Using literacy to engage students in the science classroom

25 MARCH 2015
Science Teachers Association of Victoria (STAV) Vice President Joanna Alexander takes a look at the problem of student focus in the classroom and how literacy plays an important factor.


I am concerned about the increasing trend of disengaged science students from an early age. By the time they have reached the first few years of secondary school, it’s quite apparent that they have ‘switched off’ in their science classes resulting in low levels of motivation and engagement as well as a low uptake of science subjects in the later years of schooling.

A report commissioned by the Federal Education Department (2011) and conducted by The Australian Academy of Science revealed that secondary students in Australia were abandoning science subjects prompting the chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb to say, “we should be alarmed at these declining trends.” These declines are supported by a recent ACER report that analysed the participation levels, as a percentage of the Year 12 cohort in Australia from 1976 to 2007, which showed that for biology the participation has declined from 55% to 35%; for chemistry from 29% to 18% and for physics from 27% to 15% (Ainley, Kos & Nicholas, 2008).

We need to consider why science is taught in our schools and the importance of developing scientifically literate students who have a willingness to engage in local and global science-related issues as reflective citizens (OECD, 2009, p14). “Students, have the right to a science education that enables them to feel confident and able to deal with the scientific issues that impact on their lives” (Goodrum, Hackling & Rennie, 2001).


"...we need to cultivate a love of reading in our science classrooms so that our students develop into confident learners..."


Our challenge as science teachers is to improve student motivation and engagement within our classrooms to enable our students to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions (Ebbers, 2002). For this to occur, we need to cultivate a love of reading in our science classrooms so that our students develop into confident learners both within and beyond the classroom by ensuring that students have opportunities to access a range of scientific texts.

The importance of reading for pleasure is linked to positive effects on personal, intellectual and educational wellbeing from childhood to old age (Manuel, 2012). The OECD has also suggested a strong correlation between the quantity and quality of students reading for pleasure and its relationship to achievement in reading (Manuel, 2012).

There is a weight of evidence that supports the premise that “motivation leads to engagement and thus should be our starting point” (Irvin, Meltzer & Dukes, 2007). Motivation in reading is defined as the group of personal goals, values and beliefs with regard to the topics, processes and outcomes of reading that an individual possesses (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Moreover, reading engagement and motivation contribute to achievement in reading which is supported by the PISA comparisons for reading engagement that predicted reaching achievement of reading comprehension in all countries (Guthrie, 2008).

One of the obstacles to developing a love of reading and a contributor to student disengagement from reading, identified by the research, is the nature of the science texts. Manuel (2012) succinctly states, “The focus in primary school is on learning to read while in secondary school it’s on reading to learn.” With this in mind, we need to consider what secondary science students have to deal with in relation to expository texts that are dense, and full of new and difficult vocabulary and concepts.

Guthrie (2008) refers to a survey he conducted with Year 12 students in the USA where students reported, “in science and history they rarely read books other than the textbook, seldom collaborate with other students to interpret books, and infrequently choose a text, book or a reading selection for schoolwork.” The use of these adverbs in the passage above is powerful and underscores the problem. Furthermore, he suggests that the material in textbooks is mainly accessed by the advanced reader but beyond the reach of low literacy readers. This is disturbing but unfortunately the overreliance on science textbooks to convey scientific knowledge is the norm in most science classes.


"The elephant in the room for some students is their low levels of literacy and this is a major inhibitor to achieving success in reading."


Guthrie and Knowles (2001) propose the availability of a variety of texts to promote motivation to read. While Ebbers (2002) recommends a science text sets approach as a toolbox within the science classroom to encourage the development of scientific literacy and inquiry. The science text sets consists of nonfiction genre such as: reference books, explanation books, field guides, how to books, narrative expository books, biographies and journals. This interesting approach of exposing science students to a range of nonfiction texts during the study of a big idea or topic, such as sound or electricity provides students with an opportunity to become engaged with reading levels. This differentiated reading strategy is supported by a large body of evidence including Manuel (2012); Irvin (2007) and Guthrie (2008). Ebbers uses a nonfiction genre approach but we shouldn’t close the door to power of fiction within our science classrooms. Czerneda (2006) suggests that good science fiction is all encompassing and includes “story, science, and speculation all wrapped up in a package custom-made for improving literacy and critical-thinking skills – it does not get more convenient.” She goes further and argues that the components of literacy such as “the communicating of ideas, vocabulary, language structure, reading, and writing to elicit comprehension, as well as critical thinking” are all present in science fiction. Science fiction can provide the vehicle for improving student motivation so it needs to be seriously considered within the mix of other texts.

