From Speaking to Writing in a Science Classroom

By Katy J. Kobany

Cumulative Project for EDUC 731: Responsive Pedagogy for ELLs, Bethel University, Teacher: Dr. Ruslana Westerlund

Academic standards

8323: Water, which covers the majority of the Earth’s surface, circulates through the crust, oceans and atmosphere in what is known as the water cycle.

Essential question(s)

  • Where is water found on Earth and how does it get there?


Content and language learning objectives

Water Cycle Mini Unit
Science Activities and Outcomes Language Outcomes
Students will…

  • Experience the water cycle through two “different (though related) science experiments” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).
  • Utilize resources to understand the water cycle and define key vocabulary terms.
  •  Compare the water cycle to the experiments.
  • Produce a written explanation of the water cycle.
  • Create a drawing of the water cycle to support the written explanation.
Students will…

  • Share observations using informal register during the experiment
  • Write a cyclical science explanation involving some causality
  • Use comparative language when comparing the water cycle with the experiments that the students completed (similar to the …, different from …, unlike the water cycle, my experiment...)
  • Express understanding of water movement using verbs expand and cool, evaporate, condense, precipitate, form into, is transformed by…
  • Key concepts vocabulary: evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy

Sequence of Activities Modeled after the Mode Continuum (Gibbons, 2015)

visual repr of activities

Activity 1: Doing an Experiment – Distillation and Solar Stills

Description and Rationale: Students will engage in one of two science experiments that model the main processes of the water cycle.  Experiment one involves distilling mock ocean water through boiling.  Experiment two involves the creation of a solar still.

This activity sets up a “genuine communicative situation” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

Groups of students will have different, though related, experiences, which will give rise to authentic classroom discussion.  In this activity, students may not have specific nominalized vocabulary such as “precipitation” or “condensation” and will instead describe the experiments orally using an informal register.

In this way, students will have a chance to develop the ideas around the key concepts prior to introducing them (Gibbons, 2015). The purpose of the experiment is to learn the scientific concepts behind the water cycle.  Students can use all of their language resources to build that knowledge and the precision of their language use is not as important here.  It will be more important when they get to share their ideas later in the lesson.

ELs who studied the water cycle in their previous schools or have home or community knowledge, will be encouraged to draw on their knowledge of science in this lesson.

In this activity, students will work in small groups.

Teacher Roles Student Roles
Teacher Role: Arrange appropriate groups, provide materials and general instructions for the experiments, encourage small group, student-to-student discussion through discovery and inquiry.  The teacher encourages the students to both do and think about science (Gibbons, 2015).  The teacher’s role is very active during teacher-guided reporting.  Instead of guiding students from the periphery, teachers are mediating the discussion and supporting language learning. Student Role: Challenge each other’s ideas when participating in experiment, dialogue with peers about the experiment, thereby attempting to explain to other students what they see happening.


Activity 2: Adding New Language to Known Concepts

Rationale: At this stage, students will be learning the science terms of the known concepts in the previous activity (energy, evaporation, condensation, precipitation) related to the water cycle. This terminology will be drawn from and related to the experiments the students engaged in from the first activity.

By sequencing this activity after the experiments, students will be “given an opportunity to develop some [understanding] before they are expected to understand and use more scientific discourse and vocabulary” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

For ELs, it may be useful to know that these nominalized words that pack science concepts into them such as evaporation can be unpacked through the verbs: (evaporate, condense, precipitate)

The teacher works with a mentor text similar to this one, highlight language resources that pack scientific concepts.  Teacher points out that there is a lot more language in this text than just key concepts.

The Water Cycle stages are: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and surface run off/ground water.  The water cycle is also known as the hydrologic cycle. There is not a starting point to the water cylce. It is a continuous movement of water that is driven by the sun. Water from bodies of water such as oceans, river, and lakes is evaporated into the air. Condensation will form and cloud particles will grow causing precipitation to fall from the sky as surface runofff and back into the bodies of water.  Evaporation is water molecules that escape the earth’s surface and enter the atmosphere. Condensation is water vapor in the air that turns into liquid droplets as the air expands and cools. Precipitation is water droplets that become heavy and fall back to the earth’s surface from clouds.

Emma, Nate, Marcus, and Samantha in Mrs. Villarreal class

Rationale & Teacher Role: In this activity, the teacher’s role is to introduce new academic language that aligns with the student experience in activity one.  This is a “[brief introduction]” necessary for the entire class (Gibbons, 2015, p. 83).  All students will participate in this activity, which involves direct instruction.  For the majority of the class, no individual is at an advantage as the academic concepts should be new.  Both ELs and native speakers will jointly acquire the new language.

