting a claim that is based on scientific evidence.
WHST standard #2 is more "report-like." That is, you use that standard when you ask students to convey information without explicitly making a claim and supporting it with evidence and reasoning. The purpose of this type of writing is to share or report currently held scientific facts and details about a topic or concept without developing an argument. The written document is intended to relay information accurately (scientifically) and clearly.
As you engage students in writing to meet WHST standards, it is important to share the purpose for writing as well as clear expectations. That is, an argument should include claim, evidence, reasoning, and counterclaims; whereas, informative/explanatory text should explain or inform without the added burden of developing argument. The clarity of purpose and expectations will help students in learning the intended skills and also in recognizing the difference between the types of writing they will be asked to accomplish.