The value of both talking and writing for learning to argue in science

By Heather King - June 2011


Cavagnetto, A., Hand, B.M. & Norton-Meier, L. (2010). The nature of elementary student science discourse in the context of the science writing heuristic approach. International Journal of Science Education, 32(4), 427–449.

Science is often seen by students to be a body of incontrovertible facts. If, however, we emphasize the methods in which scientific ideas and explanations are exchanged, challenged and negotiated, students may come to understand the rich and dynamic patterns of science, and thus find it more engaging. The Science Writing Heuristic (SWH) approach tries to do just this by scaffolding students in using different forms of language to engage in inquiry leading to the generation and defense of a science dispute. This study may be of particular interest to ISE practitioners who are involved in supporting students to engage in debates and other forms of communication requiring the skills of argumentation.

Prior studies have examined the effect of a group’s ability and background knowledge on successful participation in argumentation (see von Aufschnatier et al., 2008). Others have looked at the skills (on the part of both the teacher and the students) and scaffolds required (see Herrenkohl and Guerra, 1998). In terms of a context for argumentation, many studies have used socio-scientific topics as a way of instigating discussion, and challenging claims. The authors of this study, however, contend that an emphasis on socio-scientific issues obscure the scientific questions and highlights the moral concerns. Besides, this emphasis separates argumentation from the rest of syllabus, to be addressed only in the context of socio-scientific issues. Instead, they conclude that argument should be used as the means for teaching everything about science.

In this paper, the authors report a case study involving a Grade 5 teacher and class who use the SWH approach to strengthen science learning. The SWH approach facilitates student generation of claims and evidence, both verbally and in written form (see Hand, 2008, for detailed description of SWH). Their method involved analyzing the nature of student talk: how much is on task; which elements of an argument are used; and which types of talk are used.

The full analysis is presented in the study, but in particular, the authors found that the SWH approach leads to two types of talk associated with argument: generative and representational. Generative talk involves the generation of claims and evidence, whilst representational talk describes the talk leading to the written representation of such claims. In writing their thoughts down, students’ conceptual understanding is clarified, which subsequently results in more developed generative talk. Thus, the authors claim that by indulging in both forms of language, the students are better supported in the construction and critique of scientific reasoning.

For ISE educators, these findings highlight the important part played by both talking and writing when engaging in argumentation-based activities such as public debates or inquiry workshops, in which reflection is stressed. Moreover, it should be noted that by engaging in both verbal and written forms of discussion, students are more accurately reflecting the processes of science employed by scientists.

Related readings include:

Cavagnetto, A.R. (2010). Argument to foster scientific literacy: A review of argument interventions in K-12 science contexts. Review of Educational Research 80(3), 336–371.

Hand, B. (2008). Science inquiry, argumentation and language: The case for the science writing heuristic. Taiwan: Sense.

Herrenkohl, L.P. & Guerra, M.R. (1998). Participant structures, scientific discourse, and students engagement in fourth grade. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4), 431–473.

Von Aufschnaiter, C., Erduran, S., & Osborne, J., & Simon, S. (2008). Arguing to learn and learning to argue: Case studies of how students’ argumentation relates to their scientific knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(1), 101–131.