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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Literacy and Science: Better Together

Instead of letting literacy instruction crowd science and engineering out of the elementary school curriculum, let's combine them for authentic learning.

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With today's emphasis on literacy instruction in the early grades, elementary teachers often wonder how they can make time in the curriculum for rich STEM experiences. But literacy and STEM don't need to be at odds. In fact, STEM subjects like science and engineering provide an authentic context for literacy instruction. Instead of sacrificing instructional time for science so we can spend more time in reading instruction, why not use nonfiction texts to combine literacy instruction with inquiry-based science instruction?

How Texts Support Science Learning

Nonfiction texts can complement science and engineering learning in many meaningful ways.
Building content knowledge. Before an investigation begins, reading or listening to high-interest nonfiction texts can build students' curiosity, raise questions that students can answer through inquiry, and build background knowledge. During an investigation, students can consult nonfiction texts to confirm their findings and to develop scientific vocabulary related to what they're investigating. After an investigation, students can read nonfiction texts to learn more about real-world examples and applications of the knowledge they've gained.
Learning from mentor texts. As students learn to think like scientists, they need to know how to record data in a way that makes sense for an investigation. Scientists and engineers use charts, diagrams, maps, symbols, formulas, and more to illustrate what is known about a concept or design with only a few words. They record data in journals, drawings, photos, schematics, and blueprints. Nonfiction texts can model these formats. For example, let's say you want your students to write in the style of a scientist's field journal. Before tackling the task, students can read texts written in a journal format and discuss the defining characteristics of the genre.
Engaging in authentic literacy tasks. Students have meaningful literacy experiences when they read, write, and talk as part of a science inquiry—for example, conducting a web search to locate information about the needs of a plant growing in the school garden. Increasing the amount of time in the curriculum for STEM learning can increase the opportunities for linking literacy skills to purposeful tasks.

Planning for Integration: The Learning Cycle

Integrating nonfiction texts into inquiry-based science instruction requires thoughtful planning of the inquiry investigation and purposeful selection of texts. One model for such planning is the learning cycle. We prefer a learning cycle that uses four phases—engage, explore, explain, and expand—with an added component, assess.
  1. Engage. The teacher sets up motivating circumstances, helps students access prior knowledge, captures students' attention, poses intriguing questions, and instills in students a need to know.
  2. Explore. Students become actively involved with the science content; they ask and investigate questions, manipulate materials, make observations, record data, and draw evidence-based conclusions. In this phase, students develop content knowledge and build inquiry skills.
  3. Explain. By this phase, students have developed their content knowledge to the point where they can confidently share what they've learned with others. They complete writing tasks, make presentations, or develop other products to express their understanding of the concept.
  4. Expand. Students apply what they've learned in new and unique ways, connect their learning to real-world situations, participate in a design challenge, begin new investigations into related topics, or dig deeper into the concept they have been investigating.
Assessment is embedded throughout the learning cycle. Formative assessments—observations of students as they work and discuss—provide both the teacher and the students with data that inform instructional decisions from the engage and explore phases to the end of the unit. Summative assessments are found in students' writings and products during the explain phase. Assessments during the expand phase focus on science and engineering practices as students apply the knowledge they have gained.
The following two examples show how teachers can thoughtfully integrate literacy strategies into each phase of the learning cycle, enhancing instruction and supporting the Next Generation Science Standards.

Solids, Liquids, and Gasses

In a 2nd grade classroom, students investigate the properties of matter in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms. According to the Next Generation Science Standard 2-PS1-1, students at this level should be able to "plan and conduct an investigation to describe and classify different kinds of materials by their observable properties."


Students listen to the teacher read an excerpt from Gail Gibbons's Ice Cream: The Full Scoop (Holiday House, 2008). They make ice cream by mixing milk, sugar, and vanilla in a resealable plastic bag, putting it in a larger bag surrounded by ice and salt, and shaking it. They discuss the changes they observe as the liquid ingredients become a semi-solid treat. The teacher leads a discussion about the idea that materials have characteristics, or properties, and can change forms. She introduces a question for students to investigate: How do the physical properties of a material change when it changes form?


Students investigate a variety of solids, recording the properties they observe—such as mass, shape, color, and size—in a simple data table. Next, the teacher reads aloud an excerpt from Many Kinds of Matter: A Look at Solids, Liquids, and Gases by Jennifer Boothroyd (Lightning Bolt Books, 2011). After listening or reading along, the students discuss how the text compares with their firsthand observations about solids, and they add any new information to their data tables. For example, students note that solids have a definite shape and volume and that force is required to change a solid's shape. They repeat this process for liquids and gases.
Next, students observe several examples of phase changes, including the melting of ice, chocolate, and butter and the evaporation of water. They discuss and record their observations in writing, and they create a graph showing how changing temperatures relate to melting or evaporation. Then they listen to information about phase changes from Many Kinds of Matter and another book, Ice to Steam: Changing States of Matter by Penny Johnson (Rourke Educational Media, 2008). As they discuss these texts, the students again compare their firsthand investigative experiences with accepted scientific knowledge.


