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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Sentences and the web of knowledge

This blog is part 3 of the #WritingInScience symposium curated by Pritesh Raichura. Read Pritesh’s introduction here and part 2 from Ben Rogers here.

Do you ever stop to marvel at the extent of human thought? I do, and it takes my breath away. Isn’t it wonderful to be able to think about interesting, abstract things, and to learn the thoughts of other people to have something to think with? A human left to grow up on their own without language would be almost entirely unable to think beyond base animal instincts. Language gives shape to our thoughts, it allows us to pass them from one to another but also to form our own thoughts. A human brought up with language who later found themselves completely isolated from all other humans would be able to think in the abstract, because they would have words.

Two of the most influential books I’ve read in the last year have been Frederick Reif’s Cognitive Science in Science Education and The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Webster. This blog is about how I’ve been using the ideas from these books in my lessons.

Reif’s book made me think a lot about the importance of relationships between concepts such as:

a explains b,

b is a manifestation of a,

b is evidence for a, a is another way of expressing c,

d appears to refute a,

and so on.

This is important because the organisation of our knowledge is what makes it powerful as a discipline and in addition, one of the characteristics of an expert is that their knowledge is well organised. Basil Bernstein characterises scientific knowledge as having a hierarchical structure in that there are many strong links, explanatory links, between the concepts in the knowledge. I am fascinated by this web of knowledge, and I presented at rEDBrum 18 about it – you can read my presentation “The Nature of School Science Knowledge” here. A comment from Oliver Caviglioli threw a lot of light on this web of concepts and links: the links are often verbs.

I’d never given verbs much thought until I read The Writing Revolution. This incredible book shows how you can break writing down into its smallest components: clauses and sentences, and use this to force students to think carefully about the subject they are writing about. I began trying to use this in my lessons, getting students to write sentences using “whereas” and “similarly” after completing a Venn (Euler) diagram about permanent, induced and electro-magnets, for example.

Several realisations were born of this experimenting. For the first time in my life I looked at my own writing, and that of educated people in general, and I could see what made it different to that of students. I’ve never been taught to use things like “whereas” and “similarly” but I’ve picked it up from reading texts that use them. What luck to have been able to have absorbed such a thing without meaning to! Writing is a joy and it is structures like these that make it so. Writing the stilted, repetitive sentences we find in student exercise books would not be a joy to me. It is a privilege to be able to write decent prose, and many will not just develop it without being taught how to do it.

And how writing forces you to think! How many times have I started a blog and only found out what I really think half-way through writing it? If you blog or write in other forms you will have found the same, I’m sure. Again, what a pleasure to be able to do this! What luck!

I don’t want to leave this to luck. Writing gives you the ability to think, communicate, and make connections with the big wide universe: I’m not going to leave any students outside if I can help it. I want to teach my students explicitly to use language well. It is joy and it is power and it is our responsibility to share it.

After reading “The Writing Revolution” I started to see sentences with a prescribed verb or conjunction as a rich opportunity for practising declarative knowledge. Declarative knowledge is things like “explain how the National Grid is designed for efficiency” and “describe the adaptations of a leaf”. It’s hard to think of lots of practice questions for because students “just have to know it” – but these areas are nevertheless challenging for our students to understand, encode and remember. Now I’m giving students tasks like “Write a sentence about the National Grid using the word ‘so/whereas/conversely/however”. What this forces students to do is to think carefully about the logical relations between the pieces of declarative knowledge – we might call them “propositions”. So in doing this thinking they are working to build a well-organised schema with explicit descriptions of the links between nodes PIC You can read more in my post on my rEDRugby 18 talk: “Knowledge, Philosophy and Shed Loads Of Practice”.

An aside: Many readers will probably share my memories of lesson planning orthodoxy around 2004 – 2012: for every lesson we had to state a literacy objective, along with numeracy, ICT, spiritual/moral/social…. This is NOT the same as that!!! I can see that it does share some surface features however, so it is perhaps worth spending a little time talking about the difference. The reasons these ancillary objectives were such a tiresome burden are actually a fascinating microcosm of so much that was awful about education in England at that time.

Literacy was seen as a goal in itself that our lesson was supposed to be a vehicle for. Now, if there had been an understanding that reading for comprehension requires extensive knowledge and that explicit teaching of a knowledge-rich curriculum was an essential part of building a child’s literacy that would have been great but… No. Literacy was a set of transferable skills and we were obliged to make sure our lessons were planned to include, even focus on, these skills, and hang the knowledge: “Write a paragraph about the particle model to practise extended writing.” “Use metaphor to describe the structure of a leaf to practise using metaphors.” And of course “Write a letter to your MP persuading them to use more renewable energy sources.” Give me strength.

The model, if I can call it that, that I’ve been using is utterly, utterly different, and rather neatly, the reason for this is because of the logical relationship between the writing and the science: the direction of the arrow, the subject and object of the verb. Previously, our lesson was servile to the literacy objective, as we tried to fit our subject, our magnificent, glorious subject, around such things as paragraphs, poems and persuasive writing. Now our subject is the master, and we choose writing as a process that will lead our students to think deeply about that subject, to see the structure for themselves, to participate in this wonderful endeavour we call science. We consider the nature of the knowledge in order to precisely select exactly the writing technique that will match and serve the structure of the schema we hope to build in our students’ minds.

And of course if anything is going to improve students’ literacy, and initiate them into the use of these types of clauses and sentences, it is using them deliberately and thinking deeply about them in this way. The knowledge has to come first because language serves knowledge. But the language is, to an extent, transferable: learning to use it well in one context does give preparation for using it in both reading and writing in future contexts. A student who has been taught explicitly to use the word “comprises” to describe the relationship between the kingdom Fungi, yeasts, moulds and mushrooms, will be better equipped when they encounter either the word or the relationship in, for example, geography.

