Bringing a Literacy Focus into the Science Classroom

How Complex Texts Can Help


American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

Biology teachers at Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan, have developed and now teach an annual climate change unit. They support students in understanding the overarching scientific concept of cause and effect by inviting students to explore people’s impact on climate change.

To that end, teachers engage students in using a broad range of scientific and popular texts to support their scientific learning. Students analyze existing data sets to understand trends in temperature over time. They study diagrams of the carbon cycle in order to deepen their understanding of the scientific mechanisms that drive climate change. And they watch Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio’s popular film about climate change, to make connections between scientific understandings and their own observations. In this unit, texts play a crucial role in developing students’ understanding of biology and the practices of scientific inquiry.

Understanding and addressing climate change sits at the nexus of science, ethics, politics, and democratic deliberation. In each area, deep content knowledge and strong literacy skills—comprehension, critical reading, and synthesis of multiple texts—are essential. Both inside and outside of school, adolescents are presented with complex texts that demand specialized ways of thinking and reading.1 This is particularly true for science and scientific inquiry. Scientists engage with texts written for a range of explanatory purposes (e.g., problem and solution, and process and sequence). They convey meaning through multiple forms (e.g., diagrams, graphs, schematics, and texts) and make use of discipline-specific grammatical structures as well as technical and specialized expressions.2 By providing biology students multiple opportunities to grapple with the range of texts used by scientists, educators at Fordson have brought a literacy focus into the science classroom that does not detract from their teaching of content—but actually bolsters it.

Why Teaching Literacy Matters in Science

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)3 outline eight practices core to how science works: asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, constructing explanations and designing solutions, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. In our view, language and literacy play a key role in developing students’ ability to engage in all eight practices.

Science teachers are uniquely positioned to help students build a deep understanding of what researcher Elizabeth Moje calls disciplinary literacy, which involves both apprenticing students into scientific ways of thinking and knowing, and teaching them the use of oral and written language to communicate about science. Moje rightfully argues that disciplinary literacy matters for civic purposes. By engaging all youth in authentic scientific inquiry, including the use of its language practices, youth are better able to understand how science works, question its assumptions, and be critical readers and users of the knowledge produced. The importance of scientific inquiry to understanding and offering potential solutions to climate change underscores Moje’s perspective on the importance of disciplinary literacy.

Physicist Jay Lemke brings the specific and varied nature of scientific language and texts, such as diagrams, charts, and graphs, to life. “Science does not speak of the world in the language of words alone, and in many cases it simply cannot do so,” he writes. “The natural language of science is a synergistic integration of words, diagrams, pictures, graphs, maps, equations, tables, charts, and other forms of visual mathematical expression.”4

This article’s opening vignette about Fordson High School illustrates science teachers putting a range of texts in play and engaging their students in science’s “natural language.” Lemke’s insights highlight the complexity that science educators face when they teach scientific literacy. These forms of text and specialized language are simply not taught in elementary school reading or English language arts. As Lemke notes, they sit squarely in the province of science. Given that literacy plays a central role in the day-to-day practice of science, developing scientific explanations, making connections, and understanding interpretations rely on more than just knowledge of science. They fundamentally require disciplinary literacy.

How Reading Apprenticeship Supports STEM Literacy


American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

The Reading Apprenticeship framework, developed as part of WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative, guides opportunities for cross-disciplinary teacher and student literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning. Over the past 15 years, we have collaborated with science teachers to simultaneously support their students’ science and literacy learning through text-based inquiries.

The Reading Apprenticeship framework includes four dimensions—social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building—that integrate the development of academic and social-emotional skills and dispositions to support learning in the content areas. Metacognitive conversation ties these four dimensions together by making both teachers’ and students’ scientific reading and reasoning processes visible. In Reading Apprenticeship classrooms, a wide range of texts are used as resources for learning.

To that end, extensive reading in the science classroom involves engaging students in interpreting and using authentic science texts the ways that scientists use them, to build explanations of scientific phenomena. For instance, the teachers at Fordson use multiple forms of text to support their students’ scientific exploration of climate change: graphs, diagrams, journal abstracts, and videos explaining scientific mechanisms, along with journalistic accounts.

