If you’ve so much as glanced at the Common Core State Standards, you know how much emphasis is placed on literacy. Reading isn’t relegated to a single class period each day anymore. Teachers are expected to incorporate literacy instruction throughout the curriculum, and students are expected to read (and understand) as much informational text as they do fiction.
Sound intimidating? If so, you’re not alone. “As a science teacher, I thought my primary concern was content delivery—getting the kids to know science,” says Emily Kang, an assistant professor of science education at Adelphi University in New York and a former middle school science teacher. “But I’ve since discovered that it’s really about teaching kids the skills to become good scientists, which includes being good readers.” Scientists, she says, have to be able to read articles and journals—review the research—before they can build experiments or projects of their own.
To help you and your young Galileos get started, we’ve taken four of the CCSS ELA-Literacy Anchor Standards for Reading (there are 10 in all), and matched them with fun classroom activities to help you effectively blend science and literacy instruction.
ELA Anchor Standard 4
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
Science is a vocabulary-heavy subject. Go beyond handing out definitions of words with these activities.
â Make a word wall. Kang has her students make a Frayer Model for each unfamiliar word, then posts it on a classroom bulletin board. “If a student runs across the word scavenger, he can look on the board and not only see the word but also see a picture of it, the definition of it, and the word used in a sentence,” Kang says. Click for a print-ready example.
â Move! “Let students come up with a movement for each word,” says Diane Krause, a third-grade teacher at School Lane Charter School in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. “For a word like condensation, they might come up with a movement to show raindrops coming together. Moving, and repeating the movements later, helps the word stick in their minds.”
ELA Anchor Standard 10
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
With effort, even your struggling readers should be able to understand grade-level science texts by the end of the year.
â Put the book aside. Jeff Winokur, one of the authors of The Essentials of Science and Literacy, says teachers should let students observe and explore before diving into the texts. “Starting with a book ruins the investigation,” he says. “If you plan to do an investigation with worms and you read about worms first, the initial wonder is gone.”
Let students observe and touch and handle worms before reading about them, Winokur advises. The hands-on experience will not only help students understand scientific words and concepts, but will give them a reason to turn to the text.
“Scientists usually read because they’ve started an investigation of some sort,” Winokur says. When they come upon a problem they can’t understand, they look to texts to learn more. So when your students start to form questions about worms, based on their observations, break out the books!
â Get active. “If your students are reading about animal population dynamics, but 10 of your kids have never been to the zoo, have never really been in nature, it’s going to be very hard for them to understand what they’re reading about,” Kang says. So she often starts science units with an activity to build students’ knowledge. “I’ve used a game from Project WILD called ‘Oh Deer!’ to help students understand habitat,” Kang says. “When we do that before we read, students have a much clearer idea of what they’re reading.” Click to download the activity.
â Jigsaw reading. Break complex texts down into smaller sections; assign each section to a pair of students. “The students can work with a partner to summarize the text and present it to the class,” says Jacqueline Miller, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center. Breaking a text into smaller chunks and working together to understand it increases comprehension.
ELA Anchor Standard 9
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches that the authors take.
Science is everywhere, and comparing and contrasting different accounts of the same topic builds students’ understanding—and literacy skills.
â Use current events. Hurricane Sandy and the Mars rover are two examples of recent science-related news stories. As a class, read and discuss various newspaper or news magazine reports. (Try Odyssey magazine or Scholastic’s ScienceSpin, SuperScience, or Science World.) Then direct kids to the Web to look for more information; they can research ideas and themes mentioned in the reports they’ve read.
Barbara Plonski, director of Mass Insight Education’s Advancing College Readiness program, used a conflict over fishing limits to build students’ literacy skills and teach them about pollution, habitat, and life cycles. A news story that detailed commercial fishermen’s anger at proposed catch limits piqued her students’ interest. Then she helped them research fish population data. “They got two viewpoints of the same thing—the fishermen saying, ‘The limits are destroying our lives,’ and the fisheries saying that the fish are being depleted,” Plonski says. “Then as a class, we worked to figure out the truth between those two statements.”
ELA Anchor Standard 7
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Informational texts often include visual representations of data to help readers understand the text. Science offers all kinds of opportunities to analyze illustrations, graphs, and diagrams.
Start with pictures. When introducing a science text to your class, have students scan the text for illustrations. “When you look at the pictures first, it helps you predict what you’re going to be reading about,” Kang says. “It also helps you visualize concepts.”
â Think OPTICally. To help her students systematically analyze graphs, charts, and diagrams, Kang uses the mnemonic OPTIC (overview, parts, title, interrelationships, conclusion). “For overview, we’ll talk about what kind of graph we’re looking at,” Kang says. “Is it a pie graph or a line graph?” The mnemonic helps students look at each part of the illustration separately, then put them all together.
â Create graphs and illustrations. “Have students study how textbooks present data, and then give them a situation where they have to create a graph or illustration of data,” Plonski says. “It could be shoe sizes or students’ heights.” Let students work in small groups, and have each group present their work to the class. Compare and contrast the groups’ various methods for visually representing the data.