“[Students with dyslexia]... think differently,” writes Sally Shaywitz, MD, cofounder and codirector of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity and author of Overcoming Dyslexia. “They are intuitive and excel at problem-solving, seeing the big picture, and simplifying. They feast on visualizing, abstract thinking, and thinking out of the box. They are… inspired visionaries.”
This quote speaks to the strengths that many students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, possess—strengths, such as keen spatial reasoning, or the ability to think about and manipulate objects in three dimensions, that are especially beneficial in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pursuits.
Unfortunately, however, students with dyslexia may be left out of STEM learning in traditional classrooms due to assessment structures and instructional approaches that lean heavily on language processing and symbolic decoding skills. These barriers place a cognitive processing burden on students with dyslexia and impact their ability to truly engage and demonstrate learning, potentially precluding their participation in advanced courses and future career opportunities.
STEM-based education is important for all learners, providing rich opportunities for developing 21st-century skills; it is focused on hands-on learning with real-world applications through a cross-curricular lens, meaning that students learn science and math while also developing creativity, collaboration and communication skills, executive functioning, and flexibility—skills that are transferable to every professional context.
Yet it’s impossible to promote scientific literacy without also considering accessible reading and writing instruction. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the majority of fourth-grade students are not reading at grade-level proficiency standards. The following five strategies scaffold emerging literacy through STEM instruction for all learners, including those with language-based learning differences.
Combine hands-on investigations with interactive read-alouds and discussions to help students develop conceptual understanding, acquire new facts, and engage in the essential scientific skills of observing, forming hypotheses, collecting evidence, making predictions, revising hypotheses, and drawing conclusions.
Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, is a great text with which to begin STEM read-alouds with third through fifth graders. The book positions students to learn about engineering, generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem, and persevere to solve it (through a real-world investigation, perhaps).
After the reading, ask students what they wondered about as they listened. Use open-ended questions to encourage scientific discourse and social interaction critical to making meaning and developing explanations.
Emerging writers can benefit from keeping an engineer’s journal, learning the writing process while focusing on STEM-based learning. With embedded scaffolding of “who, what, where, when, and why” prompts, along with areas for both visual and descriptive representations of learning, students have an opportunity to capture what they understand from a lesson and what questions remain.
As with the writing process in an English language arts classroom, students may move from drawing pictures to labeling, writing simple sentences and then paragraphs, and so on. You can pose prompts that capture learners’ lingering questions, ideas for experiments, or designs for inventions that solve real-world problems.
One way to use an engineer’s journal is through explicit instruction that demonstrates a multimodal approach to writing: Begin by modeling your own written response, followed by a group discussion, and offer class charts and diagrams through which students can share writing ideas that spark engagement—for example, sentence frames like “I found that…” or “I think this because…”—especially for students who struggle with literacy. Allow visual entries like graphs, diagrams, and drawings to further differentiate instruction.
Do It, Talk It, Read It, Write It
To answer key unit questions, pair hands-on investigations of scientific phenomena with second-hand investigations using texts to help students answer the same fundamental inquiries.
Leading with real-world investigation fosters energy for text-based engagement. And through subsequent discussions and written responses, students can further construct explanations, gather evidence, and make arguments about scientific ideas. Offer differentiated texts (for example, by Lexile level) on the same topics to support accessible literacy.
Concept mapping using visual or graphic organizers can help students understand new scientific concepts, make connections between concepts, and organize information by answering questions like “What is it?” “What is it like/similar to?” and “What are some examples?”
Not only is concept mapping helpful for building background knowledge and vocabulary, but also it is a tool for scaffolding deeper comprehension, as it promotes more holistic and nuanced learning and practice in STEM education, asking students to draw on background knowledge through which to encode new information.
Assessments are often heavily dependent on literacy skills, which creates barriers for struggling readers and writers. Additionally, print-rich assessments may value product over process, the opposite of a process-focused STEM approach.
A more inclusive example of formative assessment is offering verbal feedback and prompting that is timely, specific, and actionable, focused not on the binary of right versus wrong but on open dialogue about where students are in the learning process, where they are going, and what they are curious about.
Questioning can be used to spark inquiry and investigation; for example, rather than asking a closed question (e.g., “Did it go up or down?”), consider how an open-ended question (e.g., “What do you think would happen if…?”) can push students’ thinking.
STEM is a Field for All
It is important to note that, given the inherently hands-on nature of STEM education, it is best to balance interactive activities with explicit, differentiated literacy instruction. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten once remarked, “All students belong in STEM.” The above strategies seek to communicate that message, overtly and covertly, to every learner in the classroom.
STEM is everywhere—it is a field that reveals our world and how it works. By finding ways to embrace all kinds of learners in deep, meaningful STEM education, we prepare young people who are scientifically, emotionally, and linguistically literate, open to multiple modalities of learning and communicating, and thereby better prepared to enter an ever-changing professional world.