In response to a question raised by one of the Teachers during a leadership and teacher development program (LTD) ‘ Palestine – whether we can ask students to write stories in science classrooms, this study was conducted. This study investigated the effects of science story writing project on the development of students’ scientific literacy kills and on discovering some of students’ understanding or misunderstanding. Students generated stories that merged scientific information discussed in science classrooms (content-oriented writing).
The study was conducted in the school year 2014 at one of the six grade classes at one of the private schools in Jerusalem. The results supported the argument that was discussed during the LTD program. The results showed that writing stories helped students become more familiar with scientific issues and helped them develop their literacy skills. Students also developed a better understanding of scientific concepts and improved their interest in science.
On the basis of these findings, it was recommended that teachers should be encouraged to engage their students in the practice of writing science stories in a way that integrates scientific information and a way that reflects their understanding. It was also recommended to extend this practice with other classes in different levels, and explore additional issues related to narrating science through students’ story writing.
Suritt Yusiff 111 in the holy book Quran mentions, (Assuredly, in their narrative is a lesson for men of understanding. It is not a thing that has been forged, but a fulfillment of that which is before it and a detail exposition of all things, and a guidance and a mercy to people who believe). This means that story and storytelling can be used as entertaining technique that enhance learning and develop learners’ knowledge.
In Palestine, compulsory basic education covers 10 years (Grades 1-10), divided into the preparation stage (Grades 1-4) and the empowerment stage (Grades 5-10). In compulsory education, the role of the teacher is paramount and therefore, it is the responsibility of teachers to help students realize the importance and the impact of science on societies from the early stages. Teachers are to help students develop conceptual understandings and inquiry abilities in order to be productive citizens and science learners.
Compulsory education is considered the first step of the educational system in Palestine, where students get basic knowledge and skills that they should develop for a better future in Palestine. Later steps depend on the accumulation of knowledge and skills gained in compulsory stages. These stages are so critical period for developing positive attitudes towards science education. Unfortunately, in Palestine 20% of students enroll the scientific stream according to the information provided by the Palestinian Ministry of Education (MoE) for the year 2013-2014. Therefore, the current project of writing science stories could support students to develop positive attitudes towards science learning.
In addition, the role of science in the lives of people is increasing day after day. Science provides an understanding of matter, life, societies, and creates tools for transforming human lives. Science is highly associated with the progress of humanity; therefore, to encourage Palestinian students enroll the Scientific Stream, we need to create positive attitudes towards science not only as a subject that should be studied at schools but also as a part of their daily life.
The teaching of science concepts combined with reading and writing communication skills is an approach whose time has to come in Palestine because of the recognition of the need to make instruction more meaningful and relevant to the real competent world of the students. Science is an opportunity to teach reading and writing literacy skills in context and help students see themselves in what they read and write. Using spoken or written language is important for exploring and understanding scientific concepts. Language is a tool to test our students’ scientific ideas and to reveal their understanding. Literacy in science means being familiar with scientific vocabulary and being able to use the language in inquiry and the construction of meaning.
Science writing can take many forms including, comics, calligrams (visual representations of words that reflect their meaning), dialoguing, diaries, graphic organizers, journals, poems, and other creative writing. Writing stories in science classrooms are considered effective ways for students to explore their understanding and to practice the use of newly acquired concepts, knowledge or information. Writing stories could also be seen as an alternative way of assessing students’ understanding. Writing encourages students to question their friends’ stories which can also be used as to enhance inquiry-based learning.
Discussing science stories encourages collaboration among students as they engage together in drafting. They share their stories together, justify their ideas, modify thinking, confirm the validity of ideas and together students improve and refine their stories.
This study aimed to examine one of the questions that arose as teachers were involved in the leadership and teacher development program LTD. The LTD program aims to provide professional development to teachers and principals from 300 public schools in the West Bank. The aim is to develop a school-based community of educators who share a common understanding of good teaching practice gained from a range of inservice professional development experiences. These communities of practice will work toward common goals of improved leadership and instruction. Collectively, this group of educators within LTD schools will then be equipped to implement changes to improve student learning, particularly as they relate to the classroom environment. LTD schools are intended to become magnet institutions for follow-on pre-service student practicum experiences, as well as other kinds of school-based management reforms that influence the education system. This broad agenda is reflected in the activities and program components which will be implemented by relevant departments within the MoE (AMIDEAST, 2014).
In this research, the science teachers at the private school adopted an integrated approach to science and literacy through the use of science textbooks designed by Palestinian experts and through asking students to write science stories on the concepts they study in their classrooms. This paper provides important insight into the adoption of an integrated science and literacy approach, the nature of change that occurred as teachers proceeded through this process, and ways in which teachers moved from questions and challenges to solutions and successes.
Although Palestinian teachers recognize the importance of stories in primary education, very few teachers use stories either in the oral or in the written form as a stimulus for science learning. Teachers are often hampered by work overload and pressure of finishing textbooks. Moreover, students’ abilities are sometimes underestimated. Teachers claim that students often resist writing, whether in science or in other subjects.
In Palestinian schools, science teaching frequently focuses on textbook knowledge and memorization, such as discrete facts, definitions, diagrams, sequences of events, and very few lap experiments and because of that students find science hard, dull, and sometimes meaningless.
Our intense classroom observations often reveal that science teachers at the private school in Jerusalem put too much emphasis on teaching scientific facts and not enough time on science for enhancing science literacy skills, for inquiry and for understanding. Scientific concepts are so complex and abstract that science teachers find enormous difficulty to make them relate directly to real life especially with the lack of facilities and resources.
One of the great challenges of science teaching is to facilitate students’ interactions with materials in such a way that students actually develop both their literacy skills and conceptual understanding.
This study sought to investigate if writing science stories could enhance students’ literacy skills and help them better understand scient ific issues explained by teachers. In other words, this study sought to engage students in stimulating activities that help them understand scientific issues through the creation of stories that embed scientific information.
The main goal of story writing was to encourage students to see writing in science classrooms as a means to develop reading and writing, as a resource of communication, discussion, clarification of points of views, as a tool for learning as well as for displaying their knowledge and as a road to develop students’ interest in science learning.
Additionally, this study attempted to identify the extent to which science story writing influenced teachers’ instructional practices and empower them to adopt new strategies and methods to improve students learning.
This research sought to answer the following questions:
Could science story writing enhance students’ literacy skills?
Could science story writing deepen students’ understanding of scientific issues?
Could science story writing influence teachers’ instructional practices?
In this section, the researchers highlighted some of the studies that showed the importance of science and literacy.
Roberts (2007) proposed two categories of scientific literacy. The first category focuses on the importance of science subject matter while the second category emphasizes the role of science in the everyday lives of human society. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) privileges the second category. Science is a way to prepare good citizens who can invest their scientific knowledge to create things for the benefit of humanity. The aim is to engage students with socio-scientific issues to develop positive affect toward science and science learning. For this reason, the current study examined the development of students’ literacy and conceptual science understanding through writing stories.
Interest in science is very important, though a comprehensive review of literature shows that the interest of science is declining (Schibeci, 2009). Notwithstanding the value of Roberts’s (2007) categories of scientific literacy, ‘there is growing acceptance by the literacy education community that ‘literacy’ should be conceptualized as a range of different types of social practices rather than as one universal attribute or individual learner capacity’ (Hackling & Prain, 2005, p.19). The practices of reading, writing and talking (i.e., the use of language) remain fundamental to communicating and coming to know and understand science (Yore, Bisanz, & Hand, 2003).
Other researchers as Norris and Phillips (2003) asserted that:
‘coming to know science requires competency in two senses of scientific literacy: the fundamental sense of scientific literacy (reading and writing science content) and the derived sense (being knowledgeable, learned and educated in science). They argued, ‘conceptions of scientific literacy typically attend to the derived sense of literacy and not to the fundamental sense’ (p. 224).
‘They also made the distinction between a simple fundamental scientific literacy (i.e.,
decoding texts) and an expanded fundamental scientific literacy (i.e., inferring meaning from text)’ (Norris & Phillips, 2003, p. 224).
Research asserts that the use of student-generated narratives in class can be a powerful tool in science instruction, as they engage students by humanizing science (Fensham, 2001; Hodson, 2009). Writing science stories is not traditionally associated with learning science, yet it is the genre with which most students are to be familiar (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). Using a familiar genre (such as narrative), Wellington and Osborne argued, ‘at least begins the process of helping children express their thoughts in written language through being personally engaged’ (p. 76).
