2 Ways to Integrate Literacy Into Science

Literacy and Science

When I was a high school teacher, I took a program called reading apprenticeship, which gave me some powerful instructional techniques to help kids break down and interpret scientific texts. That program turned everything I knew about teaching upside-down, and it was the start to my journey of becoming a learning theorist.

Reading apprenticeship showed me how to approach teaching science in two ways: content vs. process. Unlike content (ie., facts and foundational knowledge), scientific process encompasses the skills we use to do STEM; such as asking questions, critically analyzing and interpreting data, communicating findings, etc. Not surprisingly, these processes overlap across multiple disciplines and they are also referred to as 21st century skills or soft skills. 

For example, let’s consider the ELA anchor standard that says, “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.” This standard complements the mathematical practice standard, “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others,” and the NGSS scientific and engineering practices of, “Engaging in argument from evidence,” and “Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.” These standards also overlap with the social studies C3 framework dimensions of, “Evaluating sources and using evidence,” and “Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.” The standards in all four of these disciplines fall under the categories of critical thinking, reasoning, and interpretation under the 21 century skills competencies. That’s a long-winded way of saying that the 21st century skills are woven into Common Core, NGSS, and C3 when we look at the processes and practices under each of these disciplines. 

By giving students multiple opportunities to practice and master these skills across different disciplines and different contexts, we are helping our students become critical consumers of information and lifelong learners. Integrating literacy into STEM (and STEM into literacy) is a powerful way of doing just that. 

When we say literacy, we are referring to the kinds of knowledge that are visually communicated using letters, words, diagrams, sketches, etc. Literacy is about: (1) the interpretation of symbols, diagrams, and pictures, and (2) using symbols, diagrams and pictures to convey meaning and understanding. 

There are two main approaches to integrating literacy with STEM. The first approach uses texts to support students’ scientific investigations. The second approach uses scientific and engineering practices to investigate the texts, themselves. For both approaches, the meaning-making and understanding that comes from either a scientific investigation or a textual investigation is then communicated between and with other students. I’ll give you examples of both approaches.

Using Texts to Support Scientific Investigations

Next week, I will talk specifically about when texts should be introduced into the i5E instructional model. For now, I will say that using this approach positions informational texts, such as books, articles, magazines, and other sources of scientific/factual information (e.g., videos) as references to help inform, support, and explain a student’s experiment, investigation, or activity. 

When used in this way, lessons begin with an experience, driving question, or hook that engages students’ prior knowledge first, and preferences their own words, descriptions, models, meaning-making, and ideas before texts or vocabulary are even introduced. For example, an introductory plant lab may begin with having kids tear apart plants on a sheet of plastic or shower curtain. When kids engage and explore in this way, have them explain their findings by asking them to draw a diagram of the plant. Then point to things and ask them to tell you what they are. THIS is the point where you bring-in books, because now, students will want to attach names to things. Rather than telling them the names, yourself, this is a great way for kids to use books as a reference tool to find the info that they need.

In a similar lesson that I did with fourth graders on understanding the skeletal system, I had kids cut out bones from a sheet of paper (not already arranged as a skeleton). Then challenged them to put the bones together with the driving question (well, technically this isn’t a question, but you get the idea), “You are all walking talking skeletons! Based on what you already know, work with your group members to put the skeleton together.” Kids compared the bones to the bones in their bodies. When there was debate, I would have them look at the arrangements from other groups, and talk about their reasoning. 

Once kids had their bones together (with a few bones for debate among the different groups), I asked them to go back and label the bones. It was right at this point when I introduced texts — books from the library about skeletons and bones. Students looked through the books to not only find the names for the bones, but they also used the books to correct their skeletons. 

The technique of introducing the experience first and from drawing on students’ own knowledge before bringing in other sources of information to augment their meaning-making positions students as the experts in their own investigations and activities. The book isn’t dictating what students are supposed to know or do. Rather, students are pulling the information that they need into their current situation and learning how to use and manipulate that information to suit their purpose — in both cases, this information was used to give students a common language for different plant parts or different bones so that everyone could communicate and know what the different parts were referring to.

Using the Science and Engineering Practices to Investigate Texts

Scientific writing is a form of academic writing intended to convey information in a descriptive but concise way. Reading apprenticeship helped me realize that the literacy techniques used in ELA for the interpretation of texts are almost identical to the skills we use in STEM to investigate and understand the world. Conversely, the skills we use in STEM may be applied toward the understanding and analysis of texts. While I will say more about the instructional strategies to analyze scientific texts (and stories) in next week’s blog, I share one example here on how STEM processes (i.e., the science and engineering practices, in this case) can be applied to a page in a picture book. Next week, I’ll share how we use these practices for actual the interpretation of word choice, construction, and meaning.

To scaffold this process, I like starting with photos or pictures in books. If you’ve looked at some of our previous blogs, you’ll notice that I frequently refer to the i5E instructional model. Instructional models help teachers sequence instruction in a way that helps people learn. The first E in the i5E is “Engage.” As I’ve shown in my previous example on bones and plants, Engage is about giving students experiences that bring out prior knowledge (i.e., what they may already know about the topic). When using a book as the investigation, Enage is no different — especially when you can start with a compelling picture from a book! 

Take, for example, a page from Tim Read’s book, “My Very Silly Monster Book of Shapes.” Rather than read and point to the individual shapes yourself, put the page up on the screen, or have kids do this at a station. Have your students observe and infer from the illustration in the same manner that you would have them observe and infer from a science activity like Mystery Bags. 

Read, T. (2015). My very silly monster book of shapes.

Similar to when kids investigate an object or situation, ask them questions about the photo to get them started:

  • What are the different things that you notice in this picture that you find interesting?

The great thing about this question is that every student will probably give you a very different answer. …and that’s good! Then you dive deeper into these answers with questions like, “WHY do you find that interesting?” and, “What did your partner find that was interesting?” which honors differences in opinion and acknowledges that finding something different that is interesting is great, and to be expected! Other questions to help students engage with the photo can include:

  • What do you think this page is about?
  • What is the shape that you see?
  • How many sides of the shape are there?
  • How many of these shapes do you see? Can you trace them with your finger?
  • Did your partner see something different?

These questions are designed to help students not only analyze and interpret what they are seeing, but to also communicate with other kids about their findings.

You can do this activity before students dive into reading the book. In doing so, you’re learning about what students may already know. For instance, when Tim, the author of this book, told me about one classroom where many of the kids already know the names of the shapes in the book whereas in a different classroom (same grade), students didn’t know the names of the shapes, but they could spot the shapes in the room. Answers and the way students engage with the material from a book can give you clues with how you approach instruction and move forward.


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