The elephant in the room for some students is their low levels of literacy and this is a major inhibitor to achieving success in reading. Since reading is a key factor in both school and beyond school success, motivating and engaging low achievers is crucial (Guthrie, 2008). Low level achievers have to grapple with complex language and concepts in subjects like science, which makes it even more difficult to engage with the text material. Guthrie (2008) identifies three types of struggling readers: the resistor, the extrinsically motivated and the lowest achiever. For those students who are resistant to reading and extrinsically motivated, we can adopt a differentiated approach that will tap into a student’s interests and reading ability levels as well as providing time within the classroom for collaboration. This collaboration will involve getting students to interact with the text and to share their experience with other students and thus stimulating discussion and questioning around the text (Irvin, et al, 2007). Research suggests that it is important to foster intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation if we are to develop sustainable engagement and deeper learning (Guthrie & Knowles, 2001; Wigfield, 2004). For those students with a very low level of literacy, other intervention strategies that acknowledge them as struggling comprehenders need to be incorporated (Snow, 2010). Snow suggests that the text, the reader and the task within a sociocultural context determine reading comprehension. For the struggling reader who has learning difficulties and the student identified as EAL (formerly ESL, English as a Second Language), customised intervention programs will need to be adopted such as the intensive reading recovery program and the EAL Australian Curriculum program.


Our secondary school science programs need to embrace the use of a range of texts both nonfiction and fiction [to] provide students with opportunities to collaboratively share and explore the big ideas in these texts with other students."


Implications for future text selection in the school’s secondary science program involved the introduction of a radically new approach to the role of reading within the classroom. Five areas will be the focus of an action plan to improve motivation and engagement in science classes through the love of reading:

Focus area 1: Know your students The third Principle of Learning and Teaching POLT 3 ‘Students’ needs, backgrounds, perspectives and interests are reflected in the learning program’ underpin the new approach.

Teachers will need to use pre and post testing, NAPLAN results, past student reports together with surveys, students and parent feedback within the professional learning team process to plan, implement and review strategies to improve motivation and engagement in science. These strategies will include: providing reading material that caters for a student’s reading abilities (advanced, average or below), acknowledging their cultural background such as: including discussions around the historical importance of Islam within the field of science, the contribution of ancient Greeks and the existence of indigenous astronomy. In addition, the reading material should reflect student interests. This approach will assist in developing intrinsic motivation for reading in science.

Focus area 2: Incorporate a differentiated text approach The text selection practices for “improving motivation and engagement in science classes” could be modified for greater student inclusiveness by moving away from our reliance on the science textbook as a primary text source for students and moving away from the linguistic text. A typical Year 8 student uses and is exposed to a range of texts and this should also be reflected in their science classroom experience. Science teachers need to adopt a differentiated text approach that incorporates a range of nonfiction texts and fictional texts to improve student motivation and support the learning. They need to be assisted with extensive professional development that builds their confidence and capacity to use animation, graphical representations and other “multimodal texts-that are composed by way of multiple modes of expression and representation (e.g. image, sound, writing; texture spatiality, form)” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2004).

Focus area 3: Provide students with choice Manuel (2012) laments that teacher selected reading materials are mostly reflected in the curriculum while students’ interests are ignored and suggests that student choice is a critical factor in ongoing reading achievement. We need to acknowledge and respond to an adolescent’s need for choice and autonomy within the classroom environment, as this will empower them to take ownership of their learning. By ensuring that the science program provides students with the opportunity to select their reading material and topics, over time students’ engagement and achievement will improve (Irvin, et al, 2007). Guthrie (2008) supports this assertion and goes further by suggesting, “student motivation for deep reading is liking to develop when teachers combine self-direction into lessons.”