Using stories as a writing activity improves children motivation, concentration and communication that allow them to see a reason for carrying out a scientific investigation and inquiry (Cavendish, Stopps, & Ryan, 2006).
Writing may enhance the inquiry nature of young learners. Chamberlain and Crane (2009), state that ‘Learning involved with a process of inquiry that allows them to answer questions that challenge their prior knowledge about themselves, the world around them, and the environment are growing science literacy and knowledge. Unfortunately, in many science classrooms, inquiry has not achieved primacy over the traditional teaching method’ (p. 3).
Writing science stories enhances the processes of scientific inquiry, such as questioning, hypothesizing, gathering/organizing data, drawing conclusions, analyzing results, and reporting. These processes are similar to the literacy processes which includes understanding, predicting, paraphrasing and organizing ideas, constructing and composing, revising, editing, and proofreading, evaluating, comprehending and communicating (Baker, 2004; Casteel & Isom, 1994).
If we help our students see a clear purpose for carrying out their writing activity, they are more likely to stay on task and stay motivated. Stories are easier for children to remember than a ‘stream of facts typical in expository text’ (Butzow & Butzow, 1998, p. xi). Real learning occurs when learners are motivated and are actively engaged in their own knowledge construction (Cavendish et al., 2006).
Therefore, research asserts that reading and writing activities can help students to comprehend, interpret, analyze, evaluate and communicate scientific ideas (Holliday et al.,1994). Such activities can help engage in students’ minds the complex reasoning and problem solving processes that scientists use in the course of their work. Discussing, reading and writing, all play important roles in science learning. Rivard and Straw (2000) noted:
Talk is important for sharing, clarifying, and distributing scientific ideas among peers, while asking questions, hypothesizing, explaining, and formulating ideas together all appear to be important mechanisms during discussions. The use of writing appears to be important for refining and consolidating these new ideas with prior knowledge. (p. 588)
Language should be part of science and science learning. Students use language to make sense of new information and develop new ideas. They use language to externalize their thoughts and their thinking processes. Therefore, reading and writing are fundamental components of scientific literacy (Norris & Phillips, 2003). As Wellington and Osborne (2001) compare, learning science is ‘in many ways, like learning a new language’ (p. 12).
To sum up, there are many benefits for integrating writing in science classrooms. Research has proved that integrating reading and writing in science classrooms can help students achieve better not only in science but also in language arts and other subjects (Amaral et al., 2002).
Learning to write prepares students for writing to learn. By writing about science topics, students can discover new ideas and clarify their thinking (Butler, 1991; Holliday, 1992; Rivard, 1994; Zinsser, 1988). Writing science stories can provide the engagement and discussion context that science classrooms often lack. Studies informed educators that writing help develop students literacy skills and increase conceptual understanding (Rivard, 1994).
Research Design and Procedures
The participants were thirty students from sixth grades. They were randomly chosen to participate in this study. Two elementary teachers from one of the private schools in Jerusalem volunteered to participate in science-story writing project. The science supervisor acted as a mentor and as an expert who could support and provide help whenever needed.
This project was expected to help students develop their literacy skills and help them understand scientific concepts. Similarly, this writing project aimed to empower teachers to adopt new strategies and methods and help them develop professionally. This study was implemented in the school year 2013-2014.
The Significance of the Study
This study contributed to the professional development and growth of the two experienced science teachers. They experienced being reflective practitioners on the new strategy of implementing story writing in science classrooms.
This study also contributed in helping students practice writing stories on science concepts to develop their literacy skills and to help them better understand concepts studied in their classrooms. It helped students be active learners and helped them take some more responsibilities over their own learning. Apart from this, writing science stories helped students develop their communication skills through presenting and discussing their stories to – with their classmates.
This study utilized a case study approach to conduct an indepth examination of some of the issues that elementary teachers experienced when adopting an integrated approach to science and literacy. The case focused on a single professional development project involving two teachers with monthly meetings over a span of approximately twelve months. Multiple data sources were included.
