Three Steps for Better Reading in Science: Before, during, and After
Walton, Susan, Science Scope
Byline: Susan Walton
Photo courtesy of the author
It's exciting to have a beautiful new science textbook-if students can read it! Unfortunately, many students can't read their science textbooks unassisted. This may be because students are reading below grade level, or because the material, like that of many science texts, has a readability one or more grade levels above the grade in which it is being taught. In either case, teachers must provide a structure that brings the material to students' level and engages them with the text.
While there are many reading strategies available, some are more effective with the informative, nonfiction texts used in science classrooms. A good model for literacy instruction in the science classroom includes strategies students can employ before, during, and after reading (Robb 2003).
We used several different forms of readability tests on our text choices during the last adoption and found the choices to be at a much higher level than the publishers' literature had claimed. This is probably because textbook publishers may not include the difficult science vocabulary when they calculate readability. For examples, see "Readability Levels of the Science Textbooks Most Used in Secondary Schools" (Chiang-Soong and Yager 1993) and Content Area Reading (Vacca and Vacca 2004).
Teaching strategies for reading instruction
Think-alouds Practice makes perfect for teachers and students not familiar with reading strategies. Teachers can model the strategies for the class using overhead transparencies or chart paper. A think-aloud procedure demonstrating the thought processes used for successful reading can make all the difference for students who struggle to read the text (see think-aloud sidebar). A good example would be to read through a text selection with the class, thinking aloud at every possible point, and demonstrating how to use all of the reading helpers provided by the text, such as pictures, captions, and bold-faced terms.
Talk with students about metacognition when you model and think aloud with them. They don't need the details, but they do need to know that you want them to think about thinking and how they learn. Here's an analogy that makes a good introduction: The brain and all of its neurons are like the dense undergrowth in the forest. It's really difficult to whack a trail through the first time around. But, the more you use the trail, the smoother the path becomes and the easier it is to travel. When you learn a new idea, it is like the dense forest. The more you use the idea path, the easier it is to understand the concept.
Don't worry about going overboard with examples during your first few think-alouds. Make it highly visual and very personal. Remember, brain research tells us that those images and connections are the key to remembering new vocabulary.
Students will need to see and hear examples of different kinds of mental references. "Look at those children on the seesaw in the picture. I remember once when my best friend Jimmy fell off. He was too close to the end. I guess we didn't distribute the forces evenly. I wonder what other things are like the seesaw. Hmmm...." Sneak in as much science content as possible. Students will soon be clamoring to join in with their own examples as your class moves through the text selection.
Purpose At the beginning of any lesson where reading is involved, the teacher must let students know the purpose of the reading activity: Are they going to learn information about a new concept? Review an example of something they have already studied? Read a set of directions for an experiment the class is about to perform? Setting a purpose will help students prepare for the processes they are about to use. "Today we are going to read about what happens in the process of photosynthesis," may sound perfectly obvious to an adult reader, but not to a struggling middle school reader. …