Student writing in science

My mentor and I are discussing if we should grade science notebooks, lab reports, and assessments for correct usage, punctuation, and spelling. Or should we ignore these errors and just grade for content?  —G., Maryland

My contribution to your discussion would fall toward the content end of the continuum. It’s important to assess students’ content knowledge, the appropriateness of their conclusions, their use of evidence to support a claim, how they apply their knowledge to situations, and how clearly they organize data. But students’ written work can be hard to assess if it is riddled with spelling errors or uses sentence structure that is hard to follow. The rubric should reflect the students’ age, experience level, and facility with the English language. For example, expectations and requirements for high school seniors should be at a higher level than those for younger students.

It’s interesting to follow up with students. We often find that students, including those with special needs or who are English language learners, can communicate orally but struggle to write their thoughts in an understandable form.  In these cases, if the student can explain their thoughts orally and/or with drawings, I would use that explanation to assess their learning.

But it’s also important for students to write for a variety of purposes and for their writing to be appropriate for its purpose. A museum zoologist I interviewed said that a good portion of his day was spent writing—notes, memos, observations, summaries, reports, journal articles, blog entries, and letters. Some of this written work was meant for his eyes only (notes, drafts, observations) while others were more summative and meant to be shared with others (reports, articles, letters). Your students’ work follows a similar pattern: writing for themselves (as in notes, reflections, exit tickets) versus writing for their peers or teachers to understand (lab reports or essays). The latter needs to be understandable to others.

When evaluating student writing, some teachers try to “edit” their work. But noting or commenting on every misspelled word and grammatical error is time consuming and assumes the teacher is knowledgeable of language usage and punctuation. Seeing a page of corrections in red ink can be discouraging to novice writers. (A colleague of mine on the science faculty is dyslexic—he noted that he would have a hard time correcting someone else’s work!)

My own elementary teachers were strict grammarians. We identified parts of speech, punctuated sentences, and diagrammed and parsed sentences. Unfortunately, we didn’t do much original writing. I struggled with writing in high school (even though what I wrote was grammatically correct), and I’m grateful to those teachers who encouraged and helped me to organize and express my thoughts in writing and eventually to enjoy doing it.  

So in my own secondary classroom, I focused less on conventions and usage and more on the content and clarity of students’ writing. However, I did require that students use complete sentences, spell the words on the Word Wall correctly, and label all numbers. I framed this in the context of communicating clearly: “You have important things to say. When you write clearly, we can all understand what you mean. And I really want to understand.” I modeled and reviewed what a sentence was and what to do if I was unsure of how to spell a word. It took time but eventually most students were able to meet these expectations.

My students and I also brainstormed and posted commonly confused words: to-too-two, your-you’re, their-there-they’re, its-it’s, and choose-chose. Having these on the Wall or in their notebooks reinforced their proper use.

Writing informational text in science is different from writing narrations, opinion pieces, or poetry, and students need guided practice, support, and opportunities to communicate this way (although a student of mine did write a series of poems about marine invertebrates that was quite good, both in content and in structure!).

[In an NSTA discussion forum, several teachers suggested the CAST Science Writer as a classroom tool. I have not used it personally but it looks good.]





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7 Responses to Student writing in science

  1. Jennifer says:

    I grade for grammar in addition to content. I think we do the kids a disservice if they believe that scientists do not need to communicate with the same level of competence as liberal arts majors.

  2. Subha Roy says:

    While grading, I point out the grammar mistakes by underlying or highlighting it, write comments about the mistakes but do not grade if those are minor mistakes. I will be concentrating the scientific element in the reports or answers. If they miss the units or misspelt the scientific vocabulary, I definitely take out points while grading.

  3. Kyle says:

    HS BIO teacher here. When I have my kids write in biology, I always include a “communication” strand on their rubrics. If there are spelling, grammar, etc. mistakes in the paper that distract the reader or make understanding the paper more challenging than it should be, I bump them down the scale on that communication score. Generally, the large part of their points comes from the content, however.

  4. Sue says:

    Retired HS teacher here. I focused more on the science and the content. However, I did correct for spelling, grammar, etc. hoping that the student would improve his or her writing for all subjects. When the it was tough to understand the content due to his or her writing, I would ask for a rewrite by giving them a small example.
    It does slow one down as a teacher, but believe me the students do improve if shown how.

  5. Kir Kehcsam says:

    I tried several times to get English teachers to jointly do science fair projects with me. I would give the assignment, instructions, requirements, do examples, etc and grade their experiment, notes, and written reports for scientific content and have their English teachers grade the report grammer. ‘No way’ is what I always heard, “We give our own writing assignments that we have to grade’. One year one of my students showed me their report they did for an assignment I had given with an ‘A’ marked on top, They said ‘You only gave me a C+ on it’ and that I grade too hard. I looked at it puzzled and asked who put the ‘A’ on it? My English teacher did. I asked why they turned it in to their English class and they said they needed to turn something in for a writing assignment. I read through the paper and not only did the student not bother to correct the obviouse grammer errors on the copy they later turned in for their English assignment but neither did that teacher. After school I spoke to the English teacher about it, and why they received an ‘A’ on it in her class and why errors weren’t marked. Her reply was ‘I don’t have time to read and grade their papers, my TAs (teacher assistants) do that. To top that off, she also allowed her ‘TAs’ to input grades into the computer for her…and the TAs are students just like the ones she teaches, many that get kicked out of regular classes and need to be TAs to get class credits.

  6. Joseph says:

    As a Master’s student who is now in a placement and student teaching, this problem is becoming more and more prevalent as I move into designing, implementing, and giving feedback on student assessments. I too have noticed in my short time in the field that it is very difficult to get a feel for the students’ content knowledge through written work when it is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors as you mentioned. I just want to say that I love the idea of having a Word Wall and would like to know a little more about what they looks like in the classroom. Is it something that is addressed everyday, at the start of a unit, or only when the need arises? I’m open to any and all suggestions for helping my students to engage in writing science.
    I’ve also tried my hand and designing rubrics to give the students an idea of what is in a complete sentence and how to structure their own writing but find that my advice either isn’t followed or is ignored. Then arises the problem of grading and giving feedback that may serve to damage the image of the student as a student scientist. I’m trying to find that balance of content and readability but it is sometimes a bit of a struggle. Do you (or perhaps a season commenter) have any suggestions for empowering student writing in science without setting the bar so high that it frustrates them?
    Thanks for any and all advice,

  7. Mary B says:

    Joseph —
    Here is more information on Word Walls in science:
    Putting Science Words on the Wall

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