In this research students were asked to write stories in their science classrooms after they were provided with some models by the science supervisor. The teachers also modeled how scientific information could be integrated into narrative texts by reading aloud some stories. Throughout the project, the supervisor provided on the spot assistance to both the teacher and the student during the tasks whenever necessary. During the supervisor meetings with teachers, it was agreed that writing stories might help students to construct knowledge and improve their literacy skills and help them better understand science concepts. The goal was to teach science within the context of the literacy classroom. Such activity was expected to show the interrelationship among different disciplines. Exposure to writing science stories might allow students an opportunity to develop their writing strategy. In support of this, teachers and students might connect science content with the processes of science and develop a deep understanding of the science concepts, and gain better scientific knowledge, reasoning and critical thinking.
Writing science stories, reading and discussing them were desirable goals to achieve in science classrooms. Writing science stories was expected to help students use and enhance their imagination and creativity. Stories might also assist their learning processes and improve their learning outcomes.
Data Gathering Methods
The major goal of this study was to observe and to provide detailed data of the application of writing science stories in science classrooms. To ensure the validity of this study, the researchers and the science supervisor observed s a number of science classes for the two science teachers. Some classes were videotaped to emphasize some points during the discussion. Field notes were taken during the observation in addition to the notes taken during the monthly meetings with teachers. Students’ story samples were collected, read, discussed during the two semesters with students and then translated and analyzed by the researchers. Teachers’ and students’ reflection collected from their written diaries were also analyzed.
As commonalities arose among the data sources, the researchers addressed these commonalities by comparing them with the field notes, videos and observations of teachers’ instructions; teachers’ and students’ reflections all provide the triangulation of the data.
Results and Discussion
Data were collected to be analyzed in a way that emerging patterns and themes could be recognized. These themes reflected the main strands of this research. Before discussing the themes in this research, it should be noted that students’ stories were translated from Arabic to English keeping nearly to the same style as in the originals.
Students in this research were asked to demonstrate the development of their literacy skills and their understanding of scientific content through transforming them into science stories or conversational prose. Successful transformation of scientific information in the textbook into narratives would be an indicator of conceptual understanding or misunderstanding demonstrated by students in addition to the development of their literacy skills.
Students were to navigate their stories, they were to compare their thinking with other students and to communicate ideas and concepts and sometimes correct misconceptions. So through story writing students were encouraged to use inquiry methods in order to help them develop their cognitive abilities. Teachers modeled critical thinking using reading aloud and shared reading. The expectation was that students could use reading, writing and oral language to intersect literacy with inquiry. Story writing strategy in this research was a tool to facilitate student understanding of science concepts of how they come to know scientific understanding (metacognition).
The data analysis revealed that when starting the science story writing project, science teachers were worried about the extra effort they thought they would exert. They thought that it is not their responsibility to teach reading and writing or the language arts. The researchers clarified for the teachers that this project is not about teaching another subject; on the contrary, it is about making sure that our students understand what is taught to them by creating stories. It is about engaging students in a number of activities that enhance and assess their understanding and help them communicate using science vocabulary and concepts.
Likewise, at the initial implementation of the project, writing science stories was a challenging process for the students who had not, for the most part, had the opportunity to write and develop the story writing process. They struggled to write science content based stories in the science classroom and only a few were motivated to participate. But gradually more students were involved and engaged in this project. It was an opportunity for those who struggle to communicate verbally and to share their understanding through science stories.
The data showed that writing was an effective, powerful approach to develop students’ literacy skills as writing about science concepts not only helped students recognize their thoughts and questions; but it also allowed them to take an active role and be involved in the learning process as well. Story writing allowed students to express themselves in an unlimited way and visualize their understanding to their teachers and classmates. Stories not only helped students’ minds be more creative and imaginative but also helped them to come up with some surprising connections and ideas as revealed by their science teachers.
For example, the process of digestion was explained by imagining the unseen processes of food digestion. The student described this journey that started from the mouth and ended in the waste factory (the kidney). The story goes like this:
‘Ahmed is a very simple man and he lives a very simple life. He usually eats from the popular Arabian cuisine like Maqlouba, Mojadarah, Mosakhan, etc. One day Ahmed desired to eat pizza, so he went to Samir’s Kiosk. Samir sells pizza in the street near his home. The body wondered: What would I do with the pizza? The brain (the king) heard what had been said, and immediately shouted, I’m sending my orders to the teeth to cut the pizza and to the saliva to soften the food to help in swallowing it and to start its journey. In the mouth, food is physically changed when it is chewed by our teeth; it is also chemically changed by the chemicals in our saliva. The food then travels from the mouth to the stomach by the food tube known as esophagus. For two or three hours, food stays in stomach, where digestive juices further change it.