So what I have begun to work on is a list of the types of relationships we get in the web of knowledge, and verbs, conjunctions and relational phrases that I can set for students to use in their writing.

Lists of words and phrases

Cause and effect

Philosopher David Hume had cause and effect as one of his four logical relations. In science, things happen because of something else. Phenomena happen because of laws, and events happen because of initial conditions.

The connectives I have identified for cause and effect are as follows:


due to


resulting in


caused by




if… then

Making links

One of the reasons science is so cool is that we have a small number of underlying laws or principles that give a vast, possibly infinite, number of inferences. Observable phenomena are included in these inferences, and a lot of the time in science lessons we would like our students to be thinking about these links. This is strongly related to cause and effect, and indeed we can use the words above to write about the relationship between a phenomenon and the principle behind it. But there is an additional set of phrases that can be used to write about this sort of flowering of a law of nature into the things we observe:

is demonstrated by

has the effect of

manifests itself in

is a manifestation of

as a corollary

can be explained by

can be attributed to

has its explanation in

is related to

shares its explanation with

Sequence in time

A sequence of events, if it is one that we are describing in science, almost always has a causal relationship, either because b follows a and is also caused by a, or because b follows a and both are caused by c. So we might use the language above for cause and effect, but in addition we can use:






prior to




Comparison is a powerful technique for drawing attention to significant details, and has been used through the ages in fields as diverse as anatomy and literature. It’s valuable in science too, and these are some words we can use for this type of thinking:








An important part of scientific knowledge organisation is the placement of things into groups: classification. For writing about categories, we have:

included in

inclusive of

excluded from

exclusive of

of which

an example of which

a sub-set of


These lists are by no means exhaustive, and I would be very grateful to hear people’s suggestions for additions.

How I’m using this in lessons

There are three main ways that I use these lists in my lessons.

  1. As part of the first teaching.                                                                                             When I am teaching a piece of declarative knowledge, such as the structure of the atom, I will first teach the knowledge explicitly, by giving a planned explanation to the class, supported by a well-designed graphic. I will then give them a task to write a sentence about the knowledge using a particular word or phrase to express a relationship. So in this example I would set the phrase “composed of”. If I had not yet taught this phrase to the group, I would give them an example: A house is composed of bricks, glass, wood and tiles. The bricks make up four vertical walls and the tiles sit on a wooden frame to make the roof. If I had already taught this phrase previously, I would build in some retrieval practice by asking students to “Turn and Talk” and come up with a sentence for house, bricks, glass, tiles and wood. I would then write an accurate example, such as the one given above, on the board. Students can then use the model as a guide for writing their own sentence, and additional sentence for detail.

2. As DIRT activities.                                                                                                                              I blogged here about how we do whole-class feedback and DIRT time. We always give an ACT NOW which is very specific to the work and the area needed to improve, e.g. “Complete 5 dot and cross practice questions” (and we reteach so the student actually knows how to do it). We also give an ACT NOW AND ALWAYS – this is more generic and is designed to try and improve the overall quality of the student’s work over time. They’re not skills so much as habits and I do think they are valuable and not necessarily victim to domain specificity. We have things like “Add dual-coding to your work” and “Lay out calculations according to the (school) way”. The idea with these is the student can go back and do it for their work in DIRT time and then also do it in future work. I think a useful ACT NOW AND ALWAYS to give a student is to “Use sophisticated sentences to express relationships in your work”. I’ve been marking the part of their work that they should do it on and writing the single word/phrase I want them to use, such as “therefore”. The student then writes a sentence in purple and hopefully will write similar sentences in future work. I encourage them to do this by showing examples of ACT ALWAYS on the visualiser, praising the student and giving them merits as per our school policy. This type of marking takes between 30-60 minutes for a set of books.

3. As an ongoing resource for independent writing.                                                                      I have put the words on the wall so that all students can see them throughout the lesson.

While we are working I can draw their attention to them, ask them which category might be relevant here, ask them to choose a word that would help make a great answer, ask them to choose a word to make an answer better. As well, students can just look up and use the lists to supplement their own writing at any time. I feel this is a useful display because it supports all students in their work without giving them anything that I need them to practise retrieval of, such as formulae. And yeah I’ve called the display “Give your writing wings” and stuck 3-D butterflies the hell all over my wall. I’ve weighed up the costs and benefits of this in my context and decided it is a net benefit – sorry purists!


Obviously it’s important for students to receive feedback on their sentences so that they know if they’re doing it right or not. It’s no good getting them to do something, have them do it wrong, and not pick up on it. So firstly, I walk around and read students’ work while they’re working. If I spot an error, I will either correct the student individually, or model it in front of the class if it’s a common one. When I’m reading the books for whole-class feedback, if I come across an error I make a star next to it, and note the student’s name on my feedback page. Then in the feedback lesson I can either address the error with whole-class teaching, a small group or the individual, depending on how many made that or a similar error. Students can then write a correct sentence with their purple pen. In my subsequent planning, I can plan verbal questions for these students to allow them practice, to secure their improved understanding.


I think this is a really useful model that brings together the ideas in two of my favourite books on education. It’s great for both first teaching and improving work over time, and, most importantly, students are being initiated into the powerful magic of sophisticated writing and the web of knowledge. The tables have turned in my classroom: no longer does knowledge kow-tow to inane prescriptions for transferable skills. Now, knowledge leads and writing follows. Writing is the servant of knowledge, but it is not a kitchen-boy scrubbing dishes. It’s a brave and loyal knight, exploring new lands and fighting fearsome dragons. Knowledge is king but writing is a noble warrior.

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