ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Supporting Readers in Science

Post written by Sarah Carlson, Deni Basaraba, Gina Biancarosa, and Lina Shanley

When most people think about reading in science, they think of heavy and densely written texts—the kind you find in science textbooks. Although textbooks remain a staple of science education, they—along with laboratory notes and scholarly reports—are notably lacking from the exemplar science texts referenced in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Rather, the Common Core exemplars include excerpts from articles in popular science magazines, manuals, procedural texts, and (at the high school level) primary-source documents (for example, an excerpt from a translation of Euclid's Elements).

With this shift in the types of texts students will encounter in the science classroom, instruction must adapt to help students develop reading skills for comprehending both traditional and nontraditional sources of science literature. For example, the CCSS draw informational texts from the websites of National Geographic, the Smithsonian, Kids Discover, PBS, and Popular Science.

Research suggests that understanding scientific discourse "requires an excellent domain of highly specialized language, discourse, and world knowledge" (Graesser, León, & Otero, 2002, p. 4). In particular, scientific readers need to hone their skills for

  • inferential thinking
  • activating prior knowledge
  • recognizing technical terms, academic language, and scientific vocabulary (e.g., Sutherland, 2008)
  • scientific exploration and reasoning

This last point may sound a bit vague, but to read science texts, students must be able to participate in scientific exploration and reasoning. That means creating and interpreting arrays of data and utilizing reasoning that reflects scientific norms and values (Schoenbach & Greenleaf, 2009). In other words, as students read, they are constructing problem models of science texts.

For an example of a problem model, Graesser et al. (2002) discuss developing a situation model about a text describing a person sliding down a hemispheric dome. In this example, in order for students to develop appropriate problem models of this text, they must be able to understand the variables and relations described in the text in terms of position and velocity (e.g., scientific and mathematical knowledge), any forces and energy changes involved with the person, as well as any of the other various components (e.g., scientific knowledge and logic). Successfully comprehending this science text would require the use of specific, advanced reading skills, including both general-literacy and content-area reading skills. However, in order for these skills to be appropriately applied during science text reading, teachers need to give students opportunities to practice these reading skills and also may need to adjust reading instructions to scaffold for these science-specific literacy skills. These mental models take into account the relations between variables described in the text and use scientific and mathematical knowledge to interpret those relationships into an appropriate model of the situation described in the text (Graesser et al., 2002).

Teachers use a range of instructional strategies to help students develop the advanced skills necessary for comprehending science texts. For example, programs like Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004) and Seeds of Science—Roots of Reading (Cervetti, Pearson, Bravo, & Barber, 2006) support readers' use of investigative skills for exploring and actively answering questions about scientific content in hands-on learning environments. These reform-based programs also emphasize reading engagement, comprehension, and conceptual learning in science by delivering explicit instruction of comprehension strategies in the context of a scientific inquiry.

Peer-assisted learning activities, such as games, support comprehension of science texts by increasing students' background knowledge. For example, peers can use games such as Jeopardy! to provide their classmates the instruction with the support of their teachers (Simpkins, Mastropieri, & Scruggs, 2009). In both the reform-based and peer-assisted examples, engagement and inquiry are central to supporting science readers.

The variety of texts students will encounter in today's science classrooms require creating engaging inquiry around science content rather than simply conveying the content through lectures. As what students read in science class changes, the most successful classrooms will also focus on why these texts are important and how students can develop the skills to comprehend these complex texts (e.g., Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, & Mueller, 2001).



Cervetti, G., Pearson, P. D., Bravo, M. A., & Barber, J. (2006). Reading and writing in the service of inquiry-based science. In R. Douglas, M. Klentschy, & K. Worth (Eds.). Linking science and literacy in the K–8 classroom (221–244). Arlington, VA: NSTA.

Graesser, A. C., León, J. A., & Otero, J. (2002). Introduction to the psychology of science text comprehension. In J. Otero, J. A. León, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), The psychology of science text comprehension (1–15). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Greenleaf, C., Schoenbach, R., Cziko, C., & Mueller, F. (2001). Apprenticing adolescents to academic literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 71(1), 79–129.

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & Perencevich, K. C. (Eds.). (2004). Motivating reading comprehension: Concept-oriented reading instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schoenbach, R., & Greenleaf, C. (2009). Fostering adolescents' engaged academic literacy. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, & P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (98–112). New York: Guilford.

Simpkins, P. M., Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2009). Differentiated curriculum enhancements in inclusive fifth-grade science classes. Remedial and Special Education, 30, 300–308. DOI: 10.1177/0741932508321011.

Sutherland, L. M. (2008). Reading in science: Developing high-quality student text and supporting effective teacher enactment. The Elementary School Journal, 109, 162–180.

Sarah Carlson is a postdoctorate fellow at the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Deni Basaraba is project manager and assessment coordinator for research in mathematics education at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University. Gina Biancarosa is a research associate and assistant professor at the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Lina Shanley is a Center on Teaching and Learning research fellow at the College of Education at the University of Oregon.

This paper was supported by Grant #R305b110012 from IES, U.S. Department of Education, to the Center on Teaching and Learning at the University of Oregon, through a Postdoctoral Fellowship for writing resources. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent views of IES or the U.S. Department of Education. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.

Comments (1)

Deb Sheran

May 9, 2014

Great post.  To your point “Teachers use a range of instructional strategies to help students develop the advanced skills necessary for comprehending science texts.”  I have had great success with my 7th grade struggling readers using close reading strategies.  Although more common with elementary levels, this strategy, which included frontloading (although I was very careful not to overuse!) and repeated reading, was great for my students to assimilate new information with their existing background and in helping them build the stamina they need to conquer increasingly difficult text such as the science text your blog mentions.

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