Literacy

Supporting Literacy in the Science Classroom

There are a variety of ways to incorporate literacy strategies in science education without sacrificing content.

November 21, 2018
An illustration of a rocket ship launching out of an open book, surrounded by planets and stars
©iStock/Nadzeya_Dzivakova

Written and spoken language play a significant role in all classes. But if you’re trained as a science teacher, how do you support literacy development without losing content time for science?

Rethink Literacy

Good news: You already teach literacy. Science teachers offer students many opportunities to improve their literacy skills, including:

  • Asking students to think critically while reading science reports, news and pop science, graphs, and documentaries;
  • Challenging students to connect multiple sources of media, analyze a source’s potential bias, or identify an unreliable source; and
  • Asking students to write or speak about science findings from a review of research or their own experiments with an audience in mind.

Components of literacy are already present in the science classroom. The key is to mindfully support the levels of reading, writing, and speaking skills your students possess, while focusing on content.

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Embed Supports

A key method to support skill development without taking away content time is to embed supports.

When you’re in direct instruction, acknowledge your strategies. Model reading a science text by thinking aloud with your questions about the text, making connections, or summarizing as you read.

Include multiple types of sources: Students can be given a chance to discuss a chart or watch a short video to set some baseline understanding before tackling a text on the same topic. Be sure to ask students to connect the different mediums—you may be surprised at how many of them initially see the pieces of information as unrelated.

Embed writing supports: Provide opportunities for students to write parts of their notes in their own words, with structure. For example, ask students to summarize a main idea as part of their notes for the day. For students who need more support, create a sentence frame and word bank. Mentor texts are another great way to clarify expectations and demonstrate strong writing; choose a former student’s work to share with the class and ask students to identify what is right about the response.

Annotate the prompt: Science prompts are often multifaceted, and scoring depends on students’ responding to each component of the question. Students who miss points often know the materials but have difficulty processing the entire question. Students can learn to identify each part of a prompt and use each identified requirement as a section in their writing. Here’s an example:

  • Original prompt: Describe the process of photosynthesis as it relates to glucose production. Explain how plants and other living organisms depend on one another.
  • Annotated version: Describe the process of 1) photosynthesis as it relates to 2) glucose production. Explain how plants and other living organisms 3) depend on one another.

Readers Below Grade Level

Some students can discuss the science topics but struggle to access any material they have to read. There are several ways to address these below-grade-level readers’ needs.

Engineer a text: Take a grade level piece of text and center it on a page. Create a column to the left where you pull out and define key vocabulary, and one on the right where you ask questions of the reader. These questions can be tailored for many levels of readers, ranging from supportive, fact-based questions (helping students read to find out the key facts) to application and extension questions for your readers above grade level. The result is differentiated instruction for your students.

Use technology to expose students to texts: Even if a student is unable to independently read a text, they can develop grade-level literacy skills by interacting with vocabulary, sentence structures, and content of higher-level texts through technology. Several devices have the option to enable text-to-speech functions, which have the device read the text out loud. Speech-to-text functions allow students to speak what they want to have typed. This function requires some practice—don’t ask the student to use it for the first time on an assessment.

The Immersive Reader program from Microsoft also reads texts to students. It includes other enhancements, like syllable recognition and the ability to highlight as you read. It even has parts-of-speech recognition to support writing.

Two more benefits for science teachers in promoting literacy: As my students improved their engagement with the literacy inherent to science class, I noticed an increase in engagement with the content and a decrease in disruptions.