Sometimes students may see themselves as “not being good in science” or view science as irrelevant to their lives outside of school; engaging students in Reading Apprenticeship’s social and personal dimensions supports students in shifting their view of themselves as readers and learners of science. For example, Fordson students work together as a class to develop a list of strategies for reading graphs like a scientist (see the box on the upper right for a sample student-generated list). Each time they approach a new text, say a graph of temperature change or a diagram of the carbon cycle, they review, add to, and reflect on the list of strategies for unpacking it. This type of collaboration is fostered by the climate of safety and trust that Fordson’s faculty builds both inside and outside the classroom. Through this process, students experience success, build their confidence as learners of science, and ultimately change their identities.

Reading Apprenticeship’s cognitive dimension provides concrete approaches for supporting students to grapple with complex scientific texts, which, regardless of length, tend to be dense with information. Teachers at Fordson support students in breaking down chunks of complex text so that they can identify where they experience roadblocks and gradually work through challenges. This process is especially helpful for Fordson’s large population of English language learners because it breaks complex texts into meaningful chunks and still gives students access to rigorous ideas often absent from simpler texts.

The knowledge-building dimension emphasizes the importance of surfacing prior knowledge, challenging misconceptions, building understanding of science’s specialized texts and contexts, bridging common experience and scientific understanding, and, perhaps most important for the NGSS, engaging students in science’s core practices. Fordson teacher Diana Mansour explains that she starts the process of reading in science with tables and graphs, “because as an expert reader of science, that’s one of the first text features to which I’m drawn. … I let them know that when I look at graphs, I pay attention to two things: organization and patterns/relationships.” Based on her example, students start their reading of scientific texts with tables and graphs rather than avoiding them, and then move to deciphering explanatory text and other scientific representations.

While disciplinary literacy researchers offer a convincing rationale for integrating literacy into science classrooms, concerns about focusing on text remain. Traditional science instruction asks students to hunt for factual information in textbooks rather than provide learning experiences that approximate science’s core work. As an antidote to the traditional approach, many science reforms emphasize the importance of engaging students in collecting, analyzing, and explaining data. Some scholars and science educators worry that bringing a literacy focus into the science classroom may reduce opportunities for hands-on scientific inquiry.5 With the advent of the NGSS and state standards that emphasize reading in the disciplines, researchers and educators alike are increasingly seeking ways in which “text can support students’ involvement in hands-on science, rather than supplanting their investigations.”6

Text-Based Science Inquiries

Despite a growing consensus that integrating literacy and STEM learning is important, an authentic path forward isn’t necessarily clear. WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative, which develops and expands the use of Reading Apprenticeship, created one model for approaching this challenge: text-based investigations. Like researchers, science teachers initially approached reading in their classrooms with skepticism, knowing how uninspiring traditional uses of science textbooks can be (e.g., assigning a 30-page chapter for homework and then giving a PowerPoint summary because no one has read it). But as one middle school teacher explained, when texts are approached as objects of inquiry for authentic science investigation and explanation, students become deeply absorbed in the work.

Text-based investigations engage students in authentic scientific literacy and inquiry practices to learn science concepts. Students engage in constructing explanations and models of phenomena in the natural world and support these constructions through scientific argumentation. These investigations are designed to complement, not replace, hands-on experimentation. Both types of investigations involve NGSS-aligned scientific practices: asking questions; gathering, analyzing, modeling, and interpreting data; developing explanations; arguing from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

Reading Apprenticeship’s text-based investigations, developed collaboratively with teachers, frame scientifically grounded guiding questions and provide relevant texts. In developing the investigations, we deliberated over how to sequence texts in ways that enable students to construct increasingly robust explanatory models for scientific phenomena, while simultaneously deepening students’ reading strategies.

One module, “How Are Humans Impacting Water?,”* developed for eighth-graders in collaboration with science teachers, illustrates the architecture of a text-based investigation module. The module focuses on the flow of water under storm conditions and normal weather conditions, and where sources of pollution might be in the flow of clean and unclean water. This investigation foregrounds two NGSS crosscutting concepts for cause and effect: mechanism and explanation, and systems and system models. Given this module’s focus on human impact on the environment, it serves as a potential model and jumping off point for developing climate change models.

