Motivating and engaging students to write in science

Motivating and engaging students to write in science

Writing in science

When students have developed the positive attitudes that lead them to become fluent and independent readers and writers, they gain lifelong benefits.1

Writing is a form of communication which students are required to master in the course of their learning in order to succeed with written assessments needed to be completed for NCEA. It is especially important in science, certainly at the higher levels of NCEA, and therefore it is essential to begin a focus on teaching writing in junior school.

Glynn & Muth2 state that, “learning to read prepares a student for reading to learn’ (p. 1060) and that “learning to write prepares students for writing to learn” (p. 1064). Thus, learning to read and write influences students’ abilities to use those skills to learn science (cited in Nixon & Akerson3, p. 198). It is acknowledged that reading skills support writing and writing improves one’s reading skills. When you read and then write, the text presented teaches one how to do the writing. It is through writing, that you can then understand the learning content. By supporting students to become confident readers and writers in science, we can positively impact their literacy skills but also deepen their science understanding.

Snow and Moje4 stated that “deep learning in subject areas requires complex literacy skills” (p. 66). In the article they talked about adolescent learners often struggling to achieve the level required without explicit instruction in areas such as science and integrating literacy skills into the teaching so that they can achieve successfully (p.67). Therefore, when teachers focus on explicit instruction to develop reading and writing skills in their classroom science learning programme, it is possible to foster deeper learning through inquiry and problem-solving. Students can learn the science content, building on prior learning and making connections to the real world constructively. The motivation to learn is greater when students master a range of skills needed to achieve in science and their engagement grows with their success. 

This article seeks to share the perspectives of a teacher, Kayla Robertson (the co-author), about a group of Year 9 students in a secondary school setting in 2021. This group of students were studying science and the initiative was designed to engage students and improve their achievement over the year through a range of activities, particularly online, to help them build their literacy skills in writing. It was also designed to boost their self-management skills and motivate them to achieve in science. 

Background to the science literacy study

Following lockdowns in 2020-21, discussion between the co-authors led to a decision to try to improve motivation and engagement of a group of young students in reading and writing in science. We wanted to help the students with reading science text and then teach them how to write in science, which we hoped would improve their NCEA achievement in science over the year. By integrating the reading and writing and making the learning purposeful, we believed this could lead to the students being more engaged in what they were learning and bring them greater success. We also believed that “motivation is an orientation to learning” as stated in an Education Hub article5 because it helps those students who struggle to read and write at the level expected. Could an additional literacy focus address our students’ struggle to motivate themselves and build a deeper understanding in science? 

In addition, a 2021 Education Review Office (ERO) report6 outlined the impact of COVID-19 stating that most teachers were concerned about student learning in practical subjects and writing. Whilst schools mobilised to support students online from the first lockdown in March 2020, the impact on students’ writing was not initially considered but could be viewed as one of the challenges of the pandemic. 

Recognising that writing can play a powerful role in the learning of science, “students with competent writing skills are well on their way to achieving scientific literacy; however, the attainment of literacy also presupposes effective writing activities and strategies”.2 Developing those writing skills would have been challenging during lockdown as it required some explicit teaching of science writing. 

Kayla stated that the students found writing particularly difficult and because of this they were not motivated in writing in science at all. It was acknowledged that these students may have faced challenges in writing with lockdown in 2020 and this could impact on their achievement in 2021.

According to an Education Hub report in 2022,7 studies have shown that teachers across a range of secondary school subjects tend to ask closed rather than open questions during literacy-based activities, rarely provide students with texts to read that are sufficiently challenging, and do not provide explicit literacy instruction on key aspects of written texts such as structure, purpose, audience and so on. Kayla agreed with this and was enthusiastic about her learning and making changes to support the students.

Furthermore, the Education Hub report7 stated that assessment data to support the instruction was seen as not always being used effectively: “there is evidence that literacy assessment is not always being used to identify children who have particular literacy needs or to design effective interventions to support them” (p.30). It was clear that we needed to use assessment data to plan interventions to support our students fully through the science teaching programme.

Assessment data gathering

Kayla and I brainstormed what assessment data we could use for our study and decided to use data already gathered in school such as Progressive Achievement Test (PAT) scores, a writing assessment (from the English department) and then carry out a diagnostic literacy assessment previously used in postgraduate work and subsequently in a number of secondary schools, particularly in the science area. 

Table 1. Year 9 test score baseline data.

