Methods & Strategies
Using disciplinary literacy to increase reading and writing in early elementary grades
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) outline not only the science content that students are expected to learn but also the scientific practices for students to engage like real scientists (NRC 2012). Students as young as kindergarten are expected to plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, engage in argument with evidence and communicate information. Thus, early elementary teachers play an important role in supporting students as they navigate through complex science topics while engaging in these scientific practices.
In addition to NGSS, the majority of states have also adopted the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (ELA-CCSS), which emphasize the teaching of disciplinary literacy (NGAC and CCSSO 2010). Disciplinary literacy basically means that students need to be able to think, speak, and write like those that are found within that discipline. In the context of science, disciplinary literacy dictates that students learn the way scientists rely on the creation of new data through systematic observation and experimentation (Shanahan and Shanahan 2008).
Disciplinary literacy is often confused with content area literacy or science literacy; however, they are different and have distinct meaning. Within science or content area literacy, strategies are used (e.g., graphic organizers, word walls, etc.) to help students make sense of science content and learn science vocabulary. On the other hand, disciplinary literacy instruction seeks to turn the student into a scientist who is not just simply reading and writing about science topics but instead is producing written texts and materials from the perspective and experiences of a scientist.
Research has shown that when early elementary teachers use disciplinary literacy strategies (i.e., reading, speaking, listening, writing) like a scientist, students’ vocabulary increases in both science content and literacy text structures (Clark et al. 2020). When reading, speaking, listening, and writing are aligned with science practices and integrated within the science content, students are more effective at producing science informational text that is more like a scientist and not just writing about science topics.
This article gives multiple examples of how early elementary teachers can incorporate disciplinary literacy strategies within their science instruction to encourage young students to read, speak, listen, and write like a scientist.
Most elementary science teachers are familiar with the 5E lesson format: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. This lesson format is very effective for planning science lessons and disciplinary literacy strategies can easily be incorporated within it. Reading informational texts can be used to engage students into the learning of a science topic. Also, students can use informational texts to explore a science topic and to further their understanding (elaborate). After exploring, there is a time of discussion for students to explain what they have learned. During this time, students are speaking using vocabulary they learned from either informational text or hands-on activities. Furthermore, students are also listening to vocabulary spoken by their peers. And finally, students can communicate their understanding through their writing (evaluate).
The time devoted to science instruction is often limited in early education classrooms (Trygstad et al. 2013). Disciplinary literacy strategies are not intended to replace hands-on science instruction but to enhance inquiry-based science instruction by extending the science into the literacy instructional block. Thus, instructional time is extended for interdisciplinary science units, and students can reap the full benefits of engaging in science practices while increasing their science content knowledge through reading, speaking, listening, and writing like a scientist. Table 1 shows an example of a six-week kindergarten interdisciplinary unit that is aligned to the NGSS practices and the performance expectation K-LS1-1 Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive (NGSS Lead States 2013). This unit is also aligned to the following ELA-Literacy Common Core State Standards: RI.K.1 With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text; Literacy. RI.K.2 With prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text; RI.K.10 Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding; W.K.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of books by a favorite author and express opinions about them).
The first week introduced the needs of plants, the parts of a plant, and setting up their plant experiment. Once the plants started to grow (about a week after planting), students observed their plants during their morning calendar time for two to three weeks. Students take turns measuring the plants and they record the numbers in their notebooks. Each week, one science lesson will be devoted to students drawing pictures of the two plants and writing a summary sentence of which is taller, has more leaves, etc. During the last week of the unit, students are introduced to soil, different habitats where plants grow, and a final lesson where students summarize what they learned about what a plant needs to grow.
Below we outline specific examples of disciplinary literacy strategies and how they might be incorporated into interdisciplinary science units to increase student ability to use and write science informational text. Alignment to science practices will also be highlighted. One thing to keep in mind is that reading and listening are inputs—or ways in which we gather information. Writing and speaking, on the other hand, are ouputs—or ways in which we share information with others. Thus, it’s important that early childhood teachers provide opportunities for students to practice and develop these literacy tools daily within a science context.
Most early elementary science teachers are using some type of reading within their science instruction. The difference that disciplinary literacy is suggesting is that reading is not simply for gathering information to explain a topic but for engaging in the practices of a scientist as outlined by NGSS (NRC 2012).
Using a close reading technique is particularly helpful for building student science vocabulary. Informational texts often have bolded vocabulary words. During a close read, the teacher points out the vocabulary and uses context clues within the text to determine the meanings of these words (obtain, evaluate information). Other common text features found in informational texts are pictures or diagrams with labels. These labels are often vocabulary words and the pictures reinforce the textual meanings (using models).
Frequently located at the end of science informational texts is a science experiment related to the topic. Reading this text using the same close reading technique can help students to understand how scientists plan investigations. Teachers can show students that within every experiment there are materials that are usually listed and then instructions are numbered based on what is done first, second, and so on. Also, teachers can help students recognize safety considerations that are listed within science experiments and the importance of following them. Reading directions and warnings on the back of products such as seed packets, vinegar, soda bottles, etc. will also reinforce this style of procedural writing.
