Literacy skills in science

Science and Children cover, November 2007As part of a project I am working on, I was visiting the science classes of teachers who participated in a summer professional education project. One of the elementary teachers indicated that I should wait until April to visit hers. She said that in her school, they didn’t teach science until after the state reading and math tests were over in the spring!

Although this is (I hope) an extreme example, it seems that science, social studies, and the arts are being cut back to provide more reading time, at least in some elementary and middle schools. Maybe as a veteran secondary teacher I’m asking a silly question, but why can’t reading (and writing) skills be taught in the context of subjects such as science, social studies, and the arts?

In this issue of Science & Children, there are several articles on just this topic. The Reading and Science article makes two interesting points. For those who wonder if hands-on activities discourage or replace reading, the author cites research that shows the opposite. In more stimulating settings, student motivation to read increases. The author also describes “authentic reading” as reading for a purpose. Students who engaged in purposeful reading improved in their comprehension. I’m curious as to how much emphasis there is on nonfiction reading in our classrooms, which is what most of this authentic reading would be.

Another article poses the question How is reading science books different from reading other kinds of books?” The focus on fluency in reading (words per minute) may be counterproductive in reading science texts, where science reading is a slower process, and going back to reread a section is appropriate. Are students being instructed and guided in these processes?

I hope that secondary teachers will look at these two articles. I wonder if many of the reading “problems” in secondary students are in reality a lack of guidance and experience in reading these informational texts? I know that secondary teachers feel that reading instruction is not their job. I would agree that if secondary students cannot decode words, there is a need for intervention by reading specialists. But I’m not convinced that it’s the job of a reading or language arts teachers to teach students how to read science texts, to instruct students in specialized science vocabulary, or to teach students how to write lab reports. Who better to do this than science teachers?

Making sense of science textbooks and web resources requires another type of literacy – visual literacy. Think of how science uses nonlinguistic representations – symbols on a weather map, the Periodic Table, chemical equations, Punnet Squares, molecular diagrams, formulas, graphs, diagrams, maps (the list goes on!). With all due and utmost respect to my colleagues in the Language Arts/Reading department, I’m not sure that they are the right folks to teach my science students how to interpret and create these representations.

Regardless of the grade level, one of the best ways to help students interact with these texts is by modeling. It doesn’t require a lot of professional development to do a “think aloud” and make your thinking process visible (and audible) to students. For examples, our textbooks are now full of graphics that support the content, but many students do not always see the relationships between the graphics and the text. It’s been my experience that taking a little time to model how to see these relationships may be what students need to eventually become more independent readers.

There are many web resources that can help you. We’ve created a new SciLinks, Keyword “Reading and Writing in Science,” and we’ll be adding some teacher resources for this. In the meantime, here are two sites that are good ones to start with: Think Aloud and Strategies for Effective Use of Science Reading Materials

I saw a college professor of physics doing a “think aloud” with a group of elementary teachers. He was modeling how to interpret graphs and to see the story that the graph was telling about their investigations. It took a few minutes of the classtime, but the teachers understood and were then able to apply the skill to other graphs.

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