Literacy and Science Connections in the Classroom.


Educators in many disciplines recognize interdisciplinary teaching as effective for student learning. This article provides a model for developing an interdisciplinary literacy and science study with states of water as the core scientific study with corresponding literacy strategies. Authors have included suggestions for children’s literature as well as science experiences to use with this study. This water model provides teachers a base for developing studies that integrate their literacy and science curricula. Elementary teachers in the United States face heavy pressure for their students to perform well on state reading and writing tests (Akerson, 2001) and “…No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is a major force in the day-to-day functions of America’s public schools” (Settlage, 2004, p. 88). Consequently teachers often slight or ignore the science curriculum. Tilgner (1990) suggests that many teachers already eliminate science instruction when they need additional time during the school day “because it is their least favorite subject to teach” (p. 428). Without some changes, America’s graduates may be in similar crises for scientific knowledge as they were in the 1960s. It’s also true that some science teachers hesitate to include literacy because of their commitment to hands-on science teaching (Pappas, 2006). Since 96 • Reading Horizons • V48.2 • 2008 both curricular areas are vital for students, educators often turn to interdisciplinary teaching for scientific, reading, writing, and oral language experiences. Supporting teachers is particularly important in light of study results that indicate how little actual science teaching occurs in elementary classrooms. Students may participate in science only once or twice a week spending as little as 18 minutes per day in science class (Gerlovich, Downs, & Magrane, 1981). Tilgner’s (1990) work indicates that many teachers feel incapable of incorporating science in the classroom and that “teachers’ negative attitudes and feelings of inadequacy” (p. 428) impact the quality of science instruction, often in a negative way.

Current anecdotal evidence indicates that the picture has not changed noticeably in the 21st century. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) (National Research Council, 1996) and Project 2061 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990) documents call for stronger science teaching and, in particular, science literacy — not as an afterthought, but as a vital part of students’ life skills. Pappas (2006) emphasizes the need for students to develop understanding of “the language that scientists use as they read, write, and talk” (p. 226). How does scientific literacy compete with other literacies such as reading and math literacies? In fact, the answer is not competition but cooperation. The answer also lies with teachers abandoning their heavy reliance on narrative texts for reading and writing while incorporating more informational texts. Cross curricular or interdisciplinary teaching is not a new strategy for addressing the need to teach all curricular areas. In a 1996 joint position statement, the National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics,

Speech Communication Association, and Council for Elementary Science International asserted a child’s school day should not be divided by content areas since that does not reflect life in our society (National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Speech Communication Association & Council for Elementary Science International, 1996). The language arts, including reading and writing as well as oral communication skills, will enhance students’ science experiences. However, all teachers should recognize that while tools of language arts can be used to support science instruction, and science can be used to provide a purpose for meaningful reading, writing, and discussion, “effective language arts instruction cannot substitute for hands-on science instruction, and effective science instruction cannot substitute for achieving general literacy skills” (Akerson & Flanigan, 2000, p. 359). Traditional textbooks do not provide adequate reading Literacy and Science • 97 and writing in science texts nor sound science experiences in reading and writing textbooks.

Thus, teachers benefit from models that support them in developing interdisciplinary curricular experiences which incorporate science experiences and children’s literature. Duke’s (2000) research indicates that students are reading very little informational text at lower grades, a time for building understanding of texts. Yet trade books do increase the opportunities for students to be involved with science concepts as well as provide opportunities for learning reading strategies for informational text (Madrazo, 1997; Tunnell & Jacobs, 1989). In fact, the use of nonfiction texts may increase the engagement of students (Hapgood & Palincsar, 2006) especially boys (Brassell, 2006) and even reluctant readers (Collard, 2003). Making the Connections Arguing that instruction packages that focus on a theme often neglect experiences that truly teach science concepts, Dickinson and Young (1998) propose interdisciplinary instruction as the most legitimate strategy for developing students’ science and language arts literacies. Weaving together skills from both disciplines, teachers are able to maximize available instruction time (Rogers & Abell, 2007). Teaching with a theme that truly invites interdisciplinary learning presents challenges (Barton & Smith, 2000; Dickinson & Young, 1998; Shanahan, Robinson, & Schneider, 1995). Consequently, more models that support interdisciplinary strategies are important for educators. Since children need to learn to think scientifically and learning is mediated through language (Maguire & Wolf, 1993), Stefanich (1992) suggests that integration across curricular areas is actually necessary for the successful teaching of science concepts. Children often link information in ways unlike their parents or teachers, so it is important to remember that “learning is seeing connections” (Peetoom, 1993, p. 7). Children will begin to make the link from where they are — not from where we as adults are.

Huber and Walker (1996) describe how students working with magnets prior to reading about the magnets and their properties will help the children understand the scientific reading material. This permits the students to make their own connections. While Dickinson & Young (1998) elucidate similarities between language arts and science literacy, they also recognize that connections between the disciplines should be “logical, natural, and appropriate” while teachers “include experiences that will help students meet goals and objectives of both disciplines” (p. 337). Both science and language arts instructional strategies are included in the model described here for teaching students literacy strategies for comprehension 98 • Reading Horizons • V48.2 • 2008 (NCTE/IRA Standard 3, International Reading Association & National Council of Teachers of English, 1996), inquiry methods using scientific methods as well as textual references (NSES Content Standard A) and physical science concepts through a study of water (NSES Content Standard B, National Research Council, 1996). Wonders of Water as Model Selecting the Study Focus

The first step for any interdisciplinary teaching is choosing the conceptual focus. Since literacy strategies are necessary for engagement with any text, science teaching can come first. Teachers need to consider the local and state science standards as well as student age and potential involvement with the experiences. To ensure maximum learning potential, student interest must be an important consideration. Picarello (2000) notes “children’s natural curiosity—was the most natural way to enhance language” (p. 47). Science experiences can provide an opportunity to develop literacy in reading, writing and communication. The study of water provides a viable connection to children’s natural curiosity and easy access to materials as well as a connection to concept learning. Water’s states are fairly easily demonstrated and experienced by students to learn about different states of matter and thus physical change. Water is also necessary for life forms, so it is pertinent for students to respect and understand. This model also takes teachers into the often-neglected area of physical science rather than life science. Since water is such a broad topic, this model is appropriately focused on the more narrow concepts of the physical properties of water and the states of water as it evaporates, condenses, and freezes through liquid, gas, and solid states. Concepts such as these are common in curriculum standards for different grade levels and provide interesting experience opportunities. Books that support science concepts are available at different levels of reading. Choosing Literature for the Study Selecting appropriate literature for teaching and learning is the vital next step after choosing the science concepts, and Taberski (2001) recommends utilizing both fiction and nonfiction in the content areas. For example, teachers could develop students’ critical reading skills by using the section about surface tension from A Drop of Water (Wick, 1997) and ideas from The Bubble Factory (de Paola, Literacy and Science • 99 1996). Students may start by comparing and contrasting these two types of books. Teachers can model critical reading strategies through discussion of how de Paola used his knowledge of surface tension to develop his story.