Reading science informational text can also help students gather additional evidence to support their explanations and arguments. It is helpful for students to read a variety of sources (e.g., newspaper article, book, article from the internet) to investigate how authors communicate differently, even on similar topics. This not only introduces students to new vocabulary, but also different styles of scientific writing. It should be noted that when teachers select their reading materials to consider the diversity of learners within their classroom by using a variety of reading levels or languages as appropriate. Teachers should also consider gender and the cultural diversity within the selected texts.
Through listening, students hear new vocabulary words used within a science context and will then be more inclined to use them in their own spoken and written explanations and arguments. Students listen during read-alouds shared by the teacher or others. Students listen to ideas shared by the teacher and peers during class discussions. Moreover, students listen to explanations while watching videos.
Students are also listening to each other when working in small groups. Using the jigsaw technique, students can work in small groups with each student reading a different science text. Students then listen to summaries from other students about the science texts that they did not read. Students listen to arguments shared by other students describing claims and evidence for their claims. Students should be encouraged to listen for and correct confusing parts of a scientific argument or claim.
Listening is also used to make scientific observations. Students listen to the sounds of nature, animals, or other living things. While conducting science investigations, students listen for evidence of scientific occurrences (e.g., rain hitting the roof, ice cracking, branches breaking). When students hear particular sounds, they can then start to develop words to describe them.
After students have gathered information from reading and listening, they often begin to ask questions, just like a scientist would do. When students have questions, they can start to verbalize their explanations. Speaking ideas aloud helps students to solidify their explanations and also to practice using science vocabulary. Speaking can occur during whole-class settings through discussions led by the teacher and/or through think-pair-share techniques. Students can discuss an informational text after a reading to explain what they have learned. They can also discuss similarities and differences of multiple texts (e.g., during animal studies). Students can also learn to make predictions as a class before conducting an investigation and then share their findings afterward.
Students can also practice speaking like a scientist in small groups. During investigations, students can describe their observations and then engage in argument from evidence while working in cooperative learning groups. Also, students read a science text related to a particular topic and discuss text features, signal words, and new vocabulary with a partner. Sharing verbally what they have learned and are learning on a science topic is important because speaking can become a verbal rough draft before students are expected to begin writing.
Writing allows students to record their current understandings and this can be done throughout science lessons. Students can write questions they have about a science topic at the beginning of science units. Students can make scientific drawings or models and add labels (Figure 1). Students can also write out their plans for investigations (see Figure 2), record their findings during investigations, and write sentences to summarize data after analysis. Students can draw pictures of science phenomena and add explanations. Students can make claims and engage in argument through evidence in their writing (Figure 3). And last, students can write using a specific text feature (e.g., sequence, explanatory, compare/contrast) to communicate information about a particular science topic at the end of a science unit.
Writing also becomes a powerful way for teachers to measure student knowledge from the beginning to the end of a science unit. Teachers can use student writing to assess their understanding of science content and to determine an increase in understanding how to use the common informational text structures and text features. Online, we’ve shared the assessment rubric used to measure both of the student writing samples (see Supplemental Resources).
The use of a disciplinary approach that merges both science and literacy instruction is a way for early elementary teachers to not only teach complex science topics in ways that are understandable and meaningful for young children, but this approach simultaneously assists young children as they develop the literacy tools of reading, writing, speaking that are needed in order to navigate life and comprehend difficult texts. Thus, science and literacy are truly in service of the other. In this article, we provide a myriad of ideas and strategies for early elementary teachers to consider as they begin implementing a disciplinary literacy approach in their early childhood classroom.
Research suggests that young children can indeed engage in complex science topics and can produce science informational texts to demonstrate their newly gained knowledge and their developing science vocabulary (see Clark et al. 2020). As early elementary teachers begin to explore new ways of thinking about science and literacy instruction and as they begin to implement and infuse more opportunities for speaking, listening, reading, and writing in their instruction, they are assisting young children in developing their identity as a scientist. We encourage early elementary teachers to consider a combination of read aloud, shared reading, hands-on science investigations, the use of mentor texts, time to practice argumentation, time to observe and describe, and opportunities for children to share and discuss their thinking and ideas with peers and adults. These instructional activities provide a supportive environment and framework that facilitates the construction of science knowledge while simultaneously developing literacy skills that enable and support learning goals in both science and literacy.
Clark, S.K., K. Lott, M. Larese-Casanova, A.M. Taggart, and E. Judd. 2020. Leveraging Integrated Science and Disciplinary Literacy Instruction to Teach First Graders to Write Like Scientists and to Explore Their Perceptions of Scientists. Research in Science Education 1–23.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers (NGAC and CCCSSO). 2010. Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: NGAC and CCSSO.
National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Shanahan, T., and C. Shanahan. 2008. Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review 78 (1): 40–59.
Trygstad, P.J., P.S. Smith, E.R. Banilower, and M.M. Nelson. 2013. The status of elementary science education: Are we ready for the Next Generation Science Standards? Chapel Hill: Horizon Research, Inc.