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Read Like a Scientist: How to Integrate Science with English Language Arts Standards through Informational Text

Teaching science provides an opportunity to meet English Language Arts (ELA) standards and improve reading skills. When you tie language and literacy instruction to science, your students develop disciplinary core understanding while following their curiosity about phenomena.
Ask students to name their favorite school subject. One might say reading. Others might say science, math, or social studies. Notice the separation of these subjects.
Too often, we regard literacy as an end unto itself, especially when other disciplinary content gets marginalized in deference to devotion to literacy teaching and learning (Cervetti et al., 2006). Among these subjects, reading occupies a unique position in that teachers can use it as a vehicle to facilitate learning of other disciplines. Are students reading just because it’s reading time, or are they reading to learn? Integrating informational text with a discipline such as science is beneficial in multiple ways:
  • Students can engage in scientific inquiry in multiple forms.
  • Teachers have more time for disciplinespecific instruction that meets Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) informational text standards.
  • All students, regardless of their levels of English proficiency, can learn the gradeappropriate language and content they need to prepare them for college and careers.
Students Use Informational Text as a Basis for Inquiry
Scientists and engineers don’t just mix solutions, look through a microscope, or build a robot. They have to read texts to gather and interpret information. Scientists learn about and come to understand the natural world through text as well as firsthand investigations (Cervetti et al., 2006). Reading to learn doesn’t stop after absorbing what a text says. Scientists read to learn by digging deeper. They use informational text as a basis for inquiry.
Students need opportunities to read as scientists do at the point of use in their learning. For example, if students are learning about Earth’s changes, using a text about the Grand Canyon serves two purposes. First, the text gives access to something that can’t be directly observed in the classroom. Second, the text might tell the reader the facts of how deep the canyon is or what types of rock make up its layers, but equally important is what’s not told that leads to inquiry. What did the Grand Canyon look like in the past? What lives or lived there? How do we know? All students, especially ones who want to be scientists someday, need exposure to informational text to practice reading with a purpose.
Teachers Teach More Science alongside the ELA Standards
A 2018 survey of US elementary school teachers reports that teachers spend 18–27 minutes per day teaching science but nearly 90 minutes teaching ELA (Banilower et al., 2018). Plus, not everyone teaches science every day (see table below). This is precisely why the use of informational text is so critical for both teachers and students. Wendy Binder, from the National Science Teaching Association, interviewed a teacher from New Jersey who said, “I realized I had two choices: work faster or begin teaching more than one subject at a time.”
Bringing science into the ELA classroom through informational text related to the content in science standards is a way to address the imbalance. For example, in a current science unit, students are learning about similarities and differences among birds. They have bird-watched outside. They have observed and named types of birds they typically see around their school or homes. By using a science curriculum with integrated informational text, the teacher can also introduce students to a type of bird they won’t find nearby. Through informational text, students can discover key ideas and details, such as the species of the bird and what makes it different. They can also explore craft and structure of text by grasping how the text is grouped by sections with headings, how captions give information about images, and the significance of bold print. Using informational text works best when it fits seamlessly into the content students have learned.
Science taps into students’ natural curiosity and energy, and ELA tasks, including reading complex text, are not so daunting when they are a path to understanding something students really want to know (Tyler et al., 2017).
Science Teaches New Language to All Students
Teachers often see a wide range of reading abilities among their students—from those who read far beyond grade expectation to those who can’t read English. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 10 percent of students in the US public school population are still in the process of acquiring English language proficiency (McFarland et al., 2019). Teachers need a way to level the playing field. This is why it is important that language and literacy instruction be tied to a content area such as science so that students can simultaneously develop disciplinary understanding and language and literacy skills (Llosa, Kieffer, and Lee, 2016).
All students, especially English learners, need exposure to grade-level content and academic language to be truly prepared for college and careers. Informational text can better prepare students by building all students’ vocabulary through introducing them to new concepts and words—like plant anatomy, chemical reactions, and friction—tied to real-world examples of phenomena they can observe. This grade-level content can range from what makes an apple turn brown to how to stop objects such as space shuttles from burning up when they return to Earth. Focusing students’ reading on complex text with the proper amount of academic language could inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.
Banilower, E. R., P. S. Smith, K. A. Malzahn, C. L. Plumley, E. M. Gordon, and M. L. Hayes. 2018. Report of the 2018 NSSME+. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.
Binder, W. 2006. “Treasures from Home.” In Linking Science & Literacy in the K–8 Classroom, edited by Rowena Douglas, Michael P. Klentschy, and Karen Worth. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association: 207–220.
Cervetti, G. N., P. D. Pearson, M. A. Bravo, and J. Barber. 2006. “Reading and Writing in the Service of Inquiry-Based Science.” In Linking Science & Literacy in the K–8 Classroom, edited by Rowena Douglas, Michael P. Klentschy, and Karen Worth. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association: 221–224.
Llosa, L., M. J. Kieffer, and O. Lee. 2016. “How Can Educational Systems Better Serve English Learners? Integrate Language and Content Instruction, Attend to Individual Needs Beyond Classification, and Measure Progress Meaningfully.” Technical report. New York: NYU Steinhardt.
McFarland, J., B. Hussar, J. Zhang, X. Wang, K. Wang, S. Hein, M. Diliberti, E. Forrest Cataldi, F. Bullock Mann, and A. Barmer. 2019. The Condition of Education 2019 (NCES 2019-144). US Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved August 28, 2019 from asp?pubid=2019144
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, & Council of Chief State School Officers. 2010. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: Appendix A. Retrieved from Appendix_A.pdf
Tyler, B., T. Britton, A. Iveland, K. Nguyen, J. Hipps, and S. Schneider. 2017. “The Synergy of Science and English Language Arts: Means and Mutual Benefits of Integration.” Evaluation report #2. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
How Smithsonian Science for the Classroom Curriculum Supports Integrated Informational Text
The Common Core State Standards for reading require more than the skill of reading alone. They require students to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity, which is why the Smithsonian Science Education Center integrated a literacy series called Smithsonian Science Stories into its new curriculum series, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom. The literacy series is designed to give all students access to that staircase of complexity necessary to prepare them for college and careers while providing support for students without English language proficiency. Those supports include the availability of Spanish translated text, differentiated text that provides the same level of information and the same text features (i.e., vocabulary, headings, images, and captions) but at a reduced complexity score, and digital versions of the literacy series that are text-to-speech compatible.
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