Reading and Writing Taught in a Sophomore Course on Plate Tectonics

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Students' writing skills develop with their reading skills. Here I provide a five-step approach to reading a paper, and four criteria (the "four C": content, clarity, coherence, and craft) to structure writing and revising of a manuscript. I used these in a sophomore course on plate tectonics. In the first part of the course students read and summarized original papers, while in the second part they synthesized a contentious or recently resolved issue. Both parts stressed the importance of revising drafts. During the course, feedback on drafts and revisions shifted from comments by the instructor to comments by peers. An assessment of the course from student evaluations, colleague feedback, and Writing Center comments, indicates that students' writing did improve. Students acknowledge that careful reading helps them become better writers.


College educators place more and more emphasis on students developing writing skills (e.g., Davis, 1993), and so do students (e.g., Light, 2001). In the Earth Sciences, this need has given rise to new methods of writing assessment (e.g., "argumentation analysis model"; Takao et al., 2002) and new courses (e.g., "Geocommunication"; Lewis and Wolf, 2003). However, good writing can only develop in conjunction with careful reading.

Gopen and Swan (1990) dissect writing samples from the readers' point of view. They show how readers expect information to be conveyed through certain grammatical structures. They also argue that dysfunctional structure" may be traced to the writer's thoughts being clouded, leading to misintepretations on the readers' part. In Gopen and Swan's words: "it may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot 'exist' without the intepretation of each reader" (Gopen and Swan, 1990, pg. 558). If we accept this proposition, then we have to conclude that helping students write more proficiently cannot be accomplished without also teaching them read more effectively.

In this paper my central argument is that critical reading is the foundation to meaningful writing. In fact, reading and writing advance together. I will show how I implemented these two aspects of scientific discourse in a sophomore level course on plate tectonics. I think that the tools used are applicable to other courses.


The goal of scientific writing is to convey information which often is extracted from papers. Reading is therefore a necessary first step, and showing students how to read critically will in turn show them how to write successfully. Equally important is revising of a draft; luckily, similar criteria can help in writing and in revising a paper.

Reading - Unlike reading a novel for pleasure, reading a scientific paper is aimed at understanding concepts and answering questions. My handout (Table 1) provides students with a framework for this task, from quickly skimming a paper to carefully summarizing it. Students realize with the help of this handout that most readers have specific questions in mind. They acknowledge that most readers will scan a paper before deciding to either read it in detail, or focus on certain sections, or not read it further. They realize that certain elements (title, abstract, conclusions, topic sentences, figure captions) are crucial to make this decision. They thus gain insights that will help them with their own writing. Having extracted information and structured it in point form or as diagram/concept map (e.g., Englebrecht et al., 2005, and references therein) they are ready to proceed to the next step.

Writing: the "four C" - Jewelers grade diamonds and other gemstones using "four C": carat, clarity, colour, and cut. Students and instructors can evaluate scientific writing using similar "four C": content, clarity, coherence, and craft (see Table 2). …


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