The pizza went to the stomach and there the pizza was a prey for the city’s population (cells). A quick meeting was held and the brain (the king) sent his orders to the army (the blood) who transported the food to the city’s population (cells). The cells started to analyze the food. It realized that unfortunately inside the food there were toxins. The cells still wanted to distribute the food to the residents, but residents objected, saying: How come! our enemies ( toxins) enter our cities? So they held another meeting. And the result was not to allow the enemy to enter. A guard called plasma membrane stood bravely to allow the useful material to enter and prevent toxins from entering. When the useful materials entered, those who were specialized in digestion (called Lysosomes) discovered that inside it was an important source of energy and after identifying its identity, they discovered that it was called glucose sugar, which was then transferred to the power station (called mitochondrion). The mitochondria issued enzymes that interact with this sugar in the presence of an important element named oxygen. Water and carbon dioxide were released and energy necessary to the city’s population cells was provided. Finally the army, which is called (blood), transferred the toxins to the waste factories (kidneys).’
Students were able to comprehend and remember scientific concepts better because of the effort they put in writing their own stories. Students who wrote stories about scientific topics refer to their previously learned science knowledge (background knowledge) and also constructed new understandings. The constructed new understandings were more meaningful and more memorable for students. When students produced their stories, they chose different vocabulary, worked on grammar, including the mechanics of writing (spelling, punctuation), and they organized their thoughts in a descriptive narrative or dialoguing form. They read more story examples and they also watched some You Tubes such as ‘Ask Labiba’ and “Kan Ya Ma Kan”. Stories were opportunities to enhance students’ inquiry and critical skills in an enjoyable way.
Many students expressed their understanding and their inquiry through dialoguing. A large number of students preferred the dialogue as a form to write their stories. This might be related to the story samples used by the science teachers.
For example, in the story about urinary system, a student created this dialogue:
‘A science teacher entered the fifth grade class, one student stood and said: Oh, Teacher, my classmate and I feel tired and bored.
Teacher: Well, let us go to the school playground. Leave your books and go and sit under the trees.
Students: This session is better than prison – I mean the class.
Teacher: But beware of the urination of the plants in the playground.
Student with a loud laugh: Do plants urinate!!!?
Teacher: What do you think? plants are living organisms and get rid of wastes produced from biological processes.
One of the students: Teacher, as everyone knows that humans and animals have a urinary system but plants don’t have.
Teacher: Yes, true, but why do not plants have and how do they get rid of wastes?
One of the students: What is the importance of the urinary system?
Teacher: anybody knows the answer to this question?
One of the students: to help the body get rid of excess water that the body needs.
Teacher: I can get rid of the excess water through sweat and through breathing as water vapor.
One of the students: So what’s the function of the urinary system?
Teacher: What organic molecules do plants depend on for their life?
One of the students: Carbohydrates (the sugar).
Teacher: This is correct but what kind of food do humans and animals depend on?
One of the students: organic materials including proteins.
Teacher: true, proteins contain nitrogen component that is not found in carbohydrates ‘ so the body is in need of a special system to get rid of extra nitrogen which is ‘The Urinary System’.
One of the students: How is it done?
Teacher: The liver converts nitrogen into a substance called Urea, then this is removed from the bloodstream by the kidneys in the form of a solution of urea in water called urine transferred from the blood to the urinary system , whereupon kidneys grabbing of blood and get rid of them in the form of urine.
One of the students: So I began to assure that the trees will not urinate on us .
One of the students: What a beautiful share when we are outside the classroom !’
(For more stories, see appendixes’).
Writing helped students to diagnose their knowledge gaps and misconceptions especially when they read their stories to their peers and to their teachers. Some misconceptions appeared when students wrote about the digestive system. Some students thought that stomach is the only body part that is responsible for digesting food. Some students did not understand that digestion starts in the mouth, where the salivary amylase, the digestive enzyme, acts on the starch in food. Proteins are digested in the stomach while water and minerals are absorbed into the bloodstream in the large intestine. Some students thought that the digestive system has two outlets, one for the feces and one for urine. This is a misconception since the digestive system has one outlet ‘ the anus through which the undigested food is discharged from the body.
