writing skills

ELA + STEM = A Formula for Better Student Writing Skills

Partner with your language arts teacher to build strong communication and writing skills in your STEM classroom.

In a time of hash tags and 140 characters or less, our students are becoming less proficient in communication, writing in particular. What many students may not realize is that writing skills are crucial in every workplace, including the STEM workplace. Clarity, tone, and even grammar are all important elements to everyday writing tasks including email, reports, and projects. So much so that communication has been ranked as both the highest priority and the most lacking by U.S. employers. Communication is one of the 21st century skills needed for success. The STEM classroom provides an opportunity for students to develop these much needed writing skills, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

Partner Up!

writing skillsBringing writing skills into the STEM classroom can be a daunting task for teachers. If you’re like me, your confidence in writing conventions and styles may be lacking if your educational background has solely focused on the STEM field. While I wrote many a lab report, thinking about assessing the writing skills of my students was very intimidating. I knew bringing writing into my classroom was important, but was worried I would teach them the wrong thing. It was then that I realized the best thing to do was to walk down the hall to the language arts teacher’s classroom. This was the first of many partnerships that brought authentic writing activities to our students.

Working as a team with your language arts teacher, you can achieve two goals: bringing writing into the STEM classroom, and bringing STEM into the language arts classroom. The content of the writing is inspired by the topics of the STEM classroom. The style of the writing aligns to the objectives of the language arts classroom. For example, an assignment may be to write a persuasive essay about the most important element on the periodic table. Each writing piece is then assessed with a joint rubric. The language arts teacher assesses conventions and style, while the STEM teacher assesses content. It is the best of both worlds!

Planning is Key

writing skillsWhen planning your next unit, consider how writing skills can come into play. Would some content benefit from student research? Are there any controversial topics that could be debated? Do any subjects lend themselves to a creative piece? Once you’ve answered these questions, the next step is to simply meet with your language arts teacher to see how you can work together. Tie in both of your standards and outline your goals. Who will do what? What will be assessed? What will be done in each classroom? Within a short time, you will have a memorable assignment for your students to put their writing skills to work.

Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

Starting an Argument

You can kick your student lab experiences up a notch with argumentative writing. Here students make a claim, provide evidence, and link the evidence to the claim with a justification. I post these three elements on my wall and make them a part of nearly every lesson. Argumentative writing can also include evaluating alternatives from their peers or text, and refuting alternative claims with explanations. In the language arts classroom, this can evolve into a persuasive essay or debate. All forms of argumentative writing will not only develop writing skills, but also critical thinking through evaluation.

Step by Step

writing skillsProcedural writing is a great way for students to practice their clarity and language. The end goal may be to have your students write the procedure to a lab activity, inquiry lesson, or PBL activity. Before they can get there, start with a smaller task. The classic example is writing the steps for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. While it sounds simple, many students will find it is not! Have students write their procedure and then ask for a volunteer. Follow their steps as they read them aloud, in a literal way. Did they say where on the bread to spread the peanut butter? Did they explain how to get the peanut butter out of the jar? You get the idea. This is both fun and illuminating as it shows them why clarity is an important writing skill.

Getting Creative

Allow your students to express their creativity to explain or summarize content. Songs, short stories, and narratives can all be used to illustrate a variety of STEM topics. I have seen a poem about the journey of a water molecule through the water cycle, and a television show script of the symbiotic relationships within an ecosystem. Both clearly expressed the scientific concepts in a way I never dreamed of.

Reflect

If writing still intimidates you, reflection is a great place to start. This is a form of free writing that can be used for both quick writes and summative assessment. For example, students could reflect on the lesson that day in a ticket out. This will encourage students to put their thoughts into words. If using a portfolio, reflection can be a tool for students to self assess their learning. Reflection is an important piece of metacognition, and writing skills are developed in the process.

ELA + STEM = Writing Success

In order to best prepare students for the future STEM workplace, writing skills and communication need to be embedded into the classroom daily. Forming a partnership with your ELA teacher is a great way to gain additional support to meet this goal. Whether you start small with quick writing activities or form a whole collaborative unit around a major writing piece, your students will benefit from the authentic writing experience STEM provides.

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Alexandra D. Owens

Alexandra Owens is a STEM Education consultant based in Charleston, SC. She taught middle school science for many years and is now completing her doctorate in STEM Education at Texas Tech University.

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