Literary Assessments in a High School Biology Classroom?

September 27, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 5 Comments

Posted by Peter Stenross

Literacy is the backbone to any high school classroom, because without it students will struggle with the quantity and difficulty of the variety of texts they are exposed to.  Within the biology classroom, providing students with the opportunity to investigate scientific literacy allows students to read, understand and discuss a variety of scientific or science related texts.  According to research “one-third of America’s high school students read or write at grade level” (2006), which is an alarming number of students.  This is not a problem that will be solved in the English classroom, but one that all teachers must address within their own classrooms.

The term assessments used in the title does not imply tests and quizzes or summative assessments, but is referring to ongoing formative assessments such as classroom observations, journal entries, literary circles etc…. You may find yourself asking; but it’s a biology classroom, shouldn’t I be assessing my students’ understanding of biology content and not their reading or writing abilities?  When assessing students’ ability to read and comprehend science related text with the help of literary strategies learned within the class, the teacher may be assessing the students’ ability to comprehend the text, but this assessment also provides the teacher with information about individual student’s level of understanding.  The following link is a short video of a middle school science classroom whose teacher has implemented several literacy strategies including metacognitive logs to promote student literacy.

Peer assessment is an invaluable resource in any classroom, particularly in science classrooms because it allows students the opportunity to evaluate fellow classmates’ work and investigate the other’s way of thinking.   This teacher has the students assess each others metacognitive journals which provide her students the opportunity to read what other students thought about a given text.

It has become apparent that literacy plays a major role in a student’s ability to perform academically in high school, but do you believe it is important to assess student’s reading and writing abilities in content area classrooms (keep in mind that not all assessments have to be graded)?  How could you effectively implement literacy assessments in your content area?



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  1. Peter, I couldn’t agree more. Student seem to be missing the thinking about thinking experience. Tristan has this problem over and over with me. I will ask him to do something for example: making popcorn. I have walked him through the process a few times and what does he tell me for the fourth time…. I don’t know how? I keep bring up how do you know that if you haven’t tried. I bring up… do you really think you should give up so easily? Well, He would try to use this escape over and over. I kept giving the same answers. I would get “I dont know how?” at least twice a day. I find now after a few months of pointing out that his giving up was the only thing stopping him. He finally began to think about his thought process and finally give it a chance vs just giving up. Just the other night, I was making pancakes for dinner on his request. Tristan asked to help. He made the first pancak e and gain more confidence to help with the rest. I hope that with more meta cognition. Tristan will find himself exploring more without giving up before the challenge even begins.

  2. Peter, the question that you asked “but do you believe it is important to assess student’s reading and writing abilities in content area classrooms?” I think of the classrooms that I have been in, and students asking, “does spelling count?” Yes, being able to spell photosynthesis or the details of cellular respiration correctly may not be that important in the grand scheme of things, but where do we draw a line? I want my students to be able to express themselves in a thoughtful way. I want their content knowledge to be accurate, but will that be at the expense of literacy? Do we sacrifice mechanics for content knowledge? How important is spelling and grammar in the grand scheme of things. I’m not quite sure where the line is there for me yet. It is a balance that I will have to find.

  3. I think content area teachers do assess their student’s levels of literacy in their classrooms, but not in the most productive ways. In the few science classrooms I have been a part of, one of the first things a teacher will do is point out those real “strugglers” and say something like “Oh, he’s at 3rd grade reading level.” But nothing is ever done about it.

    I think implementing any sort of reading or writing activity in a science classroom is more productive than just brushing it off and assuming its the english or special ed department’s problem. Peter, your example of journaling if great – not only is it time spent engaging with literacy, it is also time spent engaing with content. I think that science teachers get bogged down with the idea of reading and writing lab reports/scientific articles. There are so many other ways to incorporate science into reading or writing – such as have students write a story to describe genetic drift. Again, they are engaging in writing and content. And its a more interesting way to know how well they understand the concept. Students can read each others and read different styles of writing, as well as different illustrations of the same concept. The teacher also has a great window into the students’ application of the idea.

  4. Peter~

    Unexpected assessments from unexpected angles. Literacy expectations in a Biology class not only challenge students, but remind them that there is a unified method for expression in language. Science language has certain forms and customs which leak into other subject areas as well, and understanding them allows connections to be drawn to other disciplines. From math papers involving analysis of biological phenomena to comic books with science-themed villains, science language resurfaces again and again in other subjects, and needs to be taught for reading and expression just as much and well as the accordant biology theories and research.

    I’m glad you brought this up, because assessments are the bottom line- do you really care about what you’re teaching? Literacy strategies “thrown in” to get past a dull day are a lot different than assessed literacy standards in content areas. Cheers to you, Peter.

  5. I’m really inspired together with your writing talents as smartly as with the layout for your blog. Is this a paid topic or did you modify it yourself? Either way stay up the nice high quality writing, it is uncommon to see a great weblog like this one today..

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