Throughout the module, students are invited to pose questions and engage in investigation through reading to identify and accumulate data and find answers. They develop explanations and models and critique how well their models hold up. The lesson sequence invites students to share not only what sense they were making of the texts, but how they go about it, thereby making their reading and reasoning processes public. Metacognitive conversation routines such as teacher modeling, thinking aloud, annotating text, and small-group sharing support students in making their reading and reasoning more scientific and evidence-based over time.

The investigation includes data graphs, diagrams, and other visual forms of science communication as well as science reports from newspapers and nonprint media for a variety of compelling “cases” of human impact on water. Ten texts present information and data on the science of the water cycle. Students transform information from one representation into another—from words to graphs and models, and from graphs and models to words—simultaneously building their conceptual understanding and flexibility with textual forms in science.

As a culminating task, students are asked to apply what they have learned about the water cycle by developing a scientifically grounded recommendation to manage the environmental challenge posed. Specifically, students work in teams to:

  • Identify a problem in their community related to human impact on water;
  • Determine a course of action for their community that addresses the problem;
  • Make a compelling scientific recommendation for the course of action by preparing an explanation of how and why the action would be effective; and
  • Present the recommendation to the class in a science seminar.

Text-based investigations require that students build an understanding of science phenomena from evidence in source materials as well as from developing and justifying their explanatory accounts for these phenomena. By using the practices of science to inquire into real-world topics of interest, students can simultaneously learn science content and the literacy and inquiry practices of science.

Considerations for Selecting Texts


American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

The texts included in “How Are Humans Impacting Water?” were selected because they support students in developing specific types of scientific knowledge. The Reading Apprenticeship team collaborated with reading researcher Susan Goldman to develop a series of five constructs to consider when choosing texts to support scientific inquiry: scientific epistemology; scientific inquiry and reasoning; overarching concepts, principles, themes, and frameworks; forms of information representation/types of texts; and discourse and language structures. By analyzing what disciplinary knowledge texts offer, science teachers can ensure that selected texts help students make connections between science and the world, expand their understanding of how science texts work, develop scientific vocabulary and syntax, and participate in scientific discourse and practices. The following questions, which are adapted from the research of Goldman and her colleagues, are particularly important to consider when science teachers take up a multifaceted topic like climate change, which also includes social policy and ethical considerations.7

Scientific epistemology: Texts build understanding about the nature of science.

  • How does the text portray how scientists know what they know?
  • How does the text illustrate processes for developing and revising scientific models and for understanding their limitations (e.g., findings are tentative and scientific knowledge is constructed incrementally)?

Scientific inquiry and reasoning: Texts demonstrate how inquiry and reasoning are used to establish, link, and validate claims and evidence.

  • How can the text support planning and carrying out firsthand investigations?
  • How can the text support the development of coherent, logical explanations, models, or arguments from evidence?
  • How can the text support the evaluation of explanations, sources, and evidence?

Overarching concepts: Texts provide general concepts and enduring understandings as a basis for warranting or connecting claims and evidence.

  • How does the text articulate the role of theory in interpreting evidence and warranting claims?
  • What concepts, principles, themes, and frameworks explained in the text support interpreting evidence and warranting claims?

Types of texts: Science texts use different structures and multiple representations, sources, and genres to convey meaning.

  • How does the explanatory purpose of the text align with the content taught (e.g., correlation and causation, cause and effect, proposition and support, and definition and description)?
  • What representations does the text use to convey meaning (e.g., diagrams, equations, charts, videos, and models)?
  • How does the text’s purpose and audience shape its content and structure (e.g., bench notes, refereed journal articles, and textbooks)?

Language structures: Science texts use distinctive grammatical structures, specialized language, and language signals about the degree of certainty. Once texts are selected, teachers can think through how to use the text to support student learning.

  • How does the text communicate the author’s purpose?
  • What technical and specialized expressions does the text use?
  • How is the degree of certainty, generalizability, and precision of statements signaled in the text?
  • How are claims advanced through argumentation in the text?

See Table 1 for an application of this framework for the texts included in “How Are Humans Impacting Water?”

Does Integrating Literacy in STEM Make a Difference for Student Learning?

