Boosting Science Understanding through Literacy Efforts

Reading skill and science understanding are deeply and inextricably linked.  Humans learn by making connections.  We connect new information with what we already know, thus building neurological frameworks in our brains.  Content knowledge is essential for understanding science.  Reading proficiency remains a key roadblock to successful implementation of ambitious science instruction for far too many students in the U.S.  Too often, students, particularly in traditionally under-served educational settings, do not have the opportunity to develop the science text reading proficiency that would allow them access to important science content. Teachers, too, are often under-prepared to support reading in science in ways that would deepen students’ understanding of important science content.


Students in science classrooms must read expository text in a variety of formats and for a variety of purposes. They read to gain knowledge, solve problems, understand the steps in an experiment, answer their own questions, compare their inquiry results with what others have found, and hopefully, for enjoyment. Students in science classrooms must also know how to read a variety of text formats. They read books, directions for experiments, newspaper articles, websites, and peer work. The reading tasks in science classrooms are quite extensive, and they must complement efforts being made to improve reading achievement.


Science teachers need to support struggling readers with strategies that enhance students’ comprehension of science text. Our job is not to water down content for those students who struggle. Instead, it is to make rigorous science concepts accessible by tailoring instruction to student’s needs. To truly understand science, every student needs rigorous, accessible content.

Traditionally, students are inundated with fictional text at early grades and are not taught the strategies needed to comprehend nonfiction.  According to national standards, 50% of all text students read in elementary school should now be nonfiction, and this increases to 70% by 12th grade.  Unfortunately, there is little science material that is leveled for students. Here are a few ideas for helping students understand complex science text.

  1. Select Quality Texts: What to look for:
  • Topic of text supports your goal and is relevant
  • The text is clear and accurate
  • Text is well-written and leads students to be passionate about what you are trying to teach them
  • Text is easy enough for students to understand. (Try to find leveled materials that present the same concepts.)
  1. Think About the Text Before Students Read It: Once you have previewed the text, you can structure pre-reading mini-lessons and demonstrations around these teaching points:
  • What places in the text may cause difficulty? What strategies are best suited to navigate the difficult parts of the text?
  • What do your students need to do with the information that they are reading? (What do you want students to focus on as they read?)
  • How will your students “hold their thinking” as they read? What notes do you want them to take? What questions do you want them to answer?


  1. Have students participate in strategic thinking activities while reading:
  • Using Text Organization and Print, Text and Graphic Features to Understand Text: Before students start a textbook, have them do a “tour” of it, and write an explanation of what they can learn through examining how the text is organized
  • Making Connections: Have students write the text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections they make while reading,
  • Questioning: Encourage your students to ask questions before, during, and after they read. This helps them stay focused, and it helps them clear up any confusions.
  • Creating Sensory Images: Tell students that when they read they need see what is happening in theirmind’s ” Ask kids to draw graphs, diagrams, and/or pictograms of what they are reading.
  • Determining Importance: Explain to students that they can examine titles, headings, topic sentences and repeated themes to determine what is important. Give each student 3 sticky dots.  Tell them to find the three most important points in what they read, and to be prepared to defend their answers.  They can use this activity as a basis of a class discussion/debate.


Remember, you empower your students!
When you teach students how to read with understanding, you are empowering them to become lifelong independent learners! When you teach them how to understand science text you enable them to become critical thinkers and problems solvers.

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