April 6 2023 – Tanya S. Wright & Amelia Wenk Gotwals, Michigan State University
Typically, elementary schools focus on siloed instruction in which time spent on one subject is viewed as reducing time spent on another. To improve early reading achievement, the English Language Arts (ELA) block receives a substantial amount of time in the elementary day, leaving little time left for science and social studies. The challenge is that reducing time to learn this content is not only detrimental to learning in these subject areas, but it also limits opportunities to build the knowledge that is critical for text comprehension.
Our work has shown that more opportunities for science learning can enhance opportunities for literacy learning beginning in kindergarten (Wright & Gotwals, 2017a). As children engage in scientific sensemaking, they use ideas, language, evidence, and experiences to figure out how and why the world works (Gotwals et al., 2022; Schwarz et al., 2020). For example, beginning in kindergarten, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013) expect children to be able to “share observations,” and “construct an argument supported by evidence.” Clearly, these science practices provide opportunities for children to engage in oral and written language.
An example of how literacy is enhanced through the teaching of science can be found in the open-access SOLID Start curriculum (Science, Oral Language, and Literacy Development from the Start of School), which is an open-access K-2 curriculum that we developed. Children in kindergarten through second grade engage in science learning that aligns with NGSS and purposefully integrates reading and writing informational texts, speaking, listening, and language standards for ELA.
A SOLID Start first-grade unit, Reading Under Cover, begins with a driving question of “How can I read under the covers when it’s dark?” Over the course of the unit, children engage in science and disciplinary literacy practices to answer the question. Each lesson within the unit is guided by a set of five instructional strategies (Wright & Gotwals, 2017a; 2017b):
- Ask: The guiding question for the day supports children’s investigation. For example, one lesson question is: What happens when we shine light on different objects?
- Explore: Children engage in firsthand investigations and use literacy practices to help make sense of their findings. For example, children shine flashlights on different materials and keep track of what happens by writing their findings in a table.
- Read: Teachers conduct interactive read-alouds of informational texts. For example, the teacher reads parts of What are Shadows and Reflections? (Johnson, 2014), stopping to discuss new ideas to help answer the daily question and to support students’ understanding of new vocabulary such as light source.
- Write: Children draw and write or teachers support shared writing opportunities. For example, children may draw and label a model to represent what happens when light is shined on different materials.
- Synthesize: At the end of the lesson, the teacher leads discussions to help children synthesize what they have figured out from the day’s activities and across lessons in the unit.
We are including many of these same design principles into the new OpenSciEd Elementary Science project – a collaborative, multi-institutional effort to bring the Design Specifications and Instructional Model for OpenSciEd’s middle and high school curriculum to the elementary grades.
Research suggests that students learn science best when they are engaged in the practices of science (National Research Council, 2012). Reading about science is part of the science practice of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information, but this reflects only one of eight science practices in NGSS. Therefore, while integrating readings on science topics into ELA supports vocabulary and comprehension development (Hwang et al., 2022), this should not replace or limit opportunities or time for science instruction in the elementary day.
Instead of siloed instruction, children need both content-rich ELA experiences and science instruction with integrated literacy learning opportunities. The hope is that new high-quality materials and learning opportunities will allow elementary teachers across the country to support NGSS-aligned science instruction with integrated literacy learning opportunities.
Hwang, H., Cabell, S. Q., & Joyner, R. E. (2022). Does cultivating content knowledge during literacy instruction support vocabulary and comprehension in the elementary school years? A systematic review. Reading Psychology, 1-30.
Gotwals, A. W., Wright, T. S., Domke, L. & Anderson, B. (2022). Science talk in elementary classrooms: A synthesis of the literature. The Elementary School Journal,122, 642-673.
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: for states, by states. The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Schwarz, C.V., Braaten, M., Haverly, C. & de los Santos, E. (2020). Using sense-making moments to understand how elementary teachers’ interactions expand, maintain, or shut down sense-making in science. Cognition and Instruction.
Wright, T. S., & Gotwals, A. W. (2017a). Supporting kindergartners’ science talk in the context of an integrated science and disciplinary literacy curriculum. The Elementary School Journal, 117, 513-537.Wright, T. S., & Gotwals, A. W. (2017b). Supporting disciplinary talk from the start of school: Teaching children to think and talk like scientists. The Reading Teacher, 71, 189-197.