Activity 3: Teacher-Guided Reporting

Description and Rationale: In this activity, students are encouraged to use a take on an expert role which will require them to use more academic and precise language to describe the science experiments they conducted.  This provides an opportunity for students to practice the new terminology introduced in activity two.

In this way, the activity is providing a bridge to written language and encourages students to use a more sophisticated register to describe the water cycle process.  The reporting process is intentionally more open ended than a traditional “IRE/F” pattern in order to encourage extended responses (Gibbons, 2015, p. 88-89).

In this stage, students will also reach toward the language objective of utilizing connectives for comparing and contrasting the water cycle with the experiments that the students completed. This will be a large group activity.

Teacher Roles Student Roles
 “In teacher-guided reporting, the role of the teacher is to help children make sense of learning activities through talking with them, and in this process, introduce new language” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 87).  The teacher needs to be an active listener and facilitator in order to scaffold and support students as they make attempts to speak scientifically.

Specifically, the teacher is not correcting students’ language but building on students’ ideas and re-voicing using precise language needed to sound like an expert.  The teacher will “rebroadcast” an idea by re-voicing or ask a student to re-voice or paraphrase to give the student’s idea more exposure so everyone can hear it and think about it again MacDonald, R., Cook, H. & Miller, E. (2014).  The main purpose of this is to help students make their ideas visible and clearly articulated for the other students to hear.

Students describe the experiments from activity one.  In this activity students are the “[experts],” sharing their own experiences with the experiments sharing their experiences and articulating their findings while stretching their use of academic language (Gibbons, 2015, p. 89).  MacDonald, R., Cook, H. & Miller, E. (2016) suggest students can restate or summarize an idea, support an idea, articulate their idea for others to hear it and learn from the student expert use of language.

Activity 3 Grouping Configuration: Groups of Students Share Their Learning with the Whole Class

Rationale & Teacher Role: In this activity, the teacher’s role is to help actively facilitate, model, and guide an academic discussion of the experiences in activity one.  Student groups from activity one will, “with the help of the teacher, [share] their learning with the whole class” (Gibbons, 2015, p. 83).  Because each group participated in a different experiment, each group contains information that is necessary for shaping the understanding of the entire class community.  This necessitates that students report to the entire class instead of simply refining their language in small groups without sharing aloud.  Additionally,

Gibbons (2015) study showed that students who listened to other student reports during a teacher guided reporting activity improved their own writing.  I anticipate the same result by having small groups report to the class as a whole.  Because the students are the experts in this activity, ELs are able to contribute and co-construct their knowledge alongside native English speakers with the active support of the teacher.

Activity 4: Modeling and Deconstructing the Genre

Rationale: Students will work with a science mentor text that models the cyclical explanation that students will write for their performance assessment at the conclusion of the activities.  The text will be read aloud and presented as factual information (Gibbons, 2015).  Language associated with the explanation will be introduced including time connectives and causal relationships necessary to structure a cyclical explanation of the water cycle.  Students will examine the text for structure (order, sequencing of paragraphs, sentences, verbs in present tense and vocabulary) and discuss these items. Round out the activity with an after reading strategy (ex. Cloze) to have students practice the concept of a cyclical explanation using academic language. This will be a large group activity.

Activity 4 Grouping Configuration:  Whole Class

Rationale & Teacher Role: The teacher’s role in this activity begins with modeling the process of reading and deconstructing a text.  Since this is a new way to analyze a text, it is necessary for the activity to begin with the entire group working together on a passage appropriate to the content and reading skills of the class.

During this back-and-forth instruction students are “[introduced to] some meta-language,” connectives, organization, structure, and grammar that is necessary to consider how a cyclical explanation will later be constructed by the students themselves (Gibbons, 2015, p. 115).

All students need to be guided through this process, both native and non-native speakers, who would be less familiar with language awareness in science texts.  Because this process will be new to all students, ELs and non-native speakers will be working collaboratively within the whole group and able to participate equally with the support of the teacher.

Student Roles:  Take on the role of students who are building language awareness within the whole group to understand language choices of a cyclical explanation.  This activity will support the work necessary for activity four and activity five as well as serve as an example for the performance assessment.

Activity 5: Teacher-Guided Reporting

Rationale: It is important to support students’ conceptual and linguistic development through Teacher-Guided Reporting more than once in a series of lessons.   The shifting in register from the language of “here and now” to the language of scientific generalizations is a shift that needs to be scaffolded by talking which is guided by the teacher.  The teacher expands students’ repertoire by recasting and revoicing what the student is contributing to reflect the more written-like language of the Mode Continuum.

Activity 6: Journal Writing

Rationale: After completing the previous activities, students are ready to use the rehearsed oral language to write open-ended journal responses about the water cycle.  This journal will provide an important resource necessary for students to complete the performance assessment of writing a cyclical explanation of the water cycle and producing a graphic representation that supports the written text of their explanation.

