Literacy and Science

Published: 8/1/2013 11:43 AM

With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, each of us feels a sense of urgency to dig deep into our instructional practices repertoire and pull out that overlooked strategy that will work for all our students and propel them into academic success.


Unfortunately, there is no single such strategy or practice-every child is unique-one size does not fit all. What we have is a body of research that provides us with some basic understandings of how students learn. Given that, we can prioritize and focus our efforts in order to best ensure student achievement.
Much of the data points to the importance of developing literacy in the early years of schooling, and nurturing that literacy throughout the education experience and beyond. Consider a basic definition of literacy-the ability to use reading, writing, and oral language to learn and communicate thinking. What more could we really want from our students? Well, according to the thousands of people that contributed to Project 2061's Science For All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards, we also want students that "can ask, find or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. It implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed." (1996) Altogether, these goals often lead educators to feel pressured to "prioritize" and separate basic literacy from scientific literacy.
A sizeable amount of research, however, points in a different direction. Instead of separating, why not integrate these goals? Use the wonder of science to engage students in a meaningful pursuit of knowledge, which will provide the impetus needed to promote literacy in general. According to Wendy Saul, Professor of Education at the University of Maryland, "through providing students with opportunities to read, write, and speak as scientists; attaching purpose to the use of print materials; and making the conventions and forms of reading, writing, and speaking in science explicit, students will increase both science and literacy knowledge." (1998)
We must consider the skills the National Science Education Standards (1996) stress as key to the inquiry process-asking questions, constructing explanations, testing explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicating ideas to others-as our call as science teachers to not merely support basic literacy skills, but to teach, emphasize, and intentionally embed these skills in all of our instruction. In a way, we have the advantage-our content is inherently rich with interest and opportunities for students to ask questions and be genuinely motivated to find reasons, solutions, and support from a variety of resources. "The real world is rich, fascinating, and compelling. If I didn't believe this, I'd cover my head with my pillow when the alarm invaded my sleep each morning and give the snooze button a workout every five minutes!" says Stephanie Harvey, educator and author of Nonfiction Matters and Strategies That Work.
We must embrace this current thinking and equip ourselves with skills and strategies that we can share with students in order to enable them to function at a high level in their world. When we have given this our best efforts, then, hopefully, there truly will be no child left behind.
Karen Kidwell, Kentucky Department of Education, 2002
Literacy in Science Resources
Barton, Mary Lee, and Jordan, Deborah L. (2001). Teaching Reading in Science.
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, Aurora, CO.
Science teachers often feel unprepared or too pressured for time to teach skills typically associated with reading classrooms. However, in order for students to fully comprehend science texts and other written materials dealing with science content, students need some specific strategies for engaging and constructing meaning from those materials. This 'teacher's guide' provides a wealth of strategies to improve reading, writing, and communicating within the natural context of the science classroom.
Cwiklinski, Ann, Czapla, Beth, and Stern, Luli (1996). Books to help teachers achieve science literacy. American Association for the Advancement of Science. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EDO-SE-9)
Project 2061, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) K-12 education reform effort, has created a database of 120 nonfiction science books, essays, philosophical works, and fiction books which are likely to enrich the reader's understanding of important ideas in science, mathematics, and technology. The books in the database meet 3 criteria: (1) match content in the Benchmarks, (2) come highly rated from a reliable source, and (3) be of interest to a general audience. Most have been published within the last 15 years.
Dickinson, Valarie L, and Young, Terrell A. (1998). Elementary science and language arts: should we blur the boundaries? School Science and Mathematics, 98(6), 334-340.
Many elementary teachers feel unprepared to teach science, and thus often put off teaching science because they feel that developing reading and writing is more important. These teachers often do not see the connection between developing literacy through science. Helping teachers see, understand, and implement instructional practices which rely on the teachers' strengths in language arts instruction to improve their teaching of science content could be a solution to the lack of confidence in science instruction. The authors discuss thematic interdisciplinary instruction as a remedy, while highlighting some key considerations for maintaining the integrity of each discipline.
DiGisi, Lori Lyman (1998). Summary of CUSER Institute on Science and Literacy: November 12-14, 1998. Center for Urban Science Education Reform (CUSER), New York City, New York.
This report is a synthesis of the Center for Urban Science Education Reform (CUSER) Institute on Science and Literacy. Beginning with the assumption that literacy supports science and science fosters literacy through interest, the institute provided a forum to present current research and an impetus for instructional reform. National experts on reading, writing, and language in science were convened to explore the connections between literacy and science in the classroom. Several recommendations were concluded based on discussions among participants. These included specific strategies to foster skilled science communicators, suggestions for assessing student learning and using that information to drive classroom practice, creating time for collaboration among literacy specialists and science teachers to plan and assess student work, and strategic ideas for the leadership of science and literacy programs.
Donahue, David M. (2000). Experimenting with texts: new science teachers' experience and practice as readers and teachers of reading. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(8), 728-736.
Reading should be viewed as a "social activity of constructing meaning from prior knowledge, current experience, and information from a variety of texts," suggests the author, who teaches a course on reading in the content areas. Focusing on one's own reading in science may help them better understand how students' reading influences their understandings and assumptions about science. 10 preservice teachers were involved in a study that examined their own beliefs about science and literacy by having them read outside of their required course texts for 3 hours per week. The only requirement was that it be connected to their subject matter, thus it could consist of popular books, journals, essays, etc. The teachers had to write about their reading each week and respond to someone else's journal (within the same content area as their own) every other week.
