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Teach High School Science

When Did I become a Reading Teacher
Judy Jones

When I first began to teach biology, it was because I loved the subject. I have always been fascinated by the discoveries in the biological sciences and the elegant intricacies of the processes that are being uncovered. I wanted to share these wonders with my own students. I just assumed that they could easily be lured into the excitement of the biological world. I was so wrong – at many levels.

One of the most important things I have discovered is that many of my students do not know how to read and process a science text (or any text, for that matter). This realization has triggered my interest in the strategies that help students learn from their reading. Now I regularly incorporate these strategies into my instruction.

The link below will take you to a Carnegie Report on Literacy at the middle and high school levels.

In this report there are 15 key elements that are thought to be involved in a good literacy program. These apply to reading literacy in science as well. Some of them address the need for the whole school (and even district) to be focused on literacy. This involves good “leadership” and active “teacher teams” as well as evaluation of programs to determine effectiveness.

But many of the elements address the classroom, which is my focus in this article. These include teaching comprehension directly, motivating students to read, organizing students into collaborative reading groups, and incorporating writing. The use of technology and formative assessment are also mentioned as useful components for developing literacy.

I have found that this generation of students is so “plugged in” to iPods and cell phones that they don’t read in traditional ways as much as I remember doing – and still do! They need help to engage them in reading, and it’s the teachers job to incorporate some of the new technology into their experiences with reading.

Below are some strategies that I have found useful in my biology classroom. For each strategy, a link is given that will lead you to more detailed information. I find that varying my strategies is useful. Not every strategy is appealing to every student, so helping them learn a variety of ways to improve reading comprehension is quite valuable.


I actually have a lot of fun with this strategy. I take a challenging passage from the biology text and I start to read it out loud to the students. But as I go along, I also verbalize the thought processes that are going on in my head as I read. This might involve stating the questions that occur to me as I am reading. I might relate what I am reading to some life experiences that I have had. I might stop and summarize what I have read so far. I might make predictions about what I would expect to find in the next section of reading. I like to be dramatic when I model “Think-aloud” so that the process seems enjoyable. Then I put the students in pairs or groups of threes and have them continue reading out loud to each other – following the think-aloud model that I have demonstrated. I find this strategy is useful at the beginning of the year. I use it when I hand out their books for the first time and then I follow up periodically with other chapters.

Some strategies can be used before students actually start reading.

Here are two of my favorites:

I like to use a KWL chart with students. Before they read a text they put what they already know under “K,” and put what they want to know (or don’t know) under “W”. Then after they read, they put what they have learned under “L.” This strategy is simple but it helps them look ahead to what topics they will encounter in their reading and it helps them summarize what they already know about the topic.

Another strategy is Anticipation Guides. These are not the traditional “question” study guides that teachers often use. An anticipation guide is a list of statements for students to respond to or think about. In science, what I do is put a list of statements, some of which are true, some of which are false, and some of which are debatable. One advantage of anticipation guides is that they generate plenty of discussion. We will often use them as a whole class activity where the class debates and discusses before they have even read. (I never give answers.) When the students do read, they have a goal – to discover more about these statements and to see where they might have had misconceptions. (Note: Anticipation guides work great before watching a video, also.)
http://schools.nycenet.edu/d75/literacy/initiative.htm (scroll down a little to find the description)

There are other strategies that are useful for students while they read.

One of these is Cornell Notes. This is a note-taking strategy used by AVID students and I have incorporated it into my biology classes. The strategy can be used for lectures, reading, videos, etc. Students can also do their Cornell reading notes on a computer if you provide them with a template. The link below has a very nice description of how to set up the notes, but basically, there are two columns. The reading notes go on the right and on the left, students can put questions that are answered by the notes, concept maps organizing the notes, questions that they still have, etc. At the bottom is a row that spans both columns where students can summarize after they have read.

One of my favorite strategies is the use of Graphic Organizers. Rather than giving students a list of questions and having them play “hunt and peck” with their text, a graphic organizer can keep them reading through the text and organizing the information in a meaningful way. The site below has some excellent examples of science graphic organizers. However, some of the best organizers are ones that the teacher creates for a specific purpose. And eventually, I like to have my students begin to create their own organizers. Organizers can be used as a strategy that follows reading also.

I also like to use Jigsaws. On of the advantages of this type of strategy is that it involves all students in the learning process. For example, I might want students to learn about the ways that humans have an impact on the environment. I will form an original learning group of four to six students (A, B, C, D and possibly E and F). Each of these students will then go to one station to learn about a specific way that humans impact the environment (habitat destruction, overpopulation, use of pollutants, etc). At these stations, assigned students will be reading about the impacts and processing the information by talking with each other and possibly using a graphic organizer. Often, I will have students use a computer at these stations and do some of their research online. Then these students will return to their original groups and teach the members of the group about what they have learned. In the end each, each of the original groups has learned about all of the impacts. This is a very effective and very engaging strategy.

And some strategies are used to follow up on a reading assignment.

One strategy that I use a lot and which also serves as a formative assessment is to have students write a summary after they have read. I ask them to write a coherent paragraph describing and summarizing what they have learned. Most times I give them guiding questions to direct their writing. (Cornell notes incorporate the summarizing part of the process in a bar at the bottom of the two column page.) Summarizing is a powerful way for students to process what they have learned, but they do struggle with it. You may need to scaffold the experience over the year. You can start with summary questions and then slowly reduce the number of guiding questions until, by the end of the year, they are able to write a summary that is detailed and coherent without the help of guiding questions.

I have been very interested in a strategy called RAFT but have seen it as more useful in history or English. However, it can be used in science also. The “R” in raft refers to the role that the writer will take. In science, that might be a science news writer or a science teacher explaining a topic to younger children. If you are having students write about global environmental problems, it could be a person from a rainforest or an African desert. The “A” stands for the Audience the person is writing to. Is this a letter to a younger child? Is this a persuasive editorial? Is this a presentation for a town council? The “F” stands for the Format of the writing. Will the writing be in the form of a letter, a children’s book, an advertisement, a newspaper article? The “T” refers to the Topic of the writing. With modification, RAFT can be used in science and has the benefit of being very motivating. Students can share their products with each other and the products can turn into authentic assessments if desired.

I must admit I resisted learning about reading strategies, but I have come full circle and now use them in order to help my students comprehend science concepts. I enjoy teaching these strategies. I now have more motivated, interested, and active students. And perhaps, most importantly, I have more successful students!

Please feel free to contact me about this article.


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