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Bringing Literacy into the Biology Classroom Using Story Progressions

When most students think of science, they do not think of reading and writing. They think that science is doing labs and collecting data; literacy is a key part of that. Whether writing a lab report, reading a textbook, or analyzing a scientific article, students need to have the necessary literacy skills to be successful in the science classroom. I designed this activity to help students improve their science and language literacy skills.

In one of my education classes in college I learned about an activity where students write a story using words from the lesson or unit. I really liked the idea of this because it provided scaffolding, but also freedom for creativity. Because I was unable to find an activity that involved this creative aspect, I designed my own called Story Progression.

How Story Progression works

In Story Progression, students write a story about a scientific process, explaining how the process works. Students can do this by writing a fictional story that involves characters, or they can write a nonfiction story that simply walks through the steps. Students receive a word bank that has key terms that they must use in their story; they must use the words in the order that they are listed. When creating the story progression, I choose which terms I think are most important and put them in the order that follows what the students have learned in the lessons. Students are then expected to write at least a paragraph-long story.

The handout with the word bank has a column on the left with 10–15 words in it. The students must write their story using each word in the order that they are listed in the column. This provides students with a small amount of structure as they figure out how to explain the process, while also challenging them to figure out how the terms are connected. I allow students to use notes and other resources to complete their story if they are struggling. Once students have their story complete, they get feedback from the teacher to ensure they are on the right track before turning in their final story. The teacher could extend this activity by having students create a comic based on their story or some other sort of visual aid.

Classroom example of story progression

I have used this activity to help students review a variety of topics such as cell division, photosynthesis, and protein synthesis. The Story Progression that I made for protein synthesis involved the following terms in this order: protein synthesis, DNA, RNA, protein, transcription, mRNA, ribosome, translation, codon, anti-codon, tRNA, amino acid, polypeptide chain. For the protein synthesis Story Progression, many of my students created procedural stories where they simply described what happens. For example some students wrote stories beginning like this, “Protein synthesis uses DNA to make RNA. The RNA is then used to make a protein.”

Other students created stories with characters like this, “King Cell needs to do protein synthesis. He will need DNA and RNA to make his proteins.” I let students go down whatever path they want, just as long as the correct process is there.

Depending on the topic that the Story Progression covers, it supports different NGSS standards. The Protein Synthesis Story Progression covered the NGSS standard: HS-LS1-6 Construct and revise an explanation based on evidence for how carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from sugar molecules may combine with other elements to form amino acids and/or other large carbon-based molecules (NGSS 2013). If a teacher did a Story Progression on mitosis, this NGSS standard could be covered: HS-LS1-4 Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms (NGSS 2013). There is a lot of freedom in this activity and adaptability to have it fit whatever the teacher needs it to.

Accommodations

Story Progressions can be used in a variety of ways, and can also be changed and adapted in different ways to fit the needs of the curriculum and the students. This activity provides students with scaffolding by providing the terms in the order to be used, but some students may still struggle with this. One accommodation that I have made for students who struggle with writing paragraphs is for them to write the definitions of the terms in their own words. This allows them to analyze the key terms, but eliminates the paragraph aspect. Another way to adapt this activity would be to provide sentence stems and to provide the words in a randomized word bank. Students would have to fill in the blanks of a story, but this time they have to put the words in the proper order.

How Story Progression can be used for assessment

Story Progression can be used in a variety of ways to assess students. Story Progressions can even be used as a pre-assessment to see what students know going into the unit and to determine what prior experiences they are bringing into the new unit. Story Progression works in the middle of a unit to check for understanding after students have had exposure to the content. Teachers can check to see which students understand how things connect and which students need more support with the concepts. Story Progression can be used as a review activity at the end of a unit to help prepare students for a test.

The Story Progression would have the most important terms and would cover key concepts on the test. Students would first create their story without any notes, and then go back and check how they did in order to see what they need to study. The teacher could use Story Progressions to assess student understanding or to have students review any topic that involves a scientific process that happens in a particular order.

Student reaction

Many students really enjoy Story Progressions and come up with a lot of creative stories. I have even had a student create a rap about photosynthesis! I have read really creative stories that involve kings and queens and other creative characters. Many stories end up not so much stories as they are nonfiction procedures. I do not have a preference of whether students create fun or procedural stories, I simply care if they are communicating the accurate scientific process or procedure. No matter what type of story they write, they are still enhancing their science knowledge and writing skills.

Conclusion

Overall, I love Story Progressions because they encourage students to practice literacy skills in their science class by reviewing scientific processes in a creative way. Having students write stories about scientific procedures and make connections between vocabulary terms both increases their understanding of scientific concepts and improves their literacy skills. Story Progressions can be adapted to almost any topic and can be adjusted to cover any terms needed or wanted. This is a great activity that allows the teacher to make changes to it to fit what their classroom needs. ■


Miranda Mellen (miranda.mellen@gmail.com) is a biology teacher at Portage High School in Portage, WI.

References

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Biology Literacy Teaching Strategies High School

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