Reading and Writing in Science: Tools to Develop Disciplinary Literacy


Maria C. Grant, Douglas Fisher & Diane Lapp

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Copyright


    We dedicate this text to all the wonderful classroom teachers who are attempting to support their students in becoming literate consumers and creators of scientific information.


    Teaching science is exciting. Teachers enjoy using a scientific lens to introduce students to the biological, physical, and social dimensions of the world. Students love to learn about themselves and their world and are often thrilled with lab experiences and other hands-on learning opportunities occurring in the science classroom. Science is an important part of the school day, and most students look forward to it with great anticipation and joy.

    We all love investigations because humans are naturally curious. We want to find things out. We want to understand how things work. We want to experiment and see what happens. Anyone who has ever been around young children knows the hundreds of questions they ask. Their minds are attentive to differences and experiences, and they beg for explanations. Middle and high school science classrooms have the power to keep the curiosity flame burning bright. Of course, some students need their sparks rekindled, and powerful teachers can do just that. The vast majority of students are curious and will engage in learning tasks if they think their questions will be answered.

    As Loewenstein (1994) noted, “Curiosity has been consistently recognized as a critical motive that influences human behavior in both positive and negative ways at all stages of the life cycle” (p. 75). We see science classrooms as one of the most powerful places for ensuring that students positively develop their curiosity. After all, it’s curiosity that spurs invention, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, and creativity. Society has known about the challenge in creating curious citizens for decades. Way back in 1757, Edmund Burke wrote, “Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually; it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always had an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety” (1958, p. 31). And therein lies the challenge. What intrigues one student may not ignite another. What fascinates and motivates a student today may not do so next month. The same could be said for teachers. A very exiting lecture, lab, experiment, field trip, guest speaker, close reading, or whatever, will hold our attention only for a time. We’re fickle, and when our curiosity is satisfied, we move on. That’s why we wrote this book. It’s about keeping it fresh and exciting.

    These are exciting times. We have new standards, the Next Generation Science Standards. We have new ways for thinking about literacy as we learn more about the Common Core State Standards for literacy in science. And we live in a technology-rich world in which students can Google anything they want. All of this has piqued our curiosity and interest, not to mention the wonderful teachers we work with. As a result, we have explored new ways of engaging tweens and teens in scientific thinking and learning.

    Our purpose in writing this book is to share a few ideas with you. If we have done our job well it will ignite your curiosity, and you will pay it forward by figuratively lighting a fire for each of your students. We do get a little melodramatic about this. Boring science classes that lack that spark that we’ve all seen do harm to our society, to all of us. Who knows what new inventions we have missed out on when a student disengages from science? After all, science is everywhere. It’s everything about us, our physical and biological world. And our students deserve to understand that world and contribute to it. How else will they be prepared for jobs we can’t even imagine? Okay, we’ll step off our soapbox and focus on the contents of this book.

    We start in Chapter 1 by exploring the successes and challenges in science education in a global society awash with information. In addition, we explore the nature of the new science standards and how they link with the literacy expectations. In this chapter, we focus on the needs and general ideas that are important as science educators assume increased responsibility for students’ passion about learning.

    In Chapter 2, we turn our attention to the role of language, speaking, and listening. Communication and collaboration are key skills for the 21st century, and our students deserve to learn and practice these skills every day in every class. As described by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, students will need to:

    • Articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral, written, and nonverbal communication skills in a variety of forms and contexts.
    • Listen effectively to decipher meaning, including knowledge, values, attitudes, and intentions.
    • Use communication for a range of purposes (e.g., to inform, instruct, motivate, and persuade).
    • Utilize multiple media and technologies, and know how to judge their effectiveness a priority as well as assess their impact.
    • Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multilingual).
    • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams.
    • Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal.
    • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member.

    That’s a tall order and will take every teacher in a school to accomplish it. But we can’t think of a better place to start than in science. Earth, biological, and physical sciences classrooms are the perfect place for students to develop these skills.

    In the third chapter, we turn our attention to reading. Real scientists read, and they read a lot. They know how to read complex texts, check their own understanding, and use information from the texts they’ve read to make claims and support those claims. And that’s part of what science teachers simply must require of their students. To accomplish this, we focus our attention on read-alouds, shared readings, wide reading, and close readings. These are instructional routines that help students build their knowledge bases. And increasingly sophisticated knowledge bases allow for way more interesting experiments and labs. Reading complex scientific texts also requires that students confront their misconceptions and become adept in analyzing information so that they are less likely to be victims of misinformation.

    Chapter 4 focuses on writing. Not process writing like the English teachers assign, but rather writing based on information and data. We focus on the ways in which students can form an argument and supply evidence for their claims. And we provide a number of instructional routines that help students become better writers. Effective scientists write grants that get funded and get papers with new discoveries published. It’s not that we expect every student in a biology class to become a PhD scientist, but we do expect that every student will learn to analyze data, present that data, and defend it, both orally and in writing.

    We conclude this book with a discussion of assessments. As teachers, we have to regularly assess student learning to make decisions about next steps instruction. The final chapter focuses on a number of ideas about formative assessments, using language, to determine what students know and what they still need to know. After all, we have to know if anything we taught stuck, and if not what we can do about it next time.

