Strategy Share: Teaching Literacy in the Science Classroom

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Monica Nuñez, a high school science teacher, after her expedition to Antarctica. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Monica Nuñez teaches science at Santa Teresa High School in Santa Teresa, NM. Photo by Kelly McCarthy

“How can my students learn literacy in a science classroom?”

As a science teacher, I frequently hear this question from my colleagues. It is easy to confuse literacy for the act of learning to read—when really, literacy is the act of reading to learn. This confusion can make non-language arts teachers believe that literacy is not a part of their instruction.

However, my teaching experiences have shown me that I do teach literacy in my science curriculum. I notice that my students are immersed in various forms of literacy acquisition as they learn complex and abstract scientific concepts.

When I introduce new scientific topics, I always want to guide my students through introductory material that will make the learning meaningful for them. Often, we read real-world application articles that help them build a foundation to understand the more difficult content they encounter later on. I use Google Classroom to provide my students with various visual aids that enhance their literacy skills. I often ask my students to view short video clips and computer-based tools that help them gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

I’d like to share an example that was inspired by the extraordinary opportunity I had to travel as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow to Antarctica. 

During my expedition, I took photographs and videos to document my experience and share it with my students. One of my main goals was to help students better understand the rotation of the Earth. Students often find it difficult to understand how the hours of sunlight are vastly different at the poles, especially since they do not have the opportunity to see this phenomenon for themselves.

My expedition took place from December 2018 through January 2019—a time of year when visitors to Antarctica experience 24 hours of daylight. I photographed myself at 11:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., giving my students a firsthand account of what 24 hours of daylight looks like. My goal was to provide a real-world perspective to help students conceptualize a phenomenon that occurs outside of their community.

Monica photographed herself on the National Geographic Explorer at 11:30 pm GMT (left) and 1:00 am GMT (right) during her Antarctic expedition in January 2018. Photos by Monica Nuñez

To introduce my lesson on the Earth’s rotation, I showed my students the above photographs and then led discussions about this phenomenon. My students were surprised to observe daylight in the photographs I provided. They had many questions that I was able to explain based on what I had witnessed. They were curious about my experience and how I had reacted to this time of continuous daylight. Learning was more meaningful to them because I used my storytelling skills to share this experience in a personal way.

As students asked questions, I noticed that they had some background knowledge of Earth’s rotation but could not actually explain why this phenomenon occurred.

To address this, I shared two resources for them to read and analyze: a NASA article titled, Why is Earth rotating? Did it always have the same rotation period? Will it always have the same rotation period?, and the Australian Antarctic Division webpage on sunlight hours. My school uses the Cornell Note-Taking System, so my students took notes on the articles in this way. As they read and interpreted the various graphs and videos in the second resource, I noticed that their understanding of Earth’s rotation was much clearer.

To further assess my students’ comprehension, I asked them to write claim essays that demonstrated their acquired learning of Earth’s rotation. Claims are written responses that students use to explain their understanding of textual information. They are typically used in PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments.

Monica’s students wrote claim essays to share what they learned about Earth’s rotation. Photo by Monica Nuñez

This written work helped me identify which scientific concepts my students had successfully learned, and which concepts I needed to reteach and review with them in the near future. Through my own reflective practice, I witnessed a growth process in my students. Starting with just two photographs, students were able to build on their initial concepts of Earth’s rotation and come to a reasonable understanding.

Incorporating literacy in a science classroom is not always simple; it does require more preparation on my part. I am continuously updating the repertoire of articles and sources that I use. In addition, I am always looking for comprehension-building strategies, such as graphic organizers. Through this work, my students can organize and develop their understanding of the informational readings we complete in the classroom.

I often select primary sources that serve multiple purposes. Academic vocabulary acquisition is of great importance. Many times students feel overwhelmed by scientific terms, so I use articles with vocabulary building activities. Students need to have multiple opportunities to see and use scientific terminology in order to be successful in the science classroom. Through these literacy incorporation methods, I build my students’ reading skills at the same time as they learn important scientific concepts.

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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