Focus area 4: Provide opportunities for students to collaborate and share reading experiences We need to acknowledge how students learn. Vygotsky (1962) described learning as occurring in a social context where a child’s development of specific knowledge represents the shared knowledge of a particular culture and he also introduced the notion of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) that can be characterised as “the distance between what a child can do by themselves and what they can do with the assistance or collaboration of others such as more capable peers or under adult guidance.”

By recognising that learning is a social experience, we need to ensure that students have regular opportunities within the science curriculum to interact with the text and with other students about text in order to stimulate questioning and discussions. This teaching strategy improves student motivation and results in better student outcomes (Meltzer, 2002; Hamann, 2004).

The use of literature circles at the start (or end) of a topic (eg atomic structure) will provide students with an opportunity to collaboratively share their enthusiasm, generate questions and make connections to prior knowledge about the text (chapter in the textbook, animation, biography) (Daniels, 2002).

Focus area 5: Literacy needs to be explicitly stated as a priority in the School’s strategic plan The School’s Strategic Plan is an important document that outlines its strategic intent through its values, goals, priorities and key improvement strategies. All decisions within a school are referenced back to the Strategic Plan and thus “a whole school approach to literacy” will provide the impetus for improving reading.

The role of reading in the secondary science classroom cannot be overstated. Recently, a group of Noble Prize winners were speaking in the USA at an annual science teachers association conference and they all attested to the importance of reading and writing in the development of scientific literacy. Our secondary school science programs need to embrace the use of a range of texts both nonfiction and fiction as well as provide students with opportunities to collaboratively share and explore the big ideas in these texts with other students. I am confident that this approach will go a long way towards improving student motivation and engagement in the secondary science classroom.

Ainley. J., Kos, J., & Nicholas, M. (2008) Participation in Science, Mathematics and Technology in Australian Education. ACER Research Monograph No 63

Czerneda, K. (2006) Incorporating science fiction reading in the science classroom. NSTA newsletter.

Daniels, H. (2002) Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Department of Education Victoria, (2004) The principles of learning and teaching.

Ebbers, M., (2002) Science Inquiry and Science Literacy. Language Arts, Vol.80 No.1. National Council of Teachers of English.

Goodrum, D., Hackling, M., & Rennie, L. (2001) The status and quality of teaching and learning of science in Australian schools: A research report. Canberra: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Guthrie, J.T., & Wigfield, A. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. In M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research: Volume III (pp. 403-422). New York: Erlbaum.

Guthrie, J.T., & Knowles, K.T., (2001). Promoting reading motivation. In L. Verhoeven & C.E. Snow (Eds.), Literacy and motivation: reading engagement in individuals and groups (pp. 159-176). Mahwah, NJ: LEA.

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A., Barbosa, P., Perencevich, K.C., Taboada, A., Davis, M.H., Safiddi, N.T., $ Tons, S. (2004). Increasing reading comprehension and engagement through concept-orientated reading instruction, Journal for Education Psychology, 96, 403-423.

Guthrie, John T. (Ed), (2008) Engaging adolescents in reading. (pp. 1-16). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Corwin Press, xviii, 185pp.

Irvin, J.L., Meltzer, J., & Dukes, M.S. (2007) Taking action on adolescent literacy. An implementation guide for school leaders. ASCD.

Kotter, J.P. (2007) Leading Change. Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2004) Text related roles of the digitally at home. American Education Research Association Annual Meeting, San Diego.

Manuel, J. (2012) Teenagers and Reading: Factors that shape the quality of teenangers’ reading lives. English in Australia Vol.47 No.2. University of Sydney.

Meltzer, J. (2002). Adolescent literacy resources: Linking research and practice. Providence, RI: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University.

Meltzer, J., & Hamann, E. (2004) Meeting the needs of adolescent English language learners for literacy development and content area learning, part 1: focus on motivation and engagement. Providence, RI: The Education Alliance at Brown University.

OECD 2009 p14. Program for International Student Assessment PISA 2009 assessment of students’ reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.

Snow, C.E. (2010) Reading comprehension: reading for leaning. Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge MA, USA.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press & Wiley.

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michelle - 23/04/2015
I could not agree more. Using fiction, and alternative non-fiction sources to supplement traditional text books in science engages students. It is a rare student that reads a textbook for enjoyment, especially as a set number of pages are often set as "h