26 May 2008

The New Catch-22: Science and Literacy

It goes without saying, I'm sure, that I have a particular bias about including science as part of a well-rounded education. It is not enrichment. It should not be an add-on to the curriculum, or something taught as filler when the teacher finds some time. I also believe that science becomes even more important in high-poverty areas because it provides students with background experiences as the basis for literacy. It is the concrete which allows teachers to tie on abstract words and symbols. It forms the foundation for students to make personal connections and have something to write about.

An area school is more or less eliminating everything which is not reading or math from the school day. Student achievement is poor. A great number of kids are not reading at grade level by 3rd grade (after which time, they never ever catch up according to the research). It would seem to make sense that spending even more than the 120 minutes per day set aside now for reading might be necessary. We need a literate society. If students are going to be able to break the cycle of poverty their families are in, they need basic reading and numeracy skills in order to have more higher education and job options. I understand that children who can't read will struggle with everything else.

So, this is my 22 that I'm caught in at the moment. Experiences in science build literacy (vocabulary in traditional settings does not). But students have to have the basic skills in reading and writing in order to support other learning. Which is more important? Which should be first? Do we do nothing but basic literacy and numeracy skills through third grade...and then allow students the "reward" of science and social studies? Or do we engage kids in all sorts of learning experiences at the primary level and use those as opportunities for literacy? Would science specialists at the elementary level take some of the instructional pressure off of teachers? (There was a great article in the Washington Post about science coaches in area elementary schools.)

I've been asked to give some advice in this area, but I know it's a losing proposition for science. "More...more...more..." will be the literacy cry. "Make them practice reading all day, if necessary, because more instruction is the same as better instruction." I can't argue with the need for developing basic reading skills, but I might be able to toss out a few shots against the "More = Better" stance. If you have any thoughts or ammo about breaking out of this Catch-22 cycle, send them along.


danw said...

Or do we engage kids in all sorts of learning experiences at the primary level and use those as opportunities for literacy?

I think this is your answer. My best "literacy" instructor in 1st grade fills her class with content, especially non-fiction content, and the kids eat it up. I think the marriage of engaging, high level content with expert literacy instruction will boost students' reading comprehension and enjoyment. Some schools' language arts programs are way too heavy on fiction and kids don't have the skills to navigate complex non-fiction texts, which is the stuff of learning for the rest of their life. Fight the fight! The best way to literacy improvement is through merging your awesome content with great literacy instruction.

Joe said...

Much like danw, the best reading teacher I have ever seen was a 1st grade teacher who taught the English language arts standards through science and social studies. The students were constantly reading and writing about the science and social studies activities that were occurring in their classroom. Sadly, her curriculum was "banned" and replaced by a boring, scripted curriculum that was supposed to produced test scores quickly. The teacher, frustrated, retired early.

The Science Goddess said...

Unfortunately, that is what is happening here, too. I can't imagine why it makes sense to anyone to have 6 and 7 year olds participate in a scripted reading program for 2 hours a day. Heck, I wouldn't be interested in learning to read, either.

Dr Pezz said...

I hate to echo the previous posters, but my favorite classes have eclectic selections to teach the basic skills. The more of diversity of texts, then the more engaged my students become.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Not all kids like fiction. A good reading program is one that has all types of choices, including science and social studies. I have a bookcase in my classroom that has both fiction and science books on it that the kids can borrow to read on test days...guess which books appeal to the majority of them? Books on lizards, tornadoes, flowers, monkeys, rocks, you name it. If you just give a kid fiction to read from, and that isn't his or her thing, you've created a child that doesn't like to read. Why people can't figure this out is beyond me.

EHT said...

Take our the references to science and include social studies and your catch-22 would also ring true. Isn't it maddening?

I agree totally with the "over" inclusion of non-fiction as soon as possible in the younger grades. Its importance cannot be emphasized enough.

ChemCoachC said...

I have had this same problem.

I taught 7th and 8th grade science in Arizona for three years. When they would come up to me in 7th grade, they had hardly any science backgrounds. When I talked to the teachers in 5th and 6th grade, they would just say that they didn’t have the time to teach it. They would alternate science and social studies, but in a 1 day science 3 days social studies ratio. While I understand their problem, and the problem like you said about you need to read more. Why can’t they read more in the science text, or should I say, in the science content. Because they still need to use their decoding skills, there will be words they don’t know, and they can use the context clues, glossaries, surrounding words to try to define them.

I just get upset when I hear that teachers aren’t teaching science in the lower grades.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I just came across your blog for the first time after seeing a mention of it over at Steve Spanglers blog. Articles like this are always such a breath of fresh air. We love people like you...keep fightin' the good fight!


Jesse Kuhn
The Quirkles: Exploring Phonics Through Science

The Science Goddess said...

Welcome! I love your books!

Stop by anytime. It's great to have new readers join us.

Sarah said...

While I agree with everyone here that has commented and strongly support the notion that using science and social studies to promote interest in reading, I found that the comments all said the same thing. We are fighting a battle that will not be won easily. Teachers retiring early and simple frustration. How does one contribute to action and making a change. The only way for us to better tomorrow is to enforce and fight for this change. I will add I liked the comment about the books to read during/after tests, great idea!!!. We need more of that. I don't have the answers, but I'm interested in science education and thoughts on how to begin organizing a way to fight the system. Anyone interested?