Writing enabled students to express their intellectual and emotional reactions to science topics in different ways. Incorporating science writing in science classrooms yielded enormous benefits for both students and teachers. Writing was not a passive skill for students, and the class was not a teacher-centered. When students wrote their stories, they were to think hard, to read and search more, to ask for more clarification and thus forcing them to be active learners who were able to develop their literacy skills. Writing about newly acquired content strengthens understanding, and allow students to make connection with prior learning.
The writing process forced students to face and seek help with concepts that cause confusion. Writing enhanced retention, and enhanced development of science vocabulary. This was revealed through teachers oral discussion and the results of students’ tests. Teachers’ feedback and interaction with students helped students improve their writing skills in addition to the increase in science knowledge and understanding.
Like any instructional intervention, not all students benefited to the same degree from this experience of writing in science classrooms. This was affected by students past experience with writing, and disposition toward using writing as a mode of learning and consolidation of scientific concept. However, teachers asserted that the use of writing as to improve the literacy skills encouraged students to make connections between the conceptual framework and the supporting content knowledge. In Palestine, we always need to focus on challenges facing Palestinian teachers in changing instructional practices, adopting a focus that is much more on the concepts of the topic, rather than only the content of the unit in the science textbook.
It could be argued that reading and writing to learn science took place effectively in this project as revealed by teachers’ and students’ reflection.
Reading and writing activities helped students cover science content in greater depth and thus supporting active, constructive learning, inquiry, and problem solving. This is supported by (Muth., et al 1988; Glynn and Britton, 1984) who emphasize that the skills of reading and writing can serve as dynamic vehicles for learning science meaningfully and purposefully.
Data revealed that teachers developed and improved their instructional practices in science classrooms in this inquiry based research to improve teaching in a supportive environment. Teachers’ participation in critical reflection activities helped teachers view themselves as continuously learning and professionally growing. They realized the importance of adopting new strategies and teaching instructions in their science classrooms. They became more committed to students learning and understanding. One of the teachers commented in her diary by writing,
‘I think writing science stories have greatly improved my students’ writing. It has given me the support to provide my students with story writing that both strengthen their scientific understandings and their reading and writing skills.’ She continued,
‘I see real growth in my students’ abilities. They were able to put their thoughts down on paper with some imagination and connection with their real life situations. I would never have thought that I would love and enjoy teaching science as this year. I feel that reading students’ science stories aloud in a classroom allow me to teach the concepts more efficiently.’
The feedback that was taken from the students was the most powerful. In general, students comments for this task indicated that it was challenging than a lot of science classroom activities but it allowed them to more fully understand the concepts. In addition, students enjoyed being able to display their scientific understanding in whatever way they felt more comfortable and more confident. The process of selecting the mode of writing was helpful in clarifying their understanding. Students expressed that ‘writing stories in a science lesson was very interesting though it was our first experience but it was really enjoyable. Writing helped us make connections between ideas.’
Reading and writing are important skills that should be developed in different means and science could be an opportunity to develop these skills that are essential to cope with the development of the twenty first century.
This study indicated that sixth grade students’ developed their scientific literacy skills through their creation of stories in which they transformed factual and conceptual information in their textbook into stories. Story writing encouraged students to see writing in science classrooms as a resource of communication, discussion and clarification of points of views. Story writing helped students see writing as a tool for learning as well as for displaying their knowledge and as a road to develop students’ interest in science learning.
This study also revealed the importance of practicing reflection that leads to professional development. Teachers realized that science writing is an opportunity to improve students’ literacy skills in a creative and fruitful way.
The following recommendations are based on research result on the implementation of story writing in science classrooms project and its impact on their professional development.
First, science teachers showed their positive attitudes towards this experience and would like to recommend other science teachers to encourage students write stories and include illustrations, as this might help students more. Second, it is also recommended that teachers use writing regularly as an instructional tool to build understandings of both science concepts and develop scientific literacy skills. Third, teachers’ pre-service and in-service programs should be revised to include an emphasis on reading and writing strategies to learn science from early years of learning as these are very important skills in the twenty first century. Fourth, it is favorable to publish students’ well written stories in a website, facebook page, blog, as to be a reference for other students and rich resource for teachers.