Barriers to reading about science for school

A distinguishing feature of the 2010 Common Core State Standards initiative was the increased emphasis on having students read nonfiction books and magazines for school, including reading about science. The name of the standards tells the story: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

An increased emphasis on reading nonfiction reflects the reality that as students enter higher grades they need greater skills and stamina for reading informational text. Reading nonfiction calls for different strategies, vocabularies, and habits than reading fiction. Students need to learn to question the text, and to summarize it for themselves to help them retain information. These skills don’t come automatically, so teachers need to help students become better readers of nonfiction. For understandable reasons the authors of the Common Core believed that the responsibility for teaching students to understand literary nonfiction should be shared by teachers in non-ELA classes, notably in history, social studies, and science classrooms.   

However, the glaring absence of any similar language in the Next Generation Science Standards stands as a significant barrier to achieving the Common Core’s goals for reading nonfiction. Science teachers who are guided by the NGSS are simply not encouraged to assign students to read about science, besides reading a textbook or class handout. This is a missed opportunity. After all, in adult life, reading newspapers, magazines and books becomes a vital way for people to maintain and extend their understanding of current science.

What’s more, we recently became aware of a related barrier: the poor availability of science books and magazines in schools. A questionnaire for the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) asked eighth grade science teachers, “To what extent does your school system (including your school and school district) provide you with science magazines and books (including digital forms, such as online magazines and books)?” Remarkably, 30% of teachers responded “none,” i.e. no science books or magazines, and another 35% of teachers responded “a small extent.” Is it surprising then, that 40% of these eighth grade teachers indicated they never have students read a book or magazine about science?

What about the school library, which also includes encyclopedias and newspapers, in addition to books and magazines? In 2015 45% of grade 8 students reported they never used library resources for science class. Similarly, 54% of grade 12 students reported in 2015 never using library resources for science class.

Is this the reality that developers of the NGSS wanted to encourage? Probably not. Although the standards writers undoubtedly wanted to see students carrying out investigations and discussions, they probably meant to include reading and writing among the ways that students should acquire, evaluate and communicate information. The NGSS ought to be explicit in asking science teachers to promote more reading about science among students.

There are many wonderful nonfiction science books available, as well as fictional narratives with a strong scientific base. Who will assign them if the standards suggest they are unimportant? Indeed, who will even encourage young people to stretch their minds through science reading? Reading about science or even science fiction can elicit a love of science, provide a way to pursue personal interests, and sometimes foster young people’s identification with scientists and engineers. National standards should make these kinds of encounters between students and ideas more, not less, likely to occur.

Penny and Andy

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