Literacy and science: Reading and comprehending

One of our goals for the coming year is to incorporate more literacy practices into science instruction. Some of our teachers are eager to do more of this, while others are more skeptical about taking on this responsibility. As the department chair, I’m looking for some discussion ideas and resources.
—Kevin, Chesapeake, Virginia

The topic of literacy and science has been around for as long as I can remember (and was the focus of my master’s research project and several action research projects). These days the topic has taken on a new life with the inclusion of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information as a Scientific and Engineering Practice within the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Many state standards and local curricula in communications or language arts include four processes: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Although they were designed for reading and language arts classes, it would be hard to imagine scientists who do not use these processes daily.

I suspect there are those who see the first part of the practice, obtaining, as simply locating information. That’s not a problem with a wealth of sources on the Internet. But are students able to understand what they’re reading when they find it? If they struggle with traditional print resources, they will also struggle with online text. The struggle does not disappear when students use electronic devices. Will students be able to evaluate what they read or will they simply accept whatever they find on the Internet as factual?

Unlike what students might see in a reading or English class, science resources are not usually written as stories or in chronological sequence. Science text often starts with a main concept and then provides descriptions or supporting details. Science text often uses headings, subheadings, abstracts, summaries, sidebars, footnotes, and graphics. Science text uses specialized vocabulary (often highlighted and linked to a glossary) and may be written from an expert point of view. Students may not realize reading science text can be a slower process than reading a novel or story, and rereading a section is appropriate and even encouraged. Many of the reading skills students learn in their other classes can be transferred to science, but students may need some help to make the connections. And who better to help them than their science teachers, who know how to read science materials.

Several Ms. Mentor columns have addressed literacy topics related to reading, vocabulary, and visual literacy:

Science and reading. I have to attend a workshop on teaching reading in the content areas. Is it really the job of a secondary science teacher to teach students how to read?

Comprehending science text. I’m incorporating several strategies this year to help my life science students understand written information. I provided study guides with questions to answer, graphic organizers, and quizzes on the information, but they still don’t seem to comprehend what they read. Do you have any other suggestions?

Science-related nonfiction books. I teach science at the elementary level. I’d like to improve our nonfiction science collection for students to read outside of class or for teachers to use during read-alouds. I want to be sure what we purchase is appropriate; do you have any suggestions or lists of recommended books for this level?

Visual literacy. Our district has a goal for every teacher to reinforce student literacy skills. We’re struggling with this at the secondary level. Most of our students seem to have decent reading levels, and the reading specialists provide extra help for those who need it. So what can we do in science classes to improve student literacy? (See also the Visual literacy collection in the NSTA Learning Center.)

Words, words, and more words. I’d like to change my approach to learning vocabulary. Even when I ask students to write definitions in their own words, they don’t seem to understand the terms. Any suggestions?

Putting science words on the wall. I’ve seen “word walls” in elementary classrooms, but I wonder whether older students would find them helpful in dealing with vocabulary. What should I consider in trying this idea?






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  1. Mary Bigelow
    Posted June 30, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    A recent Scientific American article: Reading Techniques Help Students Master Science.

  2. Rose F
    Posted November 17, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

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