Darren Mead is an experienced science teacher whohas been described as ‘the Jimi Hendrix of teaching’ and ‘perhaps the most intellectually engaged of all British teachers’. Based in the north-east of England, he shares his classroom-based interpretations of research through his highly respected blog, Sharing Pedagogical Purposes.
A common and very useful technique used in the teaching of teaching these features of scientific writing is the genre pedagogy cycle. This is a strategy that is applicable acriss the curriculum; here I present how I use it as science teacher and here is how a History teacher uses it in there subject (Kudos- this is where I first encounterred it on Lee Donaghy's superb and illustrative blog posts ) I have simplified this below.
The skill of essay writing is complex and so naturally fits into something that can be broken down into smaller parts. The first step of the genre pedagogy cycle is to deconstruct an exemplar piece of text that is ideally closely related to the topic the students will practise with independently. This prevents them from merely copying the teacher and is an opportunity to revisit prior knowledge. This is followed by a joint construction stage in which the teacher who, through questioning, involves the students in the co-construction of a text. This will inevitably will be a collection of student ideas which the teacher improves and talks through in the process of recording those ideas. It is vital that the teacher shares their internal monologue while doing this, saying what they think and why certain sentence structures work and so on. Next, the students are sent away to practise writing independently. The students will require large amounts of feedback during and after the writing process, along with multiple opportunities to write academically to fully develop this essential skill.
An example dissected.
In preparation for writing an essay on ‘Where does new human life come from?’ in which they are asked to use connectives to sequence the action (e.g. next, firstly, following that, this leads to, then), the students, with guidance and teaching, break down a couple of paragraphs on external fertilisation in amphibians:
"External fertilisation is a form of reproduction when the female’s ovum is fertilised by the male’s sperm outside of the female body. Since sperm need to swim and the developing egg must be moist, external fertilisation always occurs in water. Elaborate courtship rituals are sometimes used to ensure that the sperm and the eggs are released close enough together to ensure fertilisation. It is therefore unsurprising that fish and amphibians are the organisms that use this method to create new life. "
"External fertilisation has many advantages, especially for the parents. After fertilisation, many species of fish and amphibians do not expend effort in looking after the young. This allows them to feed and breed again so that they produce large numbers of offspring to increase the chance of some surviving to adulthood."
The purpose of this is to identify the strategies, styles and rules that must be focused on while writing. As a rule, I always start by recording student observations and comments before moving on to any aspect of teaching, which allows me to start where the students are at. I then begin to model that this is a collaborative process which, in turn, sets up one the main requirements for deliberate practice to take place – namely, that the students need to understand the task so they have some element of control. I find that this helps to invest the students in the conscious and focused effort needed for success. If the students do miss something, then the example (if it is well planned) should show them how to write scientifically. A list of the characteristics evident in the example might include:
Written in the third person.
Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence that says what something is and what it does.
Each topic sentence includes a topic noun early in the sentence.
Written in the past or present tense.
Is specific in describing where and when something occurs.
Sequences the processes using time connectives.
Only after the students have this understanding will I present the task they are to complete. This will highlight the content to be included and the writing skills I expect to see – in this case:
Extended writing task: Where does new human life come from?
Your task is to write a report about how the male and female reproductive systems develop and how they work in the conception and development of new life.
The report must include the following information:
The organs involved correctly spelled and their role described.
Describe the process of puberty for your gender and the opposite one.
Explain how fertilisation and implantation is more likely on certain days of the menstrual cycle.
Name the sex cells and explain how they come together.
Describe each stage of how a fertilised egg grows into a baby during pregnancy.
Explain how the placenta and the mother’s blood supply provide the oxygen and the nutrients needed for the baby to grow.
Writing to inform
To inform means to give facts to another person.
When writing to inform/report, make sure:
Language is clear, factual and impersonal.
Use short and clear sentences.
Break up the writing with diagrams, illustrations, pictures and subheadings.
Topic nouns organise the text.
Writing to explain
To explain means to make clear, show the meaning or to account for – you are trying to say how or why something happens.
Writing to explain is generally in the third person and in the past or present tense.
Use clear and factual language.
Use sentences that link a cause and an effect.
Use connectives to compare (e.g. whereas, though, while, unless, equally, however).
