Why science and literacy are the perfect match

11th January 2019 at 00:00
With studies showing a correlation between scientific skills and attainment in reading and writing, this two-for-one deal is a real bargain, says Megan Dixon

It should go without saying that a child’s level of attainment in reading and writing will have a direct effect on other areas of the curriculum. For subjects that are assessed through essay writing, the link is obvious, but what about the others?

Well, it seems to matter just as much. A 2017 report on achievement in science, by Terezinha Nunes and colleagues at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Royal Society, states that “in correlational studies of science learning, the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils’ scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are”.

Meanwhile, the EEF guidance report Improving Secondary Science makes many recommendations that build on the skills and knowledge developed in primary schools, none more so than recommendation six: develop scientific vocabulary and support pupils to read and write about science.

This point highlights the fact that learning about science involves learning a whole new language – the language of science. Competency in this demands that children can comprehend, analyse and interpret scientific texts, and develop the metacognitive strategies to evaluate their own comprehension and scientific writing skills.

Great – another thing to cram into an already stretched timetable. But could tweaking our teaching of science to include a focus on language have wider benefits?

The EEF report suggests that we should introduce pupils to scientific literature. Extracts from popular science books, news articles and even fiction embedded in science can be used to explain new concepts and introduce vocabulary, not only in science lessons but also as part of whole-class reading and small-group teaching.

Websites such as kids.frontiersin.org and sciencenewsforstudents.org are great sources of texts to expose young scientists to different styles of scientific writing, supporting reading and writing development.

When it comes to understanding the complexities of scientific writing, directed activities related to texts (Darts) have been shown to scaffold children’s comprehension of and learning from a text.

Some Darts are designed to enable pupils to reconstruct meaning: they use an adapted or modified text (maybe it has been reordered, or words have been removed to create a cloze activity) to develop their understanding of the order and structure of different types of writing.

By contrast, Dart analysis activities – such as labelling texts, using graphic organisers, diagrams and tables to identify and order information, summarising paragraphs using subheadings and writing questions – are effective ways of helping pupils to understand how unmodified texts convey information. They can be used to develop analytical skills.

All these activities support the development of scientific knowledge while also teaching reading comprehension and writing.

Finally, let’s not forget the importance of teaching scientific vocabulary, which is a powerful way of building an understanding of how words work. Once pupils grasp how to segment and manipulate words into morphemes (units of meaning), they will find it much easier to recognise and spell words with these morphemes in any context. Equipment, system, muscle, environment and temperature are all words found in the 2014 Year 5-6 Statutory Spelling List, and could easily be taught through science.

So tweaking our teaching to ensure that we value the language of science seems like a no-brainer. I love a bargain, don’t you?

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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