Developing Literacy Through and For Science

This article was published in SecEd in July 2014. Online article can be viewed here:

Prior to this year, literacy had been one of those issues that, in all honesty, I had never truly understood. I knew it didn’t just mean English, I knew it was important but I wasn’t really clear how a science department should contribute to what was certainly a whole-school issue. Two light bulb moments last summer made me realise why literacy needed to become a core part of what we were doing within the science department, and also how we could start to achieve this.

My light bulb moments

The first light bulb went off when I was listening to Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton) speak during the Teaching Leaders (@TeachingLeaders) residential week last August. He spoke wonderfully about literacy and how it was the responsibility of every teacher, but also how it belonged to every subject. The main thing I learnt that day was that if the only people teaching our students to write and communicate are the English department, our students will be limited in the forms of writing and communication they have experienced. Scientific writing and communication have different conventions and aims, so if we are going to get students to operate as scientists (as the subject specific Ofsted criteria for ‘Outstanding’ describes) then they need to develop this skill. Failing to achieve this will also set our students up for a tougher experience at A-Level and beyond.

On returning to school, my new found passion (as it was fast becoming) for literacy in science was further reinforced by the second light bulb moment. Reading through a controlled assessment from a student who is expecting to achieve three A* grades in science, I noticed that the method he had written for his experiment was written like a descriptive essay. My first thought was, “Who taught him to write like that?” Surely a top science student like this would know to write a method as a set of simple bullet points? Then I realised, no-one had taught him– he was writing in the only way and style he knew; one which was just not appropriate for the task.

Adapting to the changing landscape

Our school will not be alone in having a whole-school push on literacy at the moment, probably in response to the more challenging exams being set at GCSE. Looking back just a few years shows how rapid this change has been in science, and suggests why the student described above has found themselves in this position. When he was in year 7 & 8, the GCSE exams we were preparing students for were mostly multiple choice questions. The exams he himself faced were a mixture of short and extended answers. Clearly the literacy demands have increased hugely in this short time, a change which a school which is all boys (except for our current year 7) and has a high proportion of EAL students is finding significant. This shows the two sides to the literacy problem I now realised our department faced; on the one hand we needed to catch-up on and fix the neglected skills of our current Key Stage 4 students to enable them to access and be successful in their GCSE exams; and at the same time we needed to look at our Key Stage 3 programme to make the changes necessary to avoid this happening every year.

Getting the team on board

The first thing that needed to happen was to change people’s mind sets. The department, staff and students had to realise that there needed to be a new emphasis and expectation on literacy. Being part of such a positive and learning-focused team made this stage straightforward, and we could start to look at what practical steps could be taken to help achieve our twin goals.

Improving literacy to access GCSE exams

I analysed a series of past exam papers for biology, chemistry and physics from core and additional science. I was looking at the command words used in these exams, and how they varied between foundation and higher papers, and also if there were differences between the three sciences. From this I produced “Wordles” as a way of showing the department the most common command words used. We realised that not all of these were being used in lessons and our internal assessments. We now incorporate these command words into our learning outcomes each and every lesson, providing a daily opportunity to discuss their meaning and how to respond to them. I also produced a guide for the five most common command words to show students what they meant and how to respond to them. This was produced with the help of our school’s literacy co-ordinator and it has now been included in student handbooks for next year so that it can be used across the school.

command words


Improving literacy at Key Stage 3 to be a better scientist

The new emphasis in recent years on enquiry within science has started the process of students operating as scientists more realistically. By getting them to not just think and act, but to communicate as scientists has brought the literacy skills to the fore in our Key Stage 3 lessons. We ask students to consider how a scientist would discuss what they have done, how a scientist would write about what they have seen and so on. With the use of a literacy mat we wrote ourselves, students are now much better supported in their writing. The mats provide reminders on style of writing, sentence starters and so on for different types of writing they use in science lessons (explaining things, planning experiments, making conclusions, justifying decisions and so on). We have also brought in writing frames that allow students to write up their practical investigations in the same format as the GCSE controlled assessments.

Sharing our learnings with others

Whilst it would not be accurate to say that practice within the department is fully developed and consistent at this stage, the progress we have made in just a few months has been significant. My role has been to keep the message consistent and clear, and that has meant keeping literacy within the teaching and learning conversations taking place within the department. One way of doing this has been to spread the message beyond my own department, so that the department then see the importance of it and the progress we are making. This has included talking about literacy at local TeachMeets, having it as a focus in my Teaching Leaders Impact Initiative and speaking at our weekly whole-school teaching and learning briefings. Having other schools contact us to see what we have done and brought in has given the team confidence that we are on the right track with this difficult area of teaching.

The results so far

There is plenty of progress still to make as a department, and measuring the final impact at this early stage is difficult, but a look through exercise books and controlled assessments certainly shows that the students’ skills have developed markedly during the year.

My advice to other middle leaders in a similar position is:

  • Don’t ignore the importance of literacy in your subject area. Forget literacy as just being about writing and see it as communication; it will be much clearer to teachers in your subject what it then needs to look like in lessons and having that clarity in your vision makes other changes much easier.
  • Don’t expect too many quick wins in this area, but take every opportunity to remind colleagues and students why it is important and tell them where you can see they are improving.
  • Make Key Stage 3 assessment as useful in preparing students for Key Stage 4 as possible. Develop writing frames and other resources to support students as they learn these skills.
  • To prepare students for tougher GCSE exams, analyse past papers for command words; then use them in lessons as lesson outcomes, teach their meanings and use them in all internal assessments.