The next phase of the genre pedagogy cycle is to jointly construct some writing with the students. Once more, the control of this activity is seemingly with the students, but it remains an opportunity for me to model, when necessary, how I would go about completing the task. I start by giving the students a minute or two to come up with a potential topic sentence. I then either take multiple examples and write them up on the whiteboard (or type them up) or take one and seek to improve it.
The process may take student writing through the following developments:
Skill being practised
The organs are the ovaries, uterus and testes.
Addition of detail
The main organs are the ovaries, uterus and testes.
Locating when this is occurring
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes.
Adding detail – linking back to the topic sentence
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The ovary releases the egg.
Locating the action
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The ovaries are where releases the egg.
Checking and correcting grammar
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The ovaries are where the egg is released.
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The ovaries are the place where the egg is developed and released.
Applying sentence structure and going back over to add further (locating) detail
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The female’s ovaries are the place where the egg is developed and released. The male’s testes is the place where the sperm are developed and released.
Final – interestingly worked backwards to add more detail and connectives to emphasise detail
The main organs involved in reproduction are the ovaries, uterus and testes. The major female organs are the ovaries and uterus. The ovaries develop and release the egg, whereas the uterus grows and develops the embryo. The male testes develop and release sperm cells.
The process continues, building up each sentence and paragraph until it is complete or it is clear that the students are ready to practise independently. This is clearly a slow and time consuming task. This particular task (which is for Year 7s) takes about 45–60 minutes before they get to practise independently. However, the conditions for deliberate practice have now been established and the students are therefore more likely to set about practising and writing to a high(er) standard.
The process of practice is hard work. During this phase, it is important to focus on whether the students are aware of what it is they are being asked to do rather than on the quality of what is being written. Having the success criteria and examples available makes this a much more tangible thing for the students to understand and therefore deliberately practise.
Opportunities to demonstrate learning
There are two purposes in planning this kind of learning activity. Firstly, it acts as another exposure to the information but it also serves to transfer the knowledge to subtly new situations, taking the student from novice to expert. Secondly, the type of feedback required for this type of activity will be more academic or content based, as opposed to the procedural or ‘how to’ feedback that practice requires.
Even simple strategies such as completing an exam question can achieve this, providing the students have the chance to rehearse the ideas, elaborate on them, recall them and then reflect on them with constructive feedback. The feedback a teacher provides should be a combination of content based comments and guidance on how to do something. This includes how the knowledge is organised.
I have once again become very interested in student literacy. Especially in how it can deepen student thinking and develop their understanding of the content through deliberate practice. Science teachers (at least this one does) get very fustrated with students answer "it gets faster". What gets faster? Why does it get faster? So, for me, the ability to connect cause and effect either the through connectives or verbs is a key strategy for students to practice.
This worksheet is designed to firstly give the rules and some explained examples. The examples show how changing the position of the cause and effect and/or the "connective" can change the emphasis from being placed on the cause to being focused upon the effect. Simply put whatever is found at the end of the senetnce will have the emphasis; placing the cause before the effect places the emphasis on the effect; and vice versa. The student response "it gets faster" is fine in short questions but will very quickly become meaningless whem explaning ideas that have multiple steps or factors in play. The examples are also used to highlight the need to locate the action, another key skill in (more complex) scientific explanations. Students are asked to label the Cause, Effect and COnnective to encourage a little metacognition on the structure of sentences.
The worksheet is designed to increase the cognitive load throughout, allowing students to embed this skill. The first task merely asks the students to select an appropriate connective. It also sets up more examples students can refer to, by having this as such a clozed exercise students get to interact with more complex scientific examples.
The second task again reduces cognitive load by asking students consider where the emphasis is. Is this a sentence that highlights the casue or the effect taking place. Again this task helps provide a range of examples, and labouring the content. It is hoped that this activity will encourage student to metacognitively consider how they write.
The third task is bigger step up asking students to rewrite the sentences to change their emphasis. The support that makes this leap of faith manageable is that all the information they need is in the example they are working on and in the previous tasks.
Finally students have a few questions to answer. To complete this they need to infer what the emphasis needs to be, and then structure an answer. Although the questions have novel situations, they content is the same as in previous tasks so that students can focus on writing this well. The questions increase in difficulty with questions 1 and 2 are simple and straightforward to answer as either the cause or effect is given, while questions 3 and 4 students will need to workout what will happen and then explain it. The examples in Task 1, which uses the language of resultant force should support them in completing this