    Remember, as the poet Dorothy Parker noted, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” When we create curious students, they thrive in our classrooms. Even Albert Einstein recognized this. As he said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”


    New to This Edition

    While the foundations of our work continue to be rooted in science literacy, we’ve added new elements to this edition. In light of Common Core State Standards for ELA and with the Next Generation Science Standards in mind, we now highlight the intersection of reading, writing, listening and speaking, and language as underpinnings for creating and sharing ideas rooted in science and engineering practices.

    In Chapter 1, we’ve added a look at national and international assessment data in order to establish a basis and a direction for considering needs and growth in both science teaching and learning. We’ve added an in-depth examination of the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) beginning with a look at the core disciplinary ideas for physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and applications of science (ETS). Additionally, we’ve included the science and engineering practices, as a guide for learners to engage in inquiry and discourse for the purpose of fostering creative and critical thinking. We now share the crosscutting concepts—the connections across disciplines that join the core disciplinary ideas to science and engineering as we discuss the intersections with Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA).

    In Chapter 2, we’ve expanded our focus on the use of scientific language to communicate like a scientist. We’ve added to the foundational ideas surrounding the research on disciplinary literacy and now include connections to the CCSS- ELA and NGSS. Instruction that considers the CCSS-ELA speaking and listening standards and the language standards are explored in this edition via classroom scenarios that incorporate best practices as a means to guiding students to acquire and use the language of science.

    New to Chapter 3, we look at the juncture between the CCSS reading anchor standards and the NGSS. We’ve added an emphasis on text complexity as denoted by the CCSS-ELA, including qualitative, quantitative, and reader and task components. This edition also takes you into classrooms where instructors incorporate close reading in a way that guides students in identifying and analyzing text-based evidence to support arguments and investigations.

    In Chapter 4, we’ve added more about writing in science, both from the perspective of a working scientist and from the perspective of scientifically literate, informed citizens. New to this edition is a look at ideas surrounding passive and active phrasing in science writing, and instructional practices that encourage the authorship of well-supported arguments rooted in research from multiple resources.

    Finally, Chapter 5 has a new focus on ways to tie instruction to assessment in a seamless, meaningful fashion. Specifically, there is an emphasis on using formative assessment that supports teachers in making informed decisions about instruction for individuals and for the whole class.

    We’ve changed our approach to sharing science literacy strategies in this edition by welcoming the reader into classrooms where in-depth real-world scenarios provide insights into the art of teaching science. In an intimate way, readers are taken into classrooms to better understand how building science literacy means going deeper with content so that learners can wrestle with ideas as they construct meaning. This edition goes beyond just sharing a strategy and now provides insights into the type of teaching and formative assessment that is needed for students to become scientifically literate.

    Our hope is that this new edition provides you with the tools needed to spur lively, informed conversations about science issues and science topics engage students in rich, deep reading of science content; and guide students toward documenting evidence-based science thinking in the form of writing. It is through these means of instructional practice that students will become informed citizens who can think, communicate, read, and research about science. Our ultimate goal in this edition is to support you in developing a next generation of students who are scientifically literate enough to create a world that tackles global concerns like ocean acidification, world hunger, water shortages, and other science-based issues.

    About the Authors

    Maria C. Grant, EdD, is a Professor in the Department of Secondary Education at California State University Fullerton and a classroom teacher at Health Sciences High & Middle College. She works with both preservice and veteran teachers in the credential and graduate programs. Her work includes research and publications in the area of literacy integration into content areas, with a central focus on science education. In addition to her efforts at the university, Grant’s experience includes over 19 years of teaching in high school science classrooms. She has taught physics, oceanography, coordinated science, chemistry, and earth science. Additionally, she has acted as a leader in curriculum development and professional development at both the school and district levels. Her current efforts include professional development work centered on formative assessment. Maria can be reached at

    Douglas Fisher, PhD, is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University (SDSU) and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. A former board member for the Literacy Research Association and a current board member for the International Reading Association, Doug is also a credentialed English teacher and administrator in California. Doug can be reached at

    Diane Lapp, EdD, is a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Department of Teacher Education at San Diego State University (SDSU). Throughout her career, Diane has also taught in elementary, middle, and high schools. Recently, she has once again had the opportunity to return to the classroom to teach sixth grade English and Earth Science at Health Sciences Middle School (HSMS) in San Diego, where she is also an instructional coach at both the middle school and Health Sciences High and Middle College (HSHMC). Diane’s major areas of research and instruction regard issues related to struggling readers and writers, their families, and their teachers. Currently a coeditor of Voices From the Middle, published by National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Dr. Lapp has authored, coauthored, and edited numerous articles, columns, texts, handbooks, and children’s materials on reading, language arts, and instructional issues. Recently Diane coauthored three texts that relate to the CCSS and multiple related CCSS columns and articles, and has conducted many workshops addressing topics related to the CCSS. Diane is a member of both the California and the International Reading Halls of Fame. She can be reached at For additional information, visit

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