Reading Apprenticeship and STEM: How to Get Started

STEM and Literacy

Reading Apprenticeship focuses on elementary students’ comprehension and metacognitive conversation. The metacognitive conversation is the process of being aware of your own thoughts. When students develop an awareness of their metacognitive conversations, they can begin to assess their own learning, and they can also voice what they need in order to accomplish their own learning goals. In other words, a metacognitive conversation is an important part of learning. We often talk about how we want our students to become self-directed and self-motivated learners, and this approach to literacy helps position them as exactly that. 

Reading Apprenticeship provides elementary students with strategies to help them become aware of their own thinking processes through what they are reading and how they are processing the information that they read. While many of the strategies in Reading Apprenticeship come from literacy practices, we use them to help students make sense of informational texts; more specifically, scientific texts. 

Often I would receive students (both children and adults) who would take science, but did not have the skills to process the information embedded in textbooks, graphs, tables, and reports. Reading Apprenticeship allowed me to teach the literacy skills that they needed to comprehend these sources of information. In STEM, being able to interpret and analyze data and texts is an essential skill, so creating opportunities for Reading Apprenticeship during your STEM lessons is really important.

By helping your elementary students think about their reading processes, you are empowering them to gain insight into those processes and take control of their own learning. 

First, begin by exposing your students to a large variety of texts, visual, and graphical information. This information doesn’t have to be at their reading level. In fact, it is beneficial for some things to be above their reading level, because that how the world works when we become adults. By exposing kids to a variety of sources early on, you’re helping them recognize situations where they may need to resort to different kinds of strategies to interpret and understand the information. 

As a teacher, you want to start by modeling these strategies to your students. These strategies are the same ones you use for ELA (i.e., making connections and visualizing, questioning and inferring, summarizing, synthesizing, etc.) but you use STEM texts, pictures, and diagrams, instead. For example, show kids a picture or diagram of a food web like this one:

Credit: Patricia Sang, Chapter 1 of Level 3 Ecology (2015)

Rather than telling kids exactly what they are looking at or how a food web works, ask questions to get the students to interpret, instead. Ask questions like:

  • What is this picture about?
  • What do you see? List the different things that you see and recognize.
  • What do you think the arrows mean?
  • What do you think this picture is showing, and why?

Notice that these questions address the science and engineering practices of: (a) analyzing and interpreting data, (b) constructing explanations, (c) engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information! This strategy works very well well for ELL students, especially. When I taught my ELL Life Science course, with students who had a range of English skills, we used pictures that illustrated processes to break into understanding the science (plus, I learned a bit of Spanish along the way, because I would ask students what things were called in their native language — and honored that by labeling them with the different names that they gave me). 

Another effective strategy is to photocopy parts of technical texts then model strategies for breaking down the language. I used to tell my students, “Circle terms that you feel are important, underline the important stuff phrases, and write a question mark over things you don’t don’t understand.” One of the most empowering takeaways that my students learned from this strategy is that important terms and vocabulary may not necessarily be what the author has designated as vocabulary, but it is what students perceive as vocabulary to them. Just like in real life, when we are in situations where we must learn, we often assess what we know against what we need to know. Helping students identify this in the texts will give them practice for applying those skills to other facets of their studies and their lives.  You are giving students the ability to evaluate and solve their own problems and deepen their own learning.

Providing this guidance can be as simple as using questions to engage your students and get them thinking about the information that they are trying to process. Rather than telling or explaining this information to them, show them how you, yourself, break down difficult texts and apply strategies to interpret these texts. Then help them do the same with their own work. One way to help them with this is moving your question focus from being about the content (e.g., What was the third pig’s house made of?), to being about the process of interpreting the content. In other words, ask questions that: predict, picture, question, make connections, identify a problem, summarize, or provoke thought. (e.g., Look at the picture and tell me what’s happening to the characters in the story. Why do you think that’s happening? What evidence led you to believe that? What words were confusing to you in the book? What parts of the paragraph were hard to understand?)

Here are some examples to get you started:

  • What words/concepts did you think were important?  Why?
  • What would be the best way that you think will help you learn/study the material?
    • How are you going to study the material?
    • Did your study strategy help you understand?
  • What do you predict?
  • What questions do you have?
  • What can you picture?  What would be a good picture that could represent this concept?
  • What is confusing for you?  How is it confusing?
  • How would you summarize this?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What are the big ideas?
  • What did you understand?  What do you feel you need to understand?
  • Where can you go to find the answer?
  • What is this like?  How is it similar to something else you have learned?  How is it different?

You can use questions like these during STEM lessons to trigger critical thinking, which helps students think more deeply about the material they are learning and why it matters to them.

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