Students demonstrate their understanding of the science content by composing cause-and-effect statements that are based on both their observations and the information they gained from the text. To prepare them for this task, the teacher conducts a minilesson on cause-and-effect sentence structures using excerpts from Ice to Steam—such as "If you heat ice, it turns to liquid water," and "When steam or water vapor cools down, it turns back to liquid water." After discussing these examples, a student might compose the statement, "When we heated the chocolate, it changed from a solid to a liquid."


The teacher uses the book A Look at Glaciers by Patrick Allen (Rosen Classroom, 2009), along with video clips, to introduce students to Antarctica. The students learn that the land is covered by ice several miles thick, that scientists take ice core samples to study the past climate of the region, and that these scientists face many challenges in transporting the ice core samples to their laboratories.
Students then design and build containers that would insulate an ice cube. They read about and test various materials to determine which ones make good insulators. They draw plans, build the containers, test their effectiveness, and discuss how the containers might be improved. Reading, writing, and discussion are all integral components of this expand phase.

Day and Night

In a 5th grade classroom, students engage in an investigation with multiple explore and explain phases to learn about day and night, the lunar cycle, and the predictable pattern of constellations that appear in each season. Next Generation Science Standard 5-ESS1-2 calls for 5th grade students to "represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky."


Students participate in a class discussion about day and night, focusing on common uses of the terms in conversation (for example, "on a typical summer day …," "sometime in the next few days …"). Through guided discussion, they arrive at two definitions of day: a 24-hour period, and the time between dawn and dusk.
The teacher then reads aloud Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei by Peter Sis (Square Fish, 2000), and students share their wonderings about the day/night cycle, the lunar cycle, and constellations. Students wonder why the moon appears to change shape, why we see different constellations throughout the year, or why the sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west. This discussion leads to the question, What can we discover by observing objects in the sky?


As an initial formative assessment, the teacher asks students to predict what their shadows will look like at the end of the day. Students work in small groups to conduct a multistep investigation through which they associate changes in their shadows throughout the day with the changing position of the sun in the sky. The investigation begins early in the day with each group selecting a stationary object on the school grounds (such as a flagpole) and tracing its shadow with sidewalk chalk. They trace the object's shadow again at about noon and at the end of the school day. Throughout the investigation, students use diagrams to record their data. Each diagram includes a map of the school grounds indicating where the object is located, a sketch of the object and its shadow throughout the day, and the position of the sun in the sky each time the shadow was traced.
Students then respond to another formative assessment question: Why is the sky dark at night? This is followed with an investigation into the day/night cycle. In this simple investigation, students mark their location on a globe with a sticky dot. One student then shines a flashlight on their location on the globe, making sure to illuminate as much of that side of the globe as possible. Another student slowly turns the globe, demonstrating that the Earth spinning on its axis results in our day/night cycle. Students repeat this demonstration using a large ball to which a golf tee has been affixed with a piece of clay. This time as one student rotates the ball, the students can all observe the changing shape of the golf tee's shadow.


Using what they learned through their investigations, students revise their responses to the formative assessment questions. Then they develop a dialogue in which friends are discussing why shadows change throughout the day and why it gets dark at night. To foster ongoing student discussion about shadows and the day/night cycle, each group collaborates on their dialogue. Groups then perform their dialogues, asking one another clarifying questions to share their thinking about the connection between the day/night cycle, how shadows change throughout the day, and the Earth's rotating on its axis.


Students investigate the lunar cycle using such online resources as the U.S. Naval Observatory webpages "What the Moon Looks Like Now," "Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day," and "Moon Phase Images." They read Faces of the Moon by Charles Crelin (Charlesbridge, 2009) to gain an understanding of the predictable pattern of the lunar cycle. By the end of the investigation, students are challenged to predict what the moon will look like on a date in the near future.


Teams of students are assigned sections of text from Faces of the Moon. They perform these excerpts aloud, using vocal and facial expressions and gestures to illustrate the phase of the moon assigned to them. The teams share these representations of their phase of the moon in random order; then all teams work collaboratively to arrange the phases of the moon in the correct order.


In the final explore phase, students consult online resources and read two nonfiction texts by Stephanie True Peters—Orion and The Big Dipper (Rosen Publishing Group, 2003)—to discover that the positions of constellations change throughout the year.


In the final explain phase, students combine the knowledge they gained through all of the explore phases to write and illustrate a paragraph explaining the predictable patterns of movement of objects in the sky.


Students continue making observations of the moon and constellations to confirm what they have learned through nonfiction texts and online resources. Additional observations may include recording and graphing the time of sunrise and sunset for a period of two weeks and then predicting the time of sunrise and sunset for the next three days; observing and drawing the phases of the moon through one complete moon cycle and then predicting the shape of the moon 7, 14, and 21 days later; or observing a constellation throughout the school year, noting when it appears and its position in the sky. Alternatively, students might revisit Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and compare the tools available to Galileo with the tools available to astronomers today.

More Time for Both

When teachers integrate inquiry-based science and literacy instruction in a thoughtful and explicit manner, students are more engaged and make greater gains in both disciplines. This approach makes efficient use of time in a crowded curriculum and presents an authentic model of real-world science and literacy tasks.

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