Perhaps science teachers’ biggest concern about integrating a literacy focus into their classrooms is that it will draw attention away from doing and learning science. Independent researchers have investigated the impact of Reading Apprenticeship’s work with science teachers on students’ literacy and science outcomes. Four studies demonstrate positive effects of integrating a strong literacy focus into STEM classrooms on both reading and science outcomes. All four studies employed a randomized control design, comparing classrooms with teachers who participated in Reading Apprenticeship professional development to business-as-usual classrooms. Collectively, these studies involved more than 2,000 teachers across multiple subject areas working in 466 schools in four states. All of the schools served high proportions of African Americans, Latinos, and English language learners.

The first study focused exclusively on integrating reading into biology classes. At the end of one year of instruction, treatment students were more than a year ahead of control students on standardized tests in biology, reading comprehension, and English language arts.8

The second study focused on improving disciplinary literacy teaching in U.S. history and biology classrooms. At the end of one year of instruction, students in treatment classrooms were more than a year ahead of control students on standardized tests in history and biology.9

The third study focused on a multiyear, national project with teachers from multiple disciplines. Students in Reading Apprenticeship classrooms reported significantly greater opportunities to share reading processes and problem solving and indicated that reading instruction was more integrated into their content-area learning. This project demonstrated a positive and statistically significant impact on student literacy in science classes.10

The fourth study engaged biology teachers in using text-based inquiries following the same content sequence as teachers in the control group. Students in intervention classrooms scored significantly higher on the comprehension of science information from multiple texts than those in control classrooms.11

Teaching literacy and teaching STEM have the potential to be mutually supportive endeavors. Through incorporating texts into STEM classrooms, science teachers can build student understanding of texts that are central to how scientists communicate with one another. They also can engage students in the authentic practice of science—drawing on data sets to replicate findings, developing explanations and models based on data analysis and an understanding of scientific theory, and situating findings in the broad base of scientific investigation.

For teaching climate change from a science perspective, the authentic use of scientific texts is particularly valuable. It supports science teachers in helping students understand questions bandied about by the press and politicians from a scientific lens. And it provides a concrete reason for students to build their understanding of abstract scientific concepts like systems and causal relationships.

Linda Friedrich is the director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, where Willard Brown and Heather Howlett are senior program associates.
To learn more about the Reading Apprenticeship framework, visit

*The complete module is available for free at (back to article)


1. T. Shanahan and C. Shanahan, “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content Area Literacy,” Harvard Educational Review 78, no. 1 (2015): 40–59.

2. S. Goldman et al., Explanatory Modeling in Science through Text-Based Investigation: Testing the Efficacy of the READI Intervention Approach, Project READI Technical Report #27 (Chicago: Project READI, 2016),….

3. NGSS Lead States, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, by States (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2013).

4. J. Lemke, “Teaching All the Languages of Science: Words, Symbols, Images, and Actions” (paper presented at La Caixa Conference on Science Education, 1998), 6.

5. G. N. Cervetti and J. Barber, “Text in Hands-On Science,” in Finding the Right Texts: What Works for Beginning and Struggling Readers, ed. E. H. Hiebert and M. Sailors (New York: Guilford, 2009), 89–108.

6. Cervetti and Barber, “Text in Hands-On Science,” 91.

7. Goldman et al., Explanatory Modeling.

8. C. Greenleaf et al., “Integrating Literacy and Science in Biology: Teaching and Learning Impacts of Reading Apprenticeship Professional Development,” American Educational Research Journal 48, no. 3 (2011): 647–717.

9. C. Greenleaf et al., A Study of the Efficacy of Reading Apprenticeship Professional Development for High School History and Science Teaching and Learning, final report to the Institute for Education Sciences, 2011.

10. C. Fanscali et al., The Impact of the Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) Project on Academic Literacy in High School: A Report of a Randomized Experiment in Pennsylvania and California Schools (Palo Alto, CA: Empirical Education, December 2015),

11. S. Goldman et al., “Explanatory Modeling in Science through Text-Based Investigation: Testing the Efficacy of the Project READI Intervention Approach,” American Educational Research Journal 56, no. 4 (2019): 1148–1216.

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020