A pragmatic approach to SOLO

I first came across SOLO taxonomy at a TeachMeet run at the Teaching Leaders National Conference in the summer term.  The session that really caught my attention was by @Mr_D_Cheng who outlined how he had used SOLO taxonomy in his lessons and across his department. A colleague of mine happened to have been on another course earlier that term and had also come back keen to talk about SOLO and try it out in our school. There are plenty of websites and blogs around to get you up to speed on SOLO if you have not come across it before, but in essence it is a hierarchy describing the depth of understanding being shown on a topic. The thing that impressed my colleague and I most was the elegant symbols denoting each stage or level. If you want some background reading try these;

Embarrassingly, I then did nothing about it. I am not sure why I took a full term from hearing about a good idea to doing something about it myself, but that is how long it took. This may not actually be so unusual amongst teachers generally, but it is for me. I love finding new ideas, strategies and techniques and trying them out. Not is some glossy, new-must-be-better way, but more in a new-might-just-be-better way. Perhaps the time of year was not ideal – the end of the school year can be a great time to innovate and try things out as some of the pressure is off once exams have passed but with schemes of work to re-write, new assessment frameworks to develop and so on it just never happened. It may also have been that every time my mind wandered back to SOLO, I found more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog ( on how he changed his mind about SOLO certainly put the brakes on me trying it out. Firstly, I was impressed someone was bold enough to go back to what they had considered, tried, found to work and later on found to be less effective than they had originally found. This reflective and challenging approach was something I liked.

Still, in thesolo end SOLO kept popping up and I thought I had best try it myself and give it a go. With David’s note of caution strong in my mind, I questioned why I wanted to try SOLO at all. What was it that had caught my attention months ago? Was it the terminology to describe learning that could be applied across the curriculum? Not really. Was it the neat looking resources (such as the hexagons) that would allow students to show their depth of understanding? No – they always seemed a bit artificial anyway in that they encouraged students to justify links they were making between topics that were not really there. It was the symbols. No more, no less.

So, to dipping my toe for the first time. I was planning a GCSE revision lesson on the DNA, cell structure, GM and cloning. I started by getting students to answer a 6 mark question “Describe the function of DNA”. They all had a go at this. In our school they are used to peer assessment so they were ready when I handed out the green pens to do “2 stars and a wish” or something similar. It was here I described what the symbols meant as quickly and concisely as I could.solo lesson

I had students swap books and simply draw the symbol they thought best fitted the level of understanding shown by the writing. A quick scan of the room identified an example of each stage which we then checked as a class for consistency and I was staggered by how quickly students understood what this was about. Immediately conversations were happening about what they should draw if links were being made between ideas but the information being linked was somehow factually wrong. Seeing it as a hierarchy meant the important point that ‘knowledge and content are King’ was understood very well.

I then tried to scaffold an answer to the same 6 mark question on the board with the class’ input. Rather than producing a mini-essay plan or a conventional mind map as I would normally have done, I built up using the the SOLO symbols again. You can see what happened here.

 mm1   mm2


I then gave students the same amount of time as before to answer the original question. Engagement was incredible, the volume and quality of what was written in a short time far surpassing what would normally be expected from the group. The building up of knowledge in this way helped the students see what was most important and formed a structure for their writing. Paragraphs were being used (unprompted!) to split up different areas of content relevant to the question. The connectives that the English department have been working hard on developing were being used more appropriately than before. Overall, the students seemed to have a much better grasp of what was expected of them from their writing and feedback was that the liked the new symbols.

Repeating the process with other sets and other year groups produced very similar results. It is early days but I do feel that the use of the symbols is helpful for me in explaining what I am after from a task, and for students in describing where they are in their own understanding and seeing what they need to do to improve.

It is early days still and I want to keep trying this out with more groups and am encouraging others in the department to do likewise.Importantly, by using SOLO as a way of focussing peer feedback and an alternative to mind mapping a topic seems to me to have avoided the arguments that have risen against SOLO. No time wasted learning labels like relational or extended abstract, no credit for forced links between content by using hexagons – just more clarity in what they know, and what they need to do improve.

First attempt at blogging

I started using twitter to keep track of ideas and thoughts relating to science and education a few months ago. The best posts often led to interesting blog postings which often made me really think about my own practice as a science teacher. Working in a school, working life is so busy it can be very difficult to find time to stop, reflect and think about teaching and learning in the day to day routine. This is why I think it is so important to have student teachers on placement join our department – you are forced to think about teaching and learning and then discuss it on a daily basis. I strongly believe that working with a colleague to develop their practice is one of the very best ways to improve my own teaching. Reading blogs became a new stimulus for this thinking and reflection that I have struggled to find in the past few years, and I have made several clear changes to my own practice based on reading these articles.

So why have I decided to start writing my own blog? Well, I aim to use it as an exercise in clarifying ideas in my own head – by trying to organise thoughts into a written format I expect they will become clearer and more useful for me. If other people read these and find something that they find helpful as well then so much the better!

So, here goes. I don’t know how often I will write on this blog, or quite what I will be writing about but I will certainly try and put something up here every few weeks.