Science and reading

I have to attend a workshop on teaching reading in the content areas. Is it really the job of a secondary science teacher to teach students how to read?
—Sofia, Visalia, California

Short answer—Yes, it is the job of science teachers to help their students learn how to read science materials.
I once worked on a project that involved reading in the primary grades. I was surprised much of the instruction took place with stories and most of the books in the classroom libraries were fiction as students learn to read. However, in the upper elementary and secondary grades, students read to learn. They are expected to comprehend and learn from nonfiction or informative text (as in textbooks, websites, and other publications). These materials have a different structure and different kinds of illustrations than fictional text. I wonder if many secondary students’ reading “problems” are, in reality, a lack of guidance and experience in interacting with informational text.
Unlike what students might see in a reading or English class, science resources are not usually written in a story-telling style or in chronological sequence. Science text often starts with a main concept and then provides descriptions or supporting details. Science text often uses headings, subheadings, abstracts, summaries, sidebars, footnotes, and graphics. Science text uses specialized vocabulary and may be written from an expert point of view. Students may not realize reading science text can be a slower process than reading a novel or story, and rereading a section is appropriate and even encouraged.
It’s frustrating for teachers when students don’t seem to comprehend what they’re reading. Two resources I’ve used and would highly recommend are Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then Who? by Rachel Billmyer and Mary Lee Barton and its companion Teaching Reading in Science (A Supplement to Teaching Reading in the Content Areas) by Barton and Deborah L. Jordan (both are available from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) bookstore . These books focus on reading for comprehension and include activities and graphic organizers to engage students before, during, and after reading content area materials.
Understanding science text also requires visual literacy. Think of the many nonlinguistic representations used in science: symbols on a weather map, the Periodic Table, chemical equations, Punnett squares, molecular diagrams, formulas, graphs, diagrams, and maps. It’s important for science teachers to help students understand how these graphics have meaning and are an integral part of the language of science.
Regardless of the grade level, an effective way to help students interact with text is by modeling with a “think-aloud,” making your thinking and reading processes visible (and audible) to students. For example, science textbooks have many graphics supporting the content, but many students do not always see the relationships between graphics and text. It’s been my experience that taking a little time to model how to make these connections may help students become more independent readers. Some teachers even accompany their students on a “guided tour” of each chapter of the textbook.
If a secondary student cannot decode words, there is certainly a need for intervention by reading specialists. But helping students develop strategies to comprehend text material is an important job of all content teachers. It’s unrealistic to expect our colleagues in the language arts department to teach students how to comprehend science text (and history text and mathematics text) when they have their own curriculum and skills to teach. Many of the reading skills students learn in their other classes can be transferred to science, but they may need some help from us to make the connections.
If you’d like to see how other science teachers address the issue of reading and science in their classes, go to the NSTA store and enter reading as a search term. You’ll get a list of recent NSTA journal articles with a wealth of ideas (journal articles are free to NSTA members). For more information on the “think-aloud” strategy, check out this school district resource and the TeacherVision website.

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