Teacher Role: Create a prompt that encourages and does not limit student responses (use “paragraph openers”).  Invite well-thought responses by planning enough time for the activity.  The prompt needs to model for students the kinds of writing that will be used in the assessment tool.

Student Roles: Utilize the knowledge gained from participating in the previous activities to craft a response that utilizes new language. Students take on the role of scientists who use graphic and written representations of their knowledge about the water cycle.

Grouping Configuration: Individual

Rationale & Teacher Role: Because this activity is the last in the sequence that precedes it, students are asked to work alone under the assumption that they are ready based on the previous supports.

Without the five activities that came before, students would be unprepared to tackle this activity effectively.

Writing for this activity and the performance task that follows is, “linguistically the most demanding” and is built towards throughout the cycle (Gibbons, 2015, p. 84).

Throughout these sequenced activities students have been supported as they transitioned from the informal, oral end of the language continuum to the more sophisticated academic writing end of the continuum.

Since this activity is the last before the performance assessment, students are formatively assessed on their ability to write about the standard in order for the teacher to determine if students are individually ready for the assessment and whether or not the activities the teacher facilitated were supportive enough to prepare students for the tasks.

Success Criteria – Assessment Tool

Description: Students will write a cyclical explanation of the water cycle and include a diagram of the cycle that supports their explanation.  Students will be assessed on both content and language objectives using the rubric shown below.

Success Criteria Beginning Developing Accomplished
Key Concepts Accurately uses less than 50% of the academic concepts to describe the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy) Accurately uses more than 50%, but less than 100% of the academic concepts to describe the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy) Accurately uses all of the academic concepts to name the stages when describing the water cycle (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, energy)
Language of Cyclical Explanation Two or more of the following statements are true about the explanation:

-Statement to identify the phenomenon is is mostly accurate.

-Explanation of the water cycle phenomenon is mostly accurate.

– Stages of the water cycle are mostly ordered correctly.

– Describes the cycle using linear language suggesting that it starts and ends.

One of the following statements are true about the explanation:

– Statement to identify the phenomenon is is mostly accurate.

– Explanation of the water cycle phenomenon is mostly accurate.

– Stages of the water cycle are mostly ordered correctly.

– Describes the cycle using linear language suggesting that it starts and ends.

Accurately identifies and explains the phenomenon of the water cycle, appropriately orders stages in the cycle using time connectives and proceeds to explain the endlessness of the cycle.
Graphical Representation Two or more of the following statements are true about the picture:

– Accurately depicts more than 50%, but less than 100% of the key vocabulary terms.

Does not show the recursive nature of the water cycle.

– Does not include the energy source for the cycle.

One of the following statements are true about the picture:

– Accurately depicts more than 50%, but less than 100% of the key vocabulary terms.

Does not show the recursive nature of the water cycle.

– Does not include the energy source for the cycle.

Picture supports explanation by highlighting the key vocabulary and showing the recursive nature of the water cycle.  Picture includes energy source for the cycle.


Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

MacDonald, R., Cook, H., & Miller, E. (201). Doing and talking science: A teacher’s guide to meaning-making with English learners. University of Wisconsin, Madison.


5 thoughts on “From Speaking to Writing in a Science Classroom

Add yours

  1. This blog post is brilliant! It eloquently aligns the delicate balance between teaching science concepts and science discourse. You very nicely describe the supports for ELs but truly capture why this method benefits native speakers. The manner it which you outline the planning process identifying teacher and student roles is so helpful. Do you have a template or other resources you use to guide you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Holly. This is a product from one student who went through a 6 week course with me at Bethel University, (online course in the graduate program). This is the only course dedicated to ELs and I changed my approach from language-heavy approach to scaffolding of disciplinary literacies and LANGUAGE IS IN THE SERVICE OF LEARNING which you have noted so well. Myprimary framework was from Gibbons and Hammond on scaffolding. If you want to learn more about the Mode Continuum, please check out this publicly available article by Pauline Gibbons. It’s a powerful tool/framework. Here’s a brief description “The [mode] continuum reflects the process of formal education itself, as students are required to make shifts within an increasing number of fields and to move from personal, everyday ways of making meanings toward the socially shared and more written-like discourses of specific disciplines. The development of literacy within any subject in the school curriculum involves learning the technical language, grammatical patterns, and generic structures particular to the subject. As the [mode] continuum suggests, these school-related registers tend to involve more written-like discourse, which tends to be less personal, more abstract, more lexically dense, and more structured than the face-to-face, everyday language with which students are familiar. Although more conversational texts tend to have high personal involvement, low explicitness of meaning, and interactive features, these more academic texts require a high explicitness of lexical content but allow for little interaction or personal involvement (Biber, 1986).

      Liked by 1 person

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