Early in Term 1, the students were asked to sit a diagnostic literacy test in science (on laboratory safety) to give the teacher some data on their literacy skills in reading a science text. This produced some valuable information to target their learning: three areas of interest were using text features, reading for deeper meaning and vocabulary strategies. The test gave us information on areas where their knowledge was weak and a range of teaching and learning strategies were then developed through the classroom programme over the year for the class. Table 1 shows the baseline data and includes the range of PAT stanines which scales test scores on a nine-point scale with a mean of five and a standard deviation of two.

While incomplete for all 29 students in the class, the PAT data did give us an indication of the range of abilities in this group of students. However, it should be noted that often the only data available for science teachers are the assessments carried out mostly by English teachers and is difficult to apply this to what happens in the science classroom without some assistance. 

There was a large group of students in the middle range of 5-6 stanines with smaller numbers below average and also above average. Observations of the students supported some of the findings, especially the listening skills of the students needing to be developed further. 

The diagnostic literacy test also linked to the PAT data, indicating the range in the class in their literacy skills. Both pieces of data gave us insight into the students’ needs so that we could make a difference over the year. Mostly, it was interesting to see how much students wrote and commonly they would give one-word answers. Word knowledge was weak and their writing indicated they needed to expand their vocabulary and sentence structures in science to help them demonstrate greater understanding. 

The only writing data, from an assessment carried out in English in creative writing, did not accurately reflect the abilities of students who prefer science and do not enjoy writing in English. However, we were able to gauge roughly from the writing students’ potential achievement in science, placing it alongside the other data.

The teaching plan

Using this data, we ensured that the students were given opportunity to use text features so they could find the information to help them understand the science more clearly. Text features such as headings, bullet points, captions and font (e.g. bold, italics etc.), as well as skimming and scanning, references, illustrations and diagrams etc. were focused on to help the students read the text. The students found this helpful and understood that these tools made it easier to read the text. Kayla pointed out to the students in any text they were reading what to look for and notes were often written on the board to remind them. The students appeared to find this supportive and were quick to use these features to help them find the information they needed. This repetitive process helped students to develop their skills in reading science text. Instructional information was used to ensure that deeper learning occurred.  

It was also important to direct the students’ attention to text structure to help develop their writing skills which would be needed at a higher level. A range of activities were constructed on specific topics. In a unit on optics, waves and energy, a booklet was put together which helped students explore the sense of sight. Students had to read material and engage in some activities such as optical illusions and eye facts before writing down what they could see. The science concepts were then introduced and students were given a diagram of the human eye with words and descriptions to match up and talk about labelling a diagram. 

There were many other activities related to the topic for students, mostly online, but they supported the teaching in the classroom. Completion of the activities was encouraged but not compulsory. Kayla also worked with the class as a whole and then summarised what they were saying on the board. It was observed that they began to write more and contribute more in class sessions. A booklet with many optical illusions gave students much enjoyment in understanding how the eye works and increased their engagement in learning further about the concept of sight. 

Another unit of work on states of matter asked students to write a summary of the characteristics of gases, liquids and solids in terms of shape, volume, free space between particles and flow or movement of particles (Table 2). 

Table 2. Student recording sheet for an activity related to states of matter.

The second step of the activity was to identify one specific example of each state of matter and explain why it is a solid, liquid, or gas in terms of its shape, volume, free space between particles and flow of particles. They were required to write at least five complete sentences.

Explanations of how to fill the table and then use the information to write their sentences were very helpful for students who could then complete the task easily. Tasks were engaging, such as using graphic organisers and playing games like dominoes where concepts and definitions could be linked to the topic of solids, gases and liquids.

Another theme of ‘Adaptations for survival’ inspired students to relate this to their own lives. An initial activity of finding key words in the text led to filling in a sheet with the features of birds. The students had to sort images into categories and then write a summary statement. These activities supported them in their writing. The use of open questions also encouraged students to inquire, think more deeply and find solutions to what they were learning. 

Other learning activities included regular quizzes which recapped their learning and was a fun activity for the students who competed well to show their learning. Vocabulary was often a focus, especially new words in the unit of work.  Repetitive activities strengthened their working vocabulary and also gave them opportunities to use the words in their written work. Reading strategies, such as working out meaning from context and also linking new words to word families was helpful for the students. These strategies also allowed students to develop their literacy skills. Most of the activities were designed to strengthen their ability to working independently online and increase their self-management skills.

