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Reading and Writing in the Science Classroom
by Dr. Patricia Bowers

Perfect Partners

Just like peanut butter and jelly, science and the communication skills of reading and writing are natural partners for today’s elementary classroom. The teaching of science concepts combined with communications skills is an approach whose time has come for two major reasons. First, there is a general recognition of the need to make instruction meaningful and relevant to the real world of students. There is a fine array of children’s literature available today that teachers can use to introduce their students to the world in which they live and, concomitantly, to teach reading skills in a meaningful context. The vicarious experiences children have through excellent literature not only can be used to teach reading and writing skills in context, but can also be used to help students see themselves in what they read—which is very motivating. This meaningfulness and real-world approach has been shown to significantly enhance students’ comprehension of what they read. To increase their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, all students, regardless of gender or ethnicity, need to see themselves reflected in what they read and study in school. The wide variety of high quality literature available today helps to accommodate this need; careful selection of what is to be read helps to assure that students can relate to what they are reading and, therefore, make it meaningful to their own reality.

A second reason for emphasizing communications skills through science instruction is that more and more content is being packed into the school day. Beyond the traditional subjects, such additional topics as fire safety, second language, creative movement, drug abuse prevention, and conflict resolution are often an integral part of the elementary curriculum. Thus, to meet the needs of the compacted day, it is necessary to teach "smarter"—to teach more in the same amount of time. One way to do this is to implement an integrated curriculum where more than one subject is taught at the same time. This implementation makes content areas more relevant because they are connected to one another, and more can be taught in a given period of time than if subjects are taught separately. If two subjects are taught at the same time, not only can more be taught in a given period of time, but instruction in one area reinforces and enhances learning in the other. This is especially important in reading, because reading involves many skills; but these skills need a meaningful context—they need to be applied to a content area.

Science and reading complement each other well because of the similarities between reading skills and science process skills, as can be seen in the table. The meshing of the skills in both subject areas make them natural partners for integration. For some skills, such as identifying main ideas and details and classifying, different terms are used to describe the same process. For other skills, such as drawing conclusions, the terms and processes are the same for both subject areas. The table also includes sample writing activities that correspond to the reading and science skills.

Writing is an important part of integrating reading and science. Reading and writing are at opposite ends of the communication skills continuum; reading involves decoding words, whereas writing involves encoding words. As units are developed, opportunities need to be provided on a regular and consistent basis to read, silently and aloud, what has been written and to write about what has been read. In this way, both ends of the communication skills continuum are focused on and developed in tandem with science content.

Science Reading Writing
Classifying Identifying main idea/details Outline science information
Experimenting Sequencing Write up a procedure to use
Drawing conclusions Drawing conclusions Study experiment results and write up what you think happened based on the facts
Writing up experiment results Expository writing After conducting an experiment, write up the results
Observing/inferring Distinguishing cause and effect List causes and effects in a given experiment
Determining cause and effect Determining cause and effect List causes and effects in a given experiment
Comparing and contrasting Comparing and contrasting Prepare a chart that gives similarities and differences between two similar organisms

Developing the Integrated Unit

You can develop an integrated unit in two ways: Start with a piece of outstanding literature and find science content in the literature or start with science content and find excellent literature that corresponds to the topic.

If you begin with a piece of literature, read through the selection to determine what science content logically and meaningfully is represented. The science should be directly related to the content of the book; there should be interdependence of the science content and the content of the book. If the interdependence is missing, the selection will not be useful for teaching in a truly integrated manner. For example, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a popular trade book for the early grades. This humorous story delves into the world of fantasy as a variety of items, including meatballs, are precipitated from the skies. It lends itself well to being integrated with a weather unit that is common in the primary grades. The science content you might choose to teach in conjunction with this book could be the water cycle. However, to teach foods with this book, merely because it mentions meatballs and other food, would not be true integration.

Alternatively, if you begin with a science topic, look for outstanding literature that includes the topic you are going to teach. For example, if you want to teach geology in the upper elementary grades, a good novel to use is My Side of the Mountain. This novel lends itself well to the study of such topics as the formation of mountains, types of rocks, and erosion and deposition. In the younger grades you might select such books as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Stone Soup. In a similar vein, if your science topic is botany or ecology, depending on the grade level, you could consider such titles as Song of the Trees, The Wump World, Sugaring Time, The Missing 'Gator of Gumbo Limbo, or Follow the Drinking Gourd. Sources of outstanding literature can be found in lists of awards such as the Newbery Award or the American Library Association Award, and in lists published by the National Science Teachers Association in their publication Science and Children and the International Reading Association in The Reading Teacher.

As you can begin to develop the integrated unit, you will want to look at your curriculum to see what other content can be logically and meaningfully related to the unit. Typically, mathematics, social studies, art, and music are included. You will also want to determine which reading and science process skills can be developed during the unit.

Dr. Patricia Bowers is Associate Director, Center for Mathematics and Science Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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