Writing to Learn (and Learning to Write)

By Fred Arnold

Once the hands-on activity is done, the materials put away, even the assessment given, you might still ask yourself, have I really done enough? Do students understand the concepts? And how do you slot all that science into the school day anyhow? The answer could be writing. 


For many classes, English Language Arts is absorbing more and more of the time available for instruction. Writing about what has occurred in science class can motivate students to apply the skills that are being developed in ELA and help students process what they are learning in science. One vehicle for this is called a RAFT. RAFT stands for Role, Audience, Format and Topic, and it helps students present their ideas about the content they are studying in their own voice. Students learn to respond to writing prompts that require them to apply their learning.

Lets look at some examples. 

In the Pollination unit, students can write as if they are honeybees (Role), writing for students who are very afraid of bees (Audience). The Format would be a news story about the bees' job as members of the hive (Topic). To accomplish this, the student would have to know that stinging is fatal to a worker honeybee, and that there are many important tasks that worker bees do for the hive. By telling this in a story to be read by fearful students, the author could emphasize how counter productive it would be for honeybees to wander the landscape wantonly stinging every person they meet. What a great way for the student writer to apply what he or she has learned. 

Another RAFT focuses on flowers. Ask students to take the role of a flower part writing to a plant which is their employer (Audience). They should write a letter (Format) requesting a raise in pay (Topic). To do this successfully, the student would need to select a flower part, know its function and argue how this function is important to the plant. 

Students working in the Design Technology - Wheels unit could write an advertisement for one of the vehicles they designed to market its positive design features. So the Role would be car salesperson, the Audience would be prospective car buyers, the Format would be advertising copy, and the Topic would be attractive features of the car the students have designed and built. 

Any unit with an animal lends itself well to RAFT writing. Students could write autobiographies of their crayfish, brine shrimp, toad tadpoles, mealworms, or butterflies. 

How do you fit more ELA into the school day without losing your science program? Maybe you can meet the challenge by melding the two with writing tasks such as RAFTs as a way of processing hands-on activity.

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