Activities in any units of work were designed with online learning in mind as this enabled us to better prepare them for working online at home, when the need arose. However, so that no student was excluded if they did not have access to a device while at home, the work was available as a booklet. Yates and Starkey8 pointed out the need for practical strategies and collaborative learning in the classroom to be extended for learning at home. The activities were also designed to increase their writing time and set them up for continuing study in science.  

The findings

Initial observations showed that the students did not focus fully on what they were being taught and tended to talk while the teacher was talking or be distracted by other happenings in the classroom.  As the year progressed it was evident that a number of students were more engaged in the classroom teaching and learning and interacted a lot more with the teacher. This reflected in the time spent by the teacher in explaining the topic and then scaffolding the writing required which helped students to develop their comprehension skills as well.  

Often working in groups, the students enjoyed carrying out the tasks together. Feedback from students was positive: students felt they were learning lots in science and found it easier than at the beginning of the year. Kayla’s strategy of mixing up groups encouraged students to work with different people and learn from them with the emphasis on the tasks rather than ‘friend’ groups which could lead them lose focus at times.  

End-of-year data showed that students had made great progress. Table 3 (different science topics) and Table 4 (different science disciplines) show the results for all testing over the year, including the end of year assessments. The school (like many others) uses the same assessment grades as NCEA. Kayla and I were looking at the results to see the patterns in achievement over the year.  

Table 3. Year 9 results for 26 students who completed all assessments.
E = Excellence, M = Merit, A = Achieved, N = Not achieved

Table 3 shows all the units of work where students were assessed with an end of unit test. The results indicate that most students were achieving in all the units of work and that about 70% of the students achieved highly. It also showed that their writing improved over the course of the year with the answers they gave; students were observed to write more than just a word, gave more detail in their answers and began to write at least a paragraph when required. Their vocabulary also increased and supported their ability to write more.

Table 4. Year 9 results for science subjects and practical.
E = Excellence, M = Merit, A = Achieved, N = Not achieved

Table 4 indicates that the top group of students are performing well with 8 students (31%) attaining Excellence in chemistry, biology and practicals. Again, those achieving Merit and Excellence comprised 70% of the students in the class. There was only 1 student (4%) in chemistry and 4 students (15%) in physics not achieving. These were pleasing results overall. The quality and quantity of writing increased with written work was designed to scaffold their learning.


The in-depth planning and teaching work carried out impacted on student achievement. All students showed an improvement in their science learning. The teaching and learning programme designed specific activities to build students’ literacy skills and helped them to become more motivated learners. Targeting their learning literacy needs showed they could also deepen their scientific knowledge and achieve well in science. 

Overall, the pleasing results reinforced our belief that the students needed to be set up better for learning by scaffolding the reading and writing so they could complete tasks more successfully online and at home. Students were more motivated to succeed and this demonstrates that deeper learning does result from focused and teaching specifically what is needed. 

The importance of writing skills was shown by the results; students who struggled with reading found the writing a great challenge. The students who scored highly in reading tended to achieve well in the writing tasks, but most students improved over the year in writing. Students are now able to recognise different text structures and language and transfer this knowledge to their writing. This indicated that we could improve student achievement with the teaching of reading and writing together. 

Feedback from the students also supported the improved achievement as they could see that they could achieve in science. It also showed that students were more motivated to learn science. This is important as they often perceive science to be too hard, especially as they progress through school. This sometimes can lead to making bad choices which can impact on their desired pathway on leaving school. 


  1. Ministry of Education Literacy Online (2016). (accessed 21/02/22).
  2. Glynn, S.; Muth, K. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 1994, 31, 1057-1073.
  3. Nixon, D.; Akerson, V.L. Edu. Action Res. 2004, 12(2), 197-218. DOI: 10.1080/09650790400200245.
  4. Snow, C.; Moje, E. Phi Delta Kappan, 2010, 9, 66–69.
  5. Hood, N. The Education Hub (2020). Learning from lockdown: What the experiences of teachers, students and parents can tell us about what happened and where to next for New Zealand’s school system. (accessed 11/05/22).
  6. Education Review Office (2021). Learning in a Covid World: The Impact of Covid-19 on Schools.
  7. The Education Hub (2022). What’s Happening with Literacy in Aotearoa NZ? (accessed 11/05/22).
  8. Yates, A.; Starkey, L. NZ Ann. Rev. Edu. 2020, 25, 20-38.

Continue Reading