All About Adolescent Literacy

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Content-Area Literacy: Science

The demands of comprehending scientific text are discipline specific and are best learned by supporting students in learning how to read a wide range of scientific genres. Besides text structures emphasizing cause and effect, sequencing and extended definitions, as well as the use of scientific registers, evaluating scientific arguments requires additional skill sets for readers.

Introduction

Scientific texts pose specialized challenges to inexperienced and struggling readers. For example, scientific research reports include abstracts, section headings, figures, tables, diagrams, maps, drawings, photographs, reference lists and endnotes. Science textbooks usually include similar elements. Each of these elements serves as a signal as to the function of a given stretch of text and can be used by skilled readers to make predictions about what to look for as they read, but consider the situation of an adolescent reader confronted for the first time by such texts and trying to make sense of them using the basic decoding tools acquired in "learning to read."

Comprehension of scientific texts also often requires mathematical literacy, or an ability to understand what mathematical tables and figures convey. Many scientific texts also require visual literacy, using diagrams, drawings, photographs and maps to convey meanings. Science texts pose several other important challenges: the use of technical vocabulary and syntax. Learning such terminology and syntax are important and sometimes difficult challenges of reading to learn in science.

The technical vocabulary of science often has Latin or Greek roots: cosm (as in cosmos), hypo (as in hypoacidic or hypoallergenic) or derm (as in dermatology, dermatitis, dermatoid). Sometimes words will have one meaning in everyday conversation and different and highly specialized meanings in science.

The demands of comprehending scientific text are discipline specific and are best learned by supporting students in learning how to read a wide range of scientific genres. Besides text structures emphasizing cause and effect, sequencing and extended definitions, as well as the use of scientific registers, evaluating scientific arguments requires additional skill sets for readers.

Benchmarks for 12th grade scientific literacy

The benchmarks for scientific literacy by the Association for the Advancement of Science illustrate the quality and scope of knowledge required for scientific literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993).1

These 12th grade benchmarks for scientific literacy form the basis for the kinds of discipline specific questions that readers need to ask in evaluating reports of scientific findings, be they historical or current. Such questions include the following:

  • What are the functions of the investigation- to explore, check previous results, test the explanatory power of a theory? The functions of the investigation will influence how the reader evaluates the evidence presented.
  • What data has been collected and how has it been analyzed? Is the data appropriate to the questions and conclusions reached? In a high school science classroom, we should expect students to be able to evaluate the goodness of fit of data, even if we don't expect the general public to be able to critique scientific reports.
  • What are the trade offs of the research design, weighing what we can learn from experiments with controlled conditions versus what we can learn from naturalistic or direct observations? While we cannot make naturalistic observations of evolution in situ because the time scales of observable change are so huge, we can make direct observations of fossil records.
  • What are the logical links between data, findings, previous related research and widely accepted theory?
  • What are potential sources of bias that may influence the findings and recommendations?

Think of these questions as indices of the open and inquiring habits of mind of the scientifically literate adult. Life-long habits are instilled in the general public through the unique opportunity of learning science in school, and specifically in learning to read scientific texts.

Endnotes

Endnotes

Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

1 The Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science literacy benchmarks are but one example of recommendations for science education (http://www. project2061.org/publications/bsl/). More recently the National Assessment Governing Board released the Science Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (http://www.nagb.org/publications/frameworks.htm). In addition, the National Academy of Science's Board on Science Education released Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 in 2007 (http://books.nap. edu/openbook.php?record_id=11625).

Lee, C.D., Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This article really made me think about how we teach science and how the students might not transfer the vocabulary into other content areas because science is such a complex subject. Also, refering back to the section that states "What data has been collected and how has it been analyzed? Is the data appropriate to the questions and conclusions reached? In a high school science classroom, we should expect students to be able to evaluate the goodness of fit of data, even if we don't expect the general public to be able to critique scientific reports." I feel that we expect our students to be at this point as high a senior in high school but it is our job as a middle school teacher to start showing them how to do this when they are in all different types of science classes.
Posted by: Meghan Howeth  |  January 06, 2014 12:24 PM
Seems great, but some times there is no background knowledge of the subject what so ever. Then we need to also bring our background and experiences in order to teach the subject.
Posted by: Jose Ibarra  |  January 06, 2014 12:27 PM
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