Science or literacy instruction? You don’t have to choose!

Scientists need literacy skills to do their jobs. Read on to find out how teachers can bring those skills into the science classroom.

By Amplify Staff | April 28, 2022

science or literacy instruction two elementary students read a book together in science class

We often think of literacy and science as academic opposites. (“Physics for Poets,” anyone?)

But scientists can’t do their jobs without reading, writing, listening, and communicating. 

That’s why thoughtful science instruction is literacy-rich science instruction.

Language and literacy in science education: why it makes sense

All scientists use literacy skills in order to obtain, evaluate, and communicate information about the natural world. They use oral and written explanations and arguments to share their ideas. Scientists rely on claims, evidence, and reasoning—just like anyone who needs to communicate or convince.

“Science needs literacy, and literacy needs content. So these two subjects are a natural fit,” says Rebecca Abbott, professional learning lead for the Learning Design Group at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

They’re a natural fit—and when they converge, they enhance each other. 

Science and literacy integration helps students:

  • Understand that reading and communicating are crucial to science.
  • Develop ways of thinking that support the scientific approach. 
  • Refine sense-making skills that are key to both disciplines.
  • Find a great reason to read—that is, to keep up with the latest scientific studies and discoveries!

Look ahead at the standards that guide instruction in grades 6–8. You’ll see that in several ways and places, literacy and science are integrated. That is, certain Common Core ELA standards intersect with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

To cite just a few examples, the Common Core requires students to be able to:

  • Cite text evidence to support analysis of science/technical texts. (RST6-8.1)
  • Follow a multistep procedure. (as in an experiment) (RST6-8.3)
  • Integrate quantitative information expressed both in words and visually. (RST6-8.7)

But we can start earlier than that. And we should. So what about science and literacy in the elementary classroom? Grades K–5 provide the opportunity to lay the groundwork for those skills—even for teachers not fully grounded in science instruction. 

Integrating literacy and science: Challenges and solutions

How to integrate science and literacy? 

Abbott acknowledges that science and literacy integration can seem challenging for educators. She notes that many elementary schools understandably prioritize ELA and require substantial literacy blocks. The common mindset: “If I teach literacy, I don’t have much time for science.” 

The solution? A mindset shift from “either/or” to “both/and.” 

What does that look like? Well, what if we were simply to combine literacy and science? What if, for example, we dedicate some of those literacy blocks to reading science-related texts? 

Unfortunately, that approach—while a fine activity—doesn’t meet the larger goals. It’s incidental, so it doesn’t get students engaged in deep knowledge- and vocabulary-building over time. And it doesn’t get students deeply involved in figuring out a scientific phenomenon. 

A “both/and” approach doesn’t just connect science and literacy—it prioritizes them both at the same time, so that they reinforce each other. 

A literacy-rich science classroom 

In an ideal scenario, a school or system could make a top-down change so that literacy is infused into subjects across the school day.

But there are other ways to “use literacy in the service of science,” says Abbott. For example, students in an elementary science classroom could explore why it’s daytime where they are but night somewhere else. As they build explanations, they can consider the word “because” and its relationship to the concept of cause and effect. 

Similarly, elementary students can learn new vocabulary in service of scientific concepts. In this video, you’ll see kids using Amplify Science learn the word “disperse” as they learn how seeds travel.

And all along, they’re communicating, using evidence-based argumentation, and building background knowledge through text. 

For the teacher, it’s less about delivering scientific information and more about helping students use and develop literacy skills to figure science out. 

Amplify Science is designed to deliver exactly that experience. Read this brochure to find out more about literacy-rich science instruction.

Literacy classroom Next generation science standards NGSS Science classroom

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