Learning about science writing from kids

What do kids think about the science that they read? What lessons can science writers learn from them? Tonight, I got 5 minutes to try to answer those questions at the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting. This is my first year attending the conference so I thought it would be fun to jump right in and give an Ignite talk. These are 5 minute presentations that must use exactly 20 slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. It’s a fast-paced and fun format. In my 5 minutes I shared six lessons that I’ve learned from what kids say about the science reading they do. Ben Young Landis (@younglandis) snapped this photo of my presentation.
Welcome @mcshanahan to #sciwri11 and NASW! Already at it w an... on Twitpic

So what is there to learn from kids?

Lesson #1: The people of science matter

One of the main types of science writing that I do is Adapted Primary Literature for upper elementary and middle school. The idea is to transform academic journal articles into pieces that students can read while maintaining the overall structure and style of the original. They look and sound like journal articles but with the concepts simplified and some of the logical gaps filled in. Because they look and sound like academic journal articles, they tend to have the same depersonalized style. The motivations and personalities of the scientists aren’t highlighted. When this missing, however, students notice. They want to know about scientists’ motivations and interests and frequently ask about it:

  • “How did you come up with this idea to detect cancer.  And how did you become a scientist.” (Hannes, Gr. 6)[i]
  • “I think your work is very interesting, but I would like to know why are you interested?” (Halia, Gr. 5)

Science writers often consider the importance of narrative for making science engaging and understandable. To these students, it’s more than that. It’s something they want to know.

Lesson #2: Evidence is essential

Kids are much more discerning critics of evidence than I expected. Adapted Primary Literature usually highlights evidence even more than other forms of writing might but students are not shy to demand more or to make suggestions for how the claims could have been stronger.

  • “I think that your research shows clear evidence although you could it test a few more times!!” (Elise, Gr. 5)
  • “How do you prove that this happened if you haven’t shown us that graphene is shaped by nanodroplets?” (Peter, Gr. 6)

Lesson #3: It’s not just online that commenters like to have pseudonyms

On a lighter note, when writing science online anonymous critique is often a touchy subject. Commenters can be quick to be critical but also often give themselves whimsical or fantastical names. To my surprise, though, it doesn’t just exist online. Writing solely with their pencils and paper, and without prompting, several students took on imaginative pseudonyms in writing to scientists about their work.

  • “Hi my name is 235 and I think your research is so cool” [I’m not sure if this was meant to be a robot or computer pseudonym but in its own way, it’s very creative]
  • “This study is confusing. Next time use smaller words. Sincerely, Ninjaman” [You would be surprised by the prominence of ninjas in the students’ writing. This was not the only Ninjaman that I met and I also met Ninjagirl, Pink Ninja and Ninjadude.]

Lesson #4: It can be helpful to assume that readers don’t anything about a topic

Explaining scientific research is tough and sometimes there are a lot of background ideas that readers need when trying to make sense of it. Explaining all of the terms is very important. Taking a surprisingly sophisticated view, one student suggested that it could be useful to pretend that your readers don’t know anything about a topic. Pretending can help ensure that there aren’t gaps created by what it is assumed that readers understand. I love the she seemed to recognize the difference between really thinking that readers don’t know anything and pretending that they don’t for the purpose of creating a clear explanation.

  • “I don’t understand. What’s graphene? What does nano mean? To me your report is confusing.” (Ben, Gr. 6)
  •  “I think that it was kind of confusing maybe use smaller words and write it as though they do not know anything” (Skyler, Gr. 5)

Lesson #5: It might be helpful to assume that readers don’t know anything but they almost certainly do—and that knowledge changes the way they interpret what they read

Readers interpret what they read in light of how they understand certain terms (for example, thinking that the word water refers only to liquid water) and the general understanding they have about the way the universe works. What they understand and believe about what they read depends not only on the writing but also on what they already know.

  • “They could have been [water] but with my further knowledge of Mars, it would be too cold.  The water would freeze.” (Cailin, Gr. 6)
  • “It is likely that it is something else instead because it is cold so I think the water would freeze.” (Rory, Gr. 6)
  • “Our universe is developing more and more each day like the way the Earth formed. So other planets might be developing water.  The Earth is changing so Mars is probably changing too.” (Xander, Gr. 6)

Lesson #6 It never hurts to speak your readers’ language.

If you want to understand feedback from your readers, it never hurts to understand their language. Otherwise how would I have known that this is a compliment?:

  • Dear scientists =) =) <3 <3   (Kara, Gr. 5)


Kids are wonderful critics of scientific writing. They are forthright and insightful and I’ve learned a lot about science writing from asking them what they think.

If you’re interested, here are the slides from my presentation. Please forgive me for glossing over some of these ideas. It was only a 5 minute talk!

[i] The quotes in this post are from a series of studies of adapted primarily literature articles written for Grade 5 and 6 students (10-12 years old). They were asked to comment on the quality of the writing and to offer suggestions. After reading, they also each wrote a letter to the scientists featured in the articles. All of the student names are pseudonyms. This study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Centre for Research in Youth, Science, Teaching and Learning (CRYSTAL-Alberta). Portions of these studies have been published in:

Shanahan, M.-C. (in press). Reading for evidence in hybrid adapted primary literature. Reading for evidence and interpreting visualizations in mathematics and science education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Reading like a scientist: Students evaluate the quality of a scientific study. Science and Children, 48(1), 42-46.

Shanahan, M.-C., de los Santos, J., & Morrow, R. (2009). Hybrid adapted primary literature: A strategy to support elementary students in reading about scientific inquiry. Alberta Science Education Journal, 40, 20-26.


3 responses to “Learning about science writing from kids”

  1. Interesting that kids want to know the who and why behind the research, not just what the discovery is. Thanks for sharing! Do you know of any workshops/conferences on science writing for kids in 2014?

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