Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Exploring the Role of Writing in Science: A 25-Year Journey

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Exploring the Role of Writing in Science: A 25-Year Journey

Article excerpt


It was a great surprise to be asked to provide a review article 25 years after being in the first edition of the journal. As someone who had just completed a PhD and was beginning to work in the area of science literacy, particularly in the field of writing, it was great to be able to get my career underway. Now to be asked to look back and review what and where we have been is an interesting task. Given that my area of work has been centred on the role of writing as a language tool, I would like to address some key theoretical and practical issues that we are currently grappling with in the field.

In terms of science literacy, we have been working on the foundational role language writ large plays in science, both as a practice and as a product. This critical work was first put forward by the late Steve Norris and Linda Phillips (2003) who were arguing for the role of language in science. While there have been different fields of work that have tried to address the question of content-based literacy, they have essentially been focused on how to get literacy happening in the content areas. The work by Norris and Phillips fundamentally changed the way in which language was viewed in terms of its function within the field, in that they highlighted that in essence there is no science without language.

This simple message changed how we should view language and how it should be used within any learning environment. Much of the field was focused on replication, that is, can the learner replicate the genres of science? (Halliday & Martin, 1993). Now language was viewed as an epistemic tool (Prain & Hand, 2016), something that enabled an individual to be able to know science. This view suggested that it was through language that a learner came to understand science as a practice resulting in some form of product--a piece of knowledge or a framed argument. If language was to be viewed as something beyond a replication tool, then there was a need to understand how learners engage in language as an epistemic tool. This is the work I would like to focus on in this paper.

Theoretical frameworks

Most of the work in literacy studies, particularly in the field of science education and beyond, tends to be focused on socio-cultural theory and/or the mastery of strategies to improve the quality of the output by students. Issues related to identity, power and agency have driven much of the field. Rather than use this theoretical position as the central framework for research, we have tried to engage more with cognitive issues and classroom environments. Importantly, we have taken the position that there is a need to align cognitive learning theory with what actually happens within science classrooms. That is, we have focused on trying to understand the role language plays in promoting understanding of science ideas. Such a position does not downplay the role of socio-cultural perspectives, but rather it places the active engagement of language both as a process and a product more centrally within the learning environment.

Work in the later 1990s by David Galbraith (1999) highlighted the need to see writing as a knowledge constituting process, where writing enabled the development of new knowledge because of the cyclical process involved in moving through the learner's network of ideas. By having to construct text, a learner is required to connect to existing knowledge in ways that he/she had not previously done, and thus knowledge is constituted in a new way. Writing could be viewed as a process by which knowledge is engaged with in a way that was much more than replication of existing ideas given to students, but rather as a process by which students themselves could construct their own understanding of these ideas.

Klein (1999), in a major review of the literature, examined what particular act of writing was of most benefit. He highlighted four positions that could be used to describe the process of writing: point of utterance, genre, forward searching and backward searching. …

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