Teach Science, Teach Literacy

Erin Lark

If you teach science, you teach reading, writing, and communication.  Or you should be.

I admit that when first working on my credential I didn’t consider literacy beyond the generic course all secondary pre-service teachers took, one which came just after a physical education methods class in which they taught us to juggle with scarves.  Looking back, I remember learning that students read at different levels, vocabulary is important, and that it was only an overview course as I was not an English teacher. Knowing education as I do, I’m certain there was more to the syllabus lost to time, but I’m confident that the overarching message was not literacy for all.  Thankfully, times have changed.

Whether you know it instinctively or rely on standards to prescribe your instructional moves, if you are a science teacher, you are a literacy teacher.  You are engaged in a course heavy in academic language, specific writing formats, and the need to learn from and share with others in many ways.  In a given week, students may be writing the results of lab work, accessing infographics for statistics, analyzing published texts for accuracy, and giving presentations of their learning.  The question is not whether, but to what extent you are supporting them in these essential skills.

If you find that your teacher training or status quo as an instructional leader has room for resources, here are a few which have been notably effective in my journey to become a better teacher of literacy in the science classroom.

The CCSS for Science & Technical Subjects

This section of the CCSS, beyond serving as a required framework for instruction in my state, is an excellent scaffold for examining focal points in science literacy.  Couching your instruction in four categories, these guidelines direct intentional instruction in identifying key ideas and details, craft and structure, the integration of knowledge and ideas, and range of reading and level of text complexity.  Students in my classroom need to spend time exploring, comparing, evaluating, and creating texts that represent scientific thinking, and the standards outline the need for those opportunities. Further, the adoption of these standards highlights the requirement that all students have access to these learning experiences and the opportunities to grow in ability over time.

The SIOP Model

When asked about the most effective professional development I’ve ever attended, my response echoes

The SIOP Model Book Cover

 that of just about all my colleagues who’ve attended the same training; SIOP, hands down.  This instructional model includes extensive, specific methods for making literacy more accessible for English Language Learners. Initial trainings and materials will provide you with background knowledge as well as long-range and short-range activity planning to support language acquisition for your students.  The thing about SIOP is that it will likely work wonders for all of your students.  Science is heavy in academic language and the authors of the protocol give you an extensive toolbox of ideas to positively influence learning.  Resist the urge to assign yet another vocabulary list for memorization and instead seek out specific learning opportunities. If trainings aren’t available in your area, the books themselves are an excellent place to start.

Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note

Following on the heals of the successful text 

Notice Note Book Cover

aimed at teaching literacy with fiction, this collection of strategies is geared toward nonfiction texts.  The authors offer a new set of sign posts, reflective of the purpose behind nonfiction reading. Teachers are given three big questions to pose, asking students to reflect on their reactions to reading material, consider what authors assume readers already know, and how the information they read affects their thinking.  To support this, this book guides teachers in enabling students to identify contrasts and contradictions, absolute or extreme language, numbers and stats, quotes words, and word gaps as they read. The authors, Beers and Probst, have spent extensive time in their careers considering how to make literacy accessible and their preparation is evident in the details of this book.





Chock-a-block full of science news articles and text sets, the vast majorty of which are very very current, Newsela is a wealth of material for literacy learning opportunities.  Moreso, beyond teacher ability to assign readings and other digital learning tasks, the magic of this tool is in the students’ ability to select their independent reading levels, annotate the text, and write reflectively about what they read.  Students end up with an ersatz portfolio of reading and writing to which they can refer throughout the year to examine growth. Many students have shared with me that customizing their reading gives them the confidence that while their text may be leveled differently than that of classmates, they will all access the same information.  This source requires purchasing an account yet for most school leadership this will prove a must-have item in the instructional budget.  Newsela has a blog and this post details how you can use the tool in your science classroom

I know that as school models continue to develop in ways that support a child’s holistic learning needs literacy will only gain relevance as a focal point for all teachers.  Rare are the career paths that do not require, or at least promote, a literate populace. When children access the world of reading and writing often and with increasing structure, support, application and growth opportunities, their ability to communicate and engage with their futures can only improve.

What are your favorite tools or methods for teaching literacy in a non-language class?

  • Common Core State Standards
  • English Language Learners
  • Reading
  • Teacher Leadership
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.