In the past, schools have tried to improve reading and writing scores by informing teachers across the curriculum that they all were teachers of writing and reading and that students should read and write across the curriculum. An article on the Education News website, suggests that schools were on the right track. In her article, “Learning to Write Teaches Students Science,” Julia Steiny recounts the three-year struggle of teachers at Westerly State Street School in Rhode Island to reverse the disheartening trend of declining fourth grade science test scores.
Following recommendations from its K-12 Science Task Force, State Street’s teachers began implementing them, “including its strong emphasis on teaching writing” as a way to improve the “inquiry” part of the state-mandated NECAP science testing. The NECAP is a thinking test, not a knowledge test, so even though it took two years to pay off significantly, teachers helped students with inquiry by helping them to think and reason better.
Using writing to teach them to think is a natural fit because “writing is always the product of thinking. Writing forces a kid to organize her thoughts to be expressive and communicate clearly.” No longer did the school leave writing instruction to the English teacher; science teachers used writing to show how well they understood science.
Writing instruction included various strategies. Students learned to respond to the NECAP’s vocabulary so that students learned terms like “infer,” “predict,” or “explain.” Teachers helped them begin by providing sentence starters that started with connectors such as “However,” “In conclusion,” “Whereas,” and “Therefore.” Students were required to prove their thinking in their writing.
The results of this effort are impressive: by the fall of 2011, State Street’s fourth graders attained 80% proficiency, the 8th highest in the state. Their school serves Westerly, the 8th lowest-income in the state.