Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Helping Students Write Better Conclusions: The Modified Sentence Completion Task Is Used to Teach Students about the Language of Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Helping Students Write Better Conclusions: The Modified Sentence Completion Task Is Used to Teach Students about the Language of Science

Article excerpt


The language of science is not exclusively mathematical. Students need to read and write with a specialized vocabulary that communicates their learning and knowledge in science classes (Fang 2006). Unlike the vocabulary used in language arts and social studies, knowledge of expository text (text written to inform) and the language of science are required for reading and writing in science (Carrier 2005). This vocabulary, along with expository text structures, often is not taught in middle and high school classrooms, thus hindering students, and especially English language learners (ELLs), from gaining the knowledge and skills required to handle the increasing factual load in science classes.

In this article, we describe how to use the sentence completion task to teach students how to write laboratory report conclusions. As laboratory conclusions contain many qualities found in expository text structures, learning how to write conclusions familiarizes students with the text and language used in science. Students can begin writing their own unaided conclusions after repeated practice using the modified sentence completion task as a scaffold in the science classroom.

Writing laboratory conclusions

Writing laboratory reports is one type of advanced literacy that is developed during the high school years. The process is analogous to what kindergartners and first graders experience as they learn the alphabet or "break the code" in the first stage of reading (Christie 2002). Abstraction is a key quality that characterizes most of the science textbooks and other reading material that high school students encounter. Abstract language is found, for example, in generalizations, definitions, embedded clauses in sentences, and argumentation with evidence (Christie 2002; Scarcella 2002). These concepts present obstructions, which many students are unable to overcome without sufficient scaffolding and practice.

Expository structures include such types as generalization, cause and effect, sequence, compare and contrast, and enumeration (Cook and Mayer 1988). A writer using the generalization structure, for example, states a generalized main idea and then proceeds to defend it with facts, reasons, or examples--the supporting details. In a sequence paragraph, the writer includes all of the events in consecutive order.

Writing a conclusion for a laboratory experiment shares many of the elements found in text structures, such as generalization and sequence. Knowledge of these text structures provides writers with the tools they need to compose their own conclusions in science. Many students enter high school and college, however, writing ineffective conclusions to laboratory reports. Writing a conclusion requires that students make generalizations from the experimental data obtained in the lab. Conclusions are not necessarily expected to be very long but must summarize the experiment and show correlations to key concepts. Well-written conclusions communicate that students have made connections between the concepts and the observed phenomena.

Writing laboratory conclusions may be conceived of as a particular type of informational writing requiring both new vocabulary and knowledge of a new text structure. The difficulty students have writing conclusions may be a reflection of their lack of exposure to expository writing. For ELLs, the difficulty with both reading and writing are even more pronounced.

The modified sentence completion task

Literacy experts suggest that a combination of writing and reading instruction is necessary for students to become aware of informational text structures (Piccolo 1987). In a recent paper on the sentence completion task, it was demonstrated that this strategy could be used to reinforce text structure knowledge (Montelongo et al. 2006). In this article, we argue that these same sentence-completion exercises may be used to teach and reinforce the writing of conclusions. …

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