The author examined the journals and drew conclusions as to the preservice teachers' beliefs about reading and writing in their content areas, particularly science. Results, conclusions, and implications of the findings are presented.
Ebbers, Margaretha (2002). Science text sets: using various genres to promote literacy and inquiry. Language Arts, 80(2), 40-50.
Inquiry requires that students examine information and resources, plan and conduct experiments and investigations, compare their findings to others, and to communicate their results and conclusions. In order to develop these essential skills in students, teachers must often think about teaching and learning science differently than they themselves learned. The use of a variety of non-fiction genres (reference, explanation, field guides, how-to guides, narrative expository, biography, and journals) enables teachers to expose students to scientific thinking and communicating. Through these models, students can increase their own literacy competencies in the science classroom. The author provides specific instructional strategies to use with the non-fiction genres mentioned, and illustrates how the formation of a 'text set,' or a collection of a variety of genres centered around a common theme, can be used to enhance both literacy and science content learning in the classroom.
Guthrie, J. T., Anderson, E., Alao, S., & Rinehart J. (1999). Influences of concept-oriented reading instruction on strategy use and conceptual learning from text. The Elementary School Journal, 99(4), 343-366.
3rd and 5th-grade students participated in a year-long integrated reading/language arts and science program called Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). The purpose of the program was to increase reading engagement, which is associated with the acquisition of knowledge represented in a text. The experimental groups began an instructional unit with hands-on activities followed by library research on the topic they had explored. Instruction focused on how to integrate information across sources and included storied, folklore, novels, and poetry. At the end of the unit students communicated what they had learned to others through speaking and writing. Control group teachers used their usual McGraw-Hill basal readers for reading instruction and Addison-Wesley textbooks and materials for science. Students in the experimental group demonstrated higher achievement on an assessment of the conceptual knowledge contained in the unit and increased their reading engagement.
Harvey, Stephanie (2002). Nonfiction inquiry: using real reading and writing to explore the world. Language Arts, 80(1), 12-22.
Nonfiction books can be used to engage students in true inquiry. In order to encourage and foster reading, writing and thinking skills, students must have interesting topics to learn about. Utilizing high interest texts about the real world allows students to go beyond surface knowledge and understandings. The author provides a research base for integrating content and developing students' sense of wonder as a mechanism to increase competencies in science, as well as reading and writing. Resources and practical classroom implementation strategies that are intended to spur enthusiasm among students are presented.
Klentschy, M. P. (2001, August). The Science – Literacy Connection: A Case Study of the Valle Imperial Project in Science, 1995-1999. Paper presented at the Connecting Science and Literacy Conference, Baltimore, MD.
As part of a NSF-funded Local Systemic Initiative, a high-poverty California school district used an inquiry-based science program including research-based modules and science kits in grades K-6. Students' "real world" science experiences were supplemented with readings from children's books to provide a context for those experiences. Students also kept journals for each of the inquiry units. SAT-9 achievement test scores in science showed increases for all subgroups of students with a positive correlation to the number of years they were exposed to the program. Furthermore, the longer students had been exposed to the program, the higher their reading achievement scores. Limited English Proficient students experienced a strong carry-over effect in which their reading achievement improved along with their science achievement scores. 89% of 6th-graders who participated in the program passed a writing proficiency assessment compared to only 58% of the control group.
Mansukhani, Premlata (2002). The Explorers Club: the sky is no limit for learning. Language Arts, 80(2), 31-39.
When students are allowed to ask their own questions and pursue answers to them, the learning becomes the student's and the motivation is intrinsic. The "Explorers Club" is a model for facilitating inquiry learning in any content area, with any and all students, even ESL students. Students are nurtured by the teacher to pose rich questions and then guided as they pursue answers and/or solutions from a variety of media and sources. Evaluation of the learning, the learner, and the process occurs formatively and summatively.
Martin, George T. (2002). Reading, writing, and comprehending. The Science Teacher, October 2002, 56-59.
A synthesis of strategies learned by the author through a reading course at Shenandoah University in Virginia and a National Science Foundation training focusing on reading and writing in the content areas is presented. Pre-reading, reading, and post-reading strategies are discussed and described, enabling implementation in any classroom. Assessment strategies are presented as well that focus primarily on writing in the content area class.
Moore, Sara Delano, and Bintz, William P. (2002). From Galileo to Snowflake Bentley. Science Scope, September 2002, 10-14.
In order to increase achievement in science educators must find ways, as John Dewey suggested decades ago, to present content in a more engaging context and consider different methods for that presentation. Moore and Bintz present paired texts as a reading strategy that can be used to introduce the concept of inquiry. Ideas for differentiation are presented, as well as the notion of using multiple texts, including literature, to further support student understanding of science and how scientists work.
Ruiz-Primo, M. A., Li, M., Ayala, C., & Shavelson, R. J. (1999, March). Student Science Journals and the Evidence they Provide: Classroom Learning and Opportunity to Learn. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Boston, MA.
As part of a study designed to determine how best to assess student achievement on inquiry-based science activities, 163 California 5th-graders kept science journals describing their classroom activities. Teachers scored these journals using specially designed verification lists. Student performance on journal entries was positively correlated with their achievement on inquiry activities in class. Students with low journal scores tended to have a poor understanding of the science concepts in the activities they did. The researchers concluded that writing can be a valid way to demonstrate science achievement.
Walker, Bradford, and Huber, Richard A. (2002). Helping students read science textbooks. Science Scope, September 2002, 39-40.
Textbook reading can enhance both students comprehension of scientific texts and their interest in and knowledge of science concepts. However, textbook reading is often ineffective as students struggle more to decode than to actually comprehend the science content. Specific instructional strategies are highlighted which have proven effective in engaging students and increasing comprehension of text.
Karen Kidwell
Office of Next-Generation Learners
Division of Program Standards
500 Mero Street, 18th Floor CPT

Frankfort, KY 40601
(502) 564-2106
Fax (502) 564-9848