How to Integrate Disciplinary Literacy into the Science Curriculum

Dr. Natalie Saaris
December 6, 2017

Science disciplinary literacy may seem like uncharted water for STEM teachers who have not traditionally considered reading their purview. The case for integrating disciplinary literacy is compelling: increased academic rigor, instruction that better prepares students to be independent learners in the field, and authentic learning that more closely resembles the work of experts in the field.

But making disciplinary literacy a reality in the classroom can be far more challenging, particularly for those teachers who have not traditionally focused on reading skills. How do you integrate literacy into existing instruction in a way that doesn't seem supplemental? What texts do you use? What questions do you ask?

Here’s our guide to answering just those questions and making disciplinary literacy a reality in the science classroom.

1. Use disciplinary literacy to build depth into what you already teach

Rather than creating a separate unit on science literacy where you try to build skills in isolation, integrate science reading into your existing curriculum. If you happen to be teaching a unit about minerals, for instance, begin with an article about diamonds that explains why this precious gem is so valuable. Use that article to get students thinking about the properties of minerals and use that as a lead-in to a hands-on activity. Finish the unit with a published study about minerals that gives students a chance to see how scientists communicate their research in a journal. Closely analyze the graphs in that study and connect the broad themes to what students have already learned.

By integrating disciplinary texts into what you’re already studying, you give students an opportunity to make the core content more relevant. They see that the topics they are studying are ongoing areas of investigation for the science community and areas of interest for the greater public. Students also get the opportunity to build their content knowledge before attempting to read more rigorous texts, which makes it more easy for students to access authentic writing in the field; published research tends to contain very specialized vocabulary that requires deep understanding of concepts.

Finally, giving students the opportunity to read about research in the field helps them to understand the principles of good experimentation. When students take apart research studies and examine the hypotheses, methodology, results, and conclusions of research, they are getting insight into how science is done. They can in turn apply this to their own hands-on activities and inquiry.

2. Leverage three types of texts: popular articles, textbooks, and published research studies

Science teachers should consider integrating a variety of texts into their curriculum and using those texts for different purposes in their instruction:

  • Popular articles are short texts published for the general public, such as those found in newspapers. Because they are destined for non-experts, they are often accessible and help to convey why a particular science topic matters to society. These are terrific entry points to the study of a new topic because they grab students’ interest and lead them to begin the process of inquiry. For example, reading an article about melting ice in Greenland would help students generate interest in global warming. Some of these articles also include charts, diagrams, or links to research that students can investigate more closely.
  • Textbooks do not fit the category of authentic texts, but they are still extremely useful in delivering basic knowledge and introducing key vocabulary. To get students motivated to closely read the textbook and construct meaning from it (as opposed to merely memorizing definitions and glossing through the rest), use jigsaw reading: put students into small groups and assign each student in the group a different section of the textbook to read and digest. Each student will then be tasked with communicating what they’ve read to the other members of their group and trying to piece together the full textbook section. Alternately, have some members of the small group perform a hands-on activity, then ask a question that requires students to bring together their understanding of what they’ve read and what they’ve found through their experiment to answer a larger question. For example, have one student in the group read through a textbook section about oil spills. Have a second student read a textbook section about cleaning up oil spills. Have two other members of the group perform an experiment where they extract oil from an oil and water mixture. Then have the group come together to answer a question about whether they would prefer to have an oil well right outside their town and support their reasoning with evidence.
  • Published research studies are terrific ways to end a unit. They require a large amount of content knowledge and domain-specific vocabulary, which makes them difficult to access before students have studied the topic. They also help students understand how scientists communicate their research (abstract, introduction, methodology, results, discussion) and how to decipher graphs and charts.

3. Ask questions that encourage students to think like scientists

Once you have the curriculum and the texts in place, the next step is to understand what sorts of questions to ask your students to get them thinking like real scientists. We’ve created a helpful poster to answer that question:

  • Correlation or causation? Help students understand how scientists obtain their results. Analyze the methodology of experiments to determine whether scientists are deriving their results using an appropriate control or merely identifying a relationship between two variables. One great website to introduce this concept is spurious correlations, which demonstrates strong correlations between two completely unrelated variables. Students can then apply this reasoning to the popular articles they read for class and be encouraged to bring in their own examples of studies based on correlation rather than causation.
  • What questions weren’t answered? Using current information to inspire further inquiry is a cornerstone of scientific thinking. Scientists often present this sort of thinking in the introduction to their studies, where they take stock of the known data in their area of inquiry and then raise the unanswered question that drove their own investigation. They also present these sorts of questions in the conclusions of their studies, hoping to inspire further research based on their findings. Get students into the habit of asking themselves this same question whenever they encounter a published study, whether in a popular news article or a professional journal.
  • Is the sample size valid? Encourage students to look at sample sizes, particularly in experiments that involve human subjects. Ask them to think about the consequences of using a sample size that is too small, particularly if the study is used to drive policy decisions. Bring in examples of published research studies that rely on sample sizes that are far too small to be meaningful and see if students can figure out what’s wrong based on their reading of the methodology.
  • Is this research biased? Data can be interpreted in many ways, and it’s important for students to realize that special interests can skew results. Show students examples of biased research, such as this Newsweek article arguing that the food industry promotes biased research that influences nutritional policy. Find research negating the effects of global warming and asking what information researchers may have omitted and what interest they might have in promoting a particular representation of the data. This will help students become more informed consumers of science research and alert them to the ways that bias can infiltrate science headlines.
  • Do the results support the conclusion? Scientists love to poke holes in research, and students should do the same. The best activity for this purpose is to look at a major headline announcing a jaw-dropping scientific breakthrough, then read the study that inspired the headline. In some cases, the study’s results have been greatly exaggerated and would likely not support the conclusion of the headline. In a simpler version of this exercise, the teacher could write a short description of flawed reasoning in a fictitious study and ask students to read through it and identify the problem.
  • Other explanations for the results? When evaluating the validity of a conclusion, have students ask themselves if there is another potential variable that the researcher might have missed. If a particular supplement leads to a group of people recovering faster from surgery, is the effect due to the supplement itself or a placebo effect? If people who eat caviar tend to live longer, is it because caviar is good for you or because the people who can afford to regularly eat caviar can also afford high-quality medical care and other comforts that benefit their longevity?

As your investigate these questions, have students pay attention not only to the text on the page they are reading but also the visuals and representations of the data. Scientists spend a great deal of time investigating these elements and use them to draw their own conclusions or visualize processes. Before reading through a research study, have students look at the graphs and charts and infer what the study is testing and what its conclusions might be. As they read about science concepts and perform their own experiments, ask students to design their own diagrams and use charts to represent their data. Understanding these visual representations will help students with their college-entrance exams (the science sections of the ACT, AP, and IB tests all ask students to derive meaning from charts, graphs, and diagrams). It will also help to build the skills that scientists regularly use to decipher information from published studies.

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