Literacy in the Context of NGSS: Where to Begin?

While conducting a recent NSTA webinar on NGSS and the Common Core for Literacy in Science, I posed the question: “As a science teacher, which of the literacy standards do you feel least confident to address in your own classroom—the reading, writing, or speaking & listening standards?" Audience members voted electronically; the system tallied responses.

In preparing for the webinar, I had predicted how they would respond.

I predicted wrong.

The majority of teachers indicated that they felt least prepared to address the speaking and listening standards in the ELA Common Core. (I had expected the CCSS and NGSS demands around writing to be the popular response).

A variety of reasons might explain why teachers feel least prepared to address speaking and listening. Most teachers have attended reading-themed inservices, or have experienced Sustained Silent Reading initiatives. Many have participated in district-wide Writing Across the Curriculum movements. Many grew up with textbooks as dominant, and even when using textbooks as a supplemental resource, most lessons require some textbook reading, with end-of-chapter questions serving as one form of writing.

Inservices do not typically address oral discourse, despite the critical role that speaking and listening play in learning.  Activate Learning’s curricula support teachers in creating an oral-language rich environment with lesson design based on literacy-learning research. Students learn best when they can do science, read about science, hear science talked about, and talk about their own ideas. When multiple channels in the brain are accessed and activated, opportunities to learn improve. Our students make predictions, engage in investigations, offer observations, experience “Aha!” moments, collect and share data, analyze and interpret data, talk to make sense of observations, explain how or why things happen, and argue from evidence. To support all learners, multiple types of interaction are necessary, thus our curricula integrate all aspects of literacy as students learn science content and engage in scientific practices.

But, generalizations about what helps all students must necessarily be elaborated with attention to those forms of interaction that are imperative for some students. To underestimate the value of oral language is to lessen many students’ opportunities to learn. Students who struggle with reading or writing, students for whom English is a second language, and many students with learning disabilities need to talk about their ideas before they write about them. Most comprehend text better if they first hear related ideas talked about. Many need to hear talk as a way to assess their own understanding. Everyone is helped by oral language; some students cannot learn without it.

Activate Learning lessons guide teachers as to when to have students write first and then share, enabling them to commit ideas to paper as an initial rehearsal; and share orally as a second step in building understanding. Sometimes, the reverse is more effective: First explaining ideas orally, and then writing, after having already rehearsed the thinking. Every teacher has heard students talk fluently, but then struggle to express a coherent written thought. The more opportunities students have to read, write, talk, and listen, the more likely they are to be able to express their understanding adequately.

Whole-class discussion, in which students listen to one another and participate only when they can build on what someone else has said, makes for supremely effective interaction. Sample questions and prompts in each Teacher Edition (TE) support teachers in facilitating rich discussion. Possible student responses help teachers navigate interactions in which actual student responses often take us by surprise! When learning together as a community is prioritized, the teacher poses a question like, “Why do you think…?” and after a first student responds, others join the discussion using language such as: “I agree with you, because …” or “I disagree, because in our group …” or “I had something similar, except . . . .” Students can begin discussion by asking their own questions, or can push discussion by asking one another, “How did you get that?” or “Where did you see that?” In professional development, we model and practice scenarios that maximize discussion opportunities for everyone.

It’s a joyous moment when such interaction happens, and a teacher no longer must struggle to coax responses from students, or face the problem of only 1 or 2 students who speak while others remain silent.

This type of classroom culture requires effort. And patience. But the payoff is tremendous.

Students become better listeners, better writers, and better readers in an oral-language rich environment. As a benefit, when students effectively talk science, teachers can formatively assess understanding in a manner that doesn’t require a paper to grade—it requires only listening to know where students are, what they are thinking, how they are reasoning, and where something isn’t clicking.

Where to begin teaching literacy in the context of NGSS? Begin with extensive use of oral language. All aspects of literacy improve when the starting point is talking science in a discussion-intensive, language-rich, vibrant environment. Our materials support teachers in facilitating rich discussion and creating a classroom culture in which the expectation is that everyone participates and everyone learns.

LeeAnn Sutherland, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer