Science lessons vital to children’s writing development, researchers say

Researchers analysed 240 pieces of work from lessons in English, science and humanities to monitor their writing skills over time

Science lessons may be as consequential to the development of child literacy as English lessons, a new study suggests.

The researchers concluded that students’ writing improves by practising their skills in all lessons. The sciences call on students to express themselves differently: explaining theories, definitions and data, all of which employ skills less frequently employed in English or arts subjects. Researchers believe this different emphasis is crucial to helping children develop the way they use finite and non-finite clauses.

The research, by Dr Philip Durrant and Rebecca Clarkson from the University of Exeter, and Mark Brenchley from Cambridge Assessment, is published in the Journal of Writing Research.

Durrant and Clarkson examined 240 pieces of work from pupils in England from lessons in English, science and humanities at the ends of Key Stages 1 to 4 to monitor their literacy development over time. It is the first part of a major new project to look at syntactic variation. The wider project will examine around 3,000 texts written by children aged six to 16 at schools in England for clues about how grammar and vocabulary develops.

Subordinate clauses are just one sign of a child’s writing maturity. Adverbial clauses were the most commonly-used form of subordination the researchers found. Their usage plays important developmental and functional roles in writing: for Year 9s, around one in five clauses was an adverbial reason clause, whereas, for Year 11 writers, this rose to one in two clauses.

Analysing scripts from different subjects, researchers concluded the “sharp” increase links to the “intensive use” of adverbial clauses in science.

Learning grammar happens by children putting that grammar to use when asked to complete tasks. It happens across all lessons, not just English classes – Dr Philip Durrant, University of Exeter

Adverbials were “relatively infrequent” in the literary work of Year 2 pupils – but become noticeable in Year 6 writing – before “levelling off” in Key Stage 3 and sharply increasing again in Year 11.

A different process of development appeared in non-literary texts; students use increasingly complex clauses in their writing year on year. Finite clauses become more and more frequent in school work until secondary school – the use of non-finite clauses steadily increased, reaching an average length of 11 words by Year 11.

Researchers hoped the data “could serve a useful function within teacher education by helping to put more meat on the bones” of National Curriculum recommendations, linguistic demands and learning opportunities.

“Learning grammar happens by children putting that grammar to use when asked to complete tasks. It happens across all lessons, not just English classes,” Durrant said.

“The current National Curriculum stipulates a number of learning goals about adverbials for primary school students and secondary students, but there is no recognition of the range of different functions that adverbials can serve or of how these are related to genre. Our research can therefore add detail and colour to the aims described in the curriculum that may help teachers understand what they should expect to see in children’s writing.”

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