Bridging the Literacy Gap in Science

Meeting new science standards can be hard for students who struggle with reading and writing.

How do you teach the new science standards to students who struggle with reading and writing? Many middle school science teachers face this dilemma, which is especially challenging for science educators at my school. Like many urban schools across the country, we have a large population of students who are behind academically; many have specific learning difficulties. We also serve a large population of English Language Learners.

How can we ensure the success of these students and bridge their literacy gaps?

The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) developed new science standards in 2014 that are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education. These new standards require students to develop and use models, obtain and use information, analyze and interpret data, and construct scientific arguments. SCDE also expects students to use reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills throughout their scientific processes. Meeting these requirements can be difficult for students who struggle with reading and writing. They also challenge teachers to bridge the learning gap and develop students’ abilities to successfully use these higher-order literacy skills.

Scaffolding Learning

AMLE talks to Theressa Varner about Bridging the Literacy Gap in Science

Students are expected not only to be immersed in authentic science investigations, but also to effectively communicate what they learned during those investigations using observable and measurable information and accurate science terminology. With that in mind, I combined several tried and true, research-supported strategies to scaffold my students’ learning and bridge their literacy gaps.

Students use a number of strategies to learn science vocabulary and concepts.

Prior to doing an investigation, students learn key vocabulary terms in order to communicate their findings. They use graphic organizers to compare and contrast concepts, and they engage in argument writing using evidence to support their claims.

According to Nicole Stants in her 2013 NSTA Science Scope article, “Parts Cards: Using Morphemes to Teach Science Vocabulary,” teachers can use morphemes—prefixes, suffixes, and root words—to help students learn vocabulary. So, we break down words into these basic components. When students become familiar with common morphemes, they can use that knowledge to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Figure 1. Modified Frayer Model for Science Stems

Each week, I also present four new science stems that are associated with our current vocabulary terms. The scholars keep a master list of the stems in the front of their science journal; an entry includes the stem, its definition, the concept that it is related to, and a vocabulary term. They also keep an index card book that includes modified Frayer models for each stem (see Figure 1) that they’ve constructed.

Another learning strategy is graphic organizers. Students use them to organize notes, classify or categorize information, or compare and contrast concepts. Some graphic organizers also require the students to draw visual models of concepts. BrainPOP ( is a great source for a variety of activities that reinforce science concepts.

Following the 5E Model

All of the lessons follow the 5E Model of Instruction: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and elaborate. We begin with an engagement activity such as a video or question related to the content being taught, then follow up with an exploration activity. If the engagement or exploration involves text, I use a variety of strategies to help bridge the literacy gap.

For example, sometimes I think aloud while reading the text and have the students follow along. I may divide the text among the students and have them do a jigsaw activity. Each group of students reads and annotates the text using annotation marks that have been standardized and used school-wide. Then, each group presents what they have learned to the rest of the class. As the other groups are “teaching” the rest of the class, students are writing information in their journals.

When the students have completed their presentations, I provide direct instruction related to the text, followed by a check for understanding, such as exit slips or a quick write. Quick writes may require students to answer a question, write a summary, complete a Venn diagram, or write a question of their own.

Next, the students engage in an authentic lab experience or performance assessment. For example, when studying acids and bases, the students participate in an investigation using indicators to identify solutions. They then demonstrate a neutralization reaction between an acid and a base. The students record their observations and write an explanation of what happened when the acid and base were combined.

Writing a descriptive explanation is the most difficult part of a lab experience for my students. I have been working with them on writing from the third-person point of view.

Some educators make the argument for using the first-person in argumentative writing because they believe texts using “I” can be just as well-supported as those that don’t. However, my students struggle with starting every sentence with “I think.” If they take themselves out of the experience, they are forced to think more critically and objectively about what they want to communicate. I also encourage them to avoid the use of pronouns wherever possible and to write technically using proper science terminology.

Finally, to reinforce the concept, students write an argument based on a real-world scenario. They copy the scenario into their notebook and create a graphic organizer. I provide them with sticky notes on which they write down the evidence to show what happens when an acid and base are combined. All the students place their “evidence” sticky notes in a designated area on the board, and we group them with other similar responses. As a class, we review all of the responses and determine what evidence we want to use.

Step two requires students to repeat the process by writing an inference as to how the scenario could be solved based on the evidence we chose to use. The final step requires them to make a claim by combining their evidence and inference. We review all of the responses as a class.

After the group activity is completed, the students work independently to construct an explanation that solves the scenario. Again, students are required to write in the third person using technical vocabulary.

Bridging the Gap

It is still too early to tell what effect these strategies will have on bridging the literacy gap and helping all my students learn science concepts, but I am confident they will make gains. The strategy extends and expands their scientific reasoning and motivates and focuses their learning, helping all scholars bridge the learning gap.