Incorporating Literacy In Discovery Based Learning

Let’s do a quick experiment.

Raise your (digital) hand if you’ve ever seen or experienced, in some form or another, an administrator, parent, or another teacher valuing English/Language Arts class over science.  For far too long, we have emphasized literacy/ELA and math as “real” subjects, while casting content from the sciences as optional or elective. This is especially extensive in the elementary grades, where some students are lucky to see a single science class once a week — and many encounter science content even less.

I’ll be honest – I don’t have much in the way of solutions for that issue at this point, and really, that is so far above my pay grade… hah. But I think it’s important to mention because – probably as a result of this inequity – we often avoid incorporating literacy into our science classes.  Students already spend so much time on reading and writing, why should we use our precious time to teach these reading and writing skills? We are science teachers, and we teach science. 

On many levels, I agree. When it comes to assessment, I focus on the content. I’m not docking major points for grammar or spelling or sentence structure. My focus is on understanding.

That said, incorporating literacy into our instruction is a different story.  And in fact, literacy instruction in science has an incredible effect size on student understanding of science, according to a meta-analysis of thousands of research studies.  But it’s important to consider what, where, and how we are incorporating texts and literacy instruction.

Incorporating Literacy: What Not To Do

Before we dive into some of what you SHOULD be doing, let’s just review two things you SHOULD NOT be doing when it comes to using texts in your science class.

You shouldn’t be “teaching” textbooks.

Note: I did not say using textbooks, because there’s nothing wrong with using them… to a point. But we shouldn’t be teaching them. What’s the difference? 

Teaching a textbook looks like: “Hello, class! Welcome to a new day and a new topic. Please open your books to page 37, read the text on the rock cycle and answer the questions.” 

New content is presented via text. Students search the text for specific answers. And really, no one learns anything.

Students shouldn’t be encountering new ideas for the first time through an explanatory text, because they simply aren’t going to develop a conceptual understanding of the content just by reading it.  In fact, studies have shown that students only truly understand texts when they already understand the concepts discussed in the texts. So really, students need to already understand the content (or at least, its big ideas) before diving into any type of text about that content.

So quit teaching the textbook.

You shouldn’t be using the glossary to teach vocabulary.

Same idea as above. Students need to understand the concepts before you start tacking on vocabulary.  

Teaching vocabulary from the glossary is a NO-NO

Learn more about vocabulary instruction in NGSS classrooms with these resources:

Example Lesson: How To Teach Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom

Ideas To Incorporate Reading And Writing

Integrate fiction, trade books, and creative writing.

The Water Cycle - A Drop In The Desert (NGSS MS-ESS2-4)

Incorporating (scientifically accurate) fiction or trade books can make for an interesting way to engage students in exploration.  For example, I have used a “reader’s theater” style script (with optional tangible components) to illustrate for students the different ways water can move through the water cycle.  This activity focuses on the pathways, rather than diving into too much detail on the mechanisms.  That said, it’s a great way for students to visualize where water can be found on Earth and how it moves.  By performing and then analyzing the script, students pull this information from “between the lines.” Instead of the text explaining the concept, it shows it through fiction.  Students must make-meaning from the story told.

This type of activity can be done with any number of texts.  Students can “read between the lines” to infer a number of ecology concepts from The Secret Life of the Red Fox or read several short books like The Blizzard, Thunder Boomer, and Twister* to draw conclusions about storms from their similarities and differences, as well as explore the impact of weather on human activity.

On the flip side, students can demonstrate their understanding by embedding science concepts in their own creative writing.

*Disclaimer: These are affiliate links. I earn a few pennies if you buy the book.

Incorporate current events through scientific texts.

Resource Availability: Using Scientific Texts (NGSS MS-LS2-1)

You can bring phenomena into your classroom by utilizing scientific texts that address current events.  Texts can be pulled ready-to-go from sites like Newsela Science, Science News for Students, and Science Journal For Kids.

Adapting scientific texts for classroom use is a great way to bring in the three dimensions while incorporating new phenomena. I’ve done this for several units, including the water cycle, resource availability, and groundwater resources. Each one-page text summarizes the key points of the scientists’ findings while including information on methodology, additional questions, and relevance to the real world (and the unit content).  Students extend their understanding of unit concepts through these texts, applying them to new scenarios and locations. They engage in Science and Engineering Practices by asking questions, drawing conclusions, and obtaining evidence.  And finally, students consider the new phenomenon through the lens of a specific Crosscutting Concept through the use of graphic organizers.

Include low-risk writing tasks in your routines.

Finally, make writing a part of your normal routine.  Engaging students in low-risk written work is a way to build fluency with writing in general and the Science and Engineering Practice of Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions.

Science Text Annotation Cards and Rubric

If you end each class with an exit ticket, ask students to summarize what they learned from the day’s activity, or explain how their new knowledge ties to the original anchor phenomenon.  Alternatively, if you begin each class with a warm-up (what I like to call, Science Starters), instruct students to summarize or paraphrase a short text. When students are reading in class, utilize text annotations to deepen their understanding, help them make connections, and get them writing, even if it’s just in short bursts.

Incorporating Literacy In Science Classes

Incorporating literacy practices in science reinforces student understanding of science content and supports literacy at large.  Literacy is a part of science, and it is our job to address it in our science classrooms.  This doesn’t mean you are using texts to tell students content, but you can be using texts to develop and reinforce student understanding. Texts can support discovery.

If you are looking for resources for science texts, check out this post with my favorite sources for authentic science texts.