Reading ScienceReading the OGT
Why do our students often say,
"I didn't understand what the question was asking"?
What does research say about becoming better readers of science?
When preparing ourselves or our students to read science print material, there are some strategies we can use to ensure comprehension and deep understanding. Based on his research in reading and writing, including participation in the "What Works Report" Panel (1999), Timothy Shanahan has found that three of the most important areas for effective reading are fluency (the ability to read text rapidly and accurately), vocabulary (the ability to attach an accurate meaning to words and symbols), and comprehension (active reading where readers interact with the text, create questions, and build and monitor their own understanding).
Fluency involves the basic skill of pronouncing words correctly (or "recognizing" the correct pronunciation, if reading silently) and reading with expression and feeling (silently or aloud). Comprehension is about understanding what we readand is really why we read. And vocabulary acquisition involves learning what words and symbols mean in context. When we look at these three areas of readingfluency, comprehension, and vocabularyit seems reasonable to focus on vocabulary as a key to reading success in all areas. If we don't know the language, we won't read fluently, nor will we comprehend what we read.
This seems especially important as students read and answer questions on the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). Students are expected to respond to assessment items based on given information and/or previous learning. They are to recall, interpret, explain, describe, analyze, and such. But if students do not recognize or understand the vocabulary in the given assessment item, and perhaps didn't really get it in their classroom studies, answering OGT items correctly will be difficult, if not impossible.
What will help?
We teachers can develop and implement an in-class focus on the meaning, context, and connections that science vocabulary has in the overall understanding of science concepts. We need to use the appropriate words in classroom discussions, provide instruction in and insist upon correct vocabulary in writing, encourage classroom discussions where science terms are used appropriately, provide opportunities for students to ask questions and seek answers, and give students a variety of vocabulary-rich materials for reading about the science to be learned.
But how can we focus on vocabulary for reading and science?
Based on her research in vocabulary acquisition and effective reading, Rosemarye Taylor (2007) recommends that while reading, students should visualize the information, and afterward summarize what they have read. She also recommends that before actually having students read assigned materials, we should focus on the related vocabulary. She does not recommend a list of words to define, but rather a sequence of experiences for students where teachers would introduce, use, and develop understandings of essential terms by having the students (in this order) listen, view, think, use symbol systems, speak, and then read and write about the learning.
This could start with listening to someone read aloud or listening to conversations about the reading content, including frequent exposure to the vocabulary used in assigned reading material. One way to engage students in listening is through teacher-led read-alouds. In a read-aloud, the teacher reads content material to the class, but frequently interjects (aloud) her thoughts and questions about what she is reading. ("Hmmm. I wonder what the symbol Hg stands for . . . What would Hg react with? . . . Where have I seen a reaction like that before? . . .") This thinking out loud continues throughout the reading of the passage, helping students to listen and think through their own questions as they later read new science materials.
Experience tells us that it is also helpful for students to view resources such as pictures, graphs and charts, and possibly graphic organizers. During these experiences, students should have time to think, talk, and ask questions among themselves and with the teacher about what they are viewing and hearing.
Must I teach reading? I'm a science teacher!
It is important for teachers and students to realize that science textbooks and related materials are packed not only with words (vocabulary text), but with abundant symbols that are somewhat unique to science. My own classroom surveys of students' reading practices reveal that many students skip over these symbolic representationsincluding chemical element symbols and equations, electric and magnetic field representations, and DNA illustrations, just to name a few. It is imperative that students "read" these science symbols and representations, as well as the paragraph text, in order to fully understand the concepts. It is difficult for me to imagine how I would ever be able to explain the structure of DNA without having the visual image of that structure in mind and a labeled representation (drawing) of it for the students to view. These representations are integral parts of science "reading," and students need to be aware of the value of such features.
About vocabulary, reading, and learning
The average U.S. high school graduate knows 45,00050,000 words (not including proper names, numbers, foreign words, and other such terms).
12th graders in the top of their class know 4 times as many words as their lower-performing peers.
High performing 3rd graders know as many words as the lower-performing 12th graders.
Finally, following the vocabulary acquisition experiences mentioned above, Taylor concludes that students should be ready to readwith understandingthe science textbook and related materials and write about what they know. Traditionally, reading and writing assignments have been approached from almost the opposite direction. The students have been assigned the reading and questions to answer (often as homework), followed by an in-class teacher-led overviewor an out-and-out mini-lecture telling them what they read and should have written. The learning advantage to the strategy of listen > view > think > use symbols > speak > read > write would clearly appear to be that the student would have a grasp of the vocabulary, the symbol and visual representations, the content connections, and real-world applications before they read and write. Then when they do read science text and questions, they have the tools to grasp meaning, summarize, and draw on background knowledge as they build conceptual understanding and construct answers to assigned questions or assessment items.
How do the testing and achievement gaps connect to the vocabulary gap?
Students often leave questions unanswered in classroom and state tests, and the reason most often given is that they did not understand what the question meant or what it was asking. Just a word or two that may not be clear can create sufficient confusion to cause the student to avoid the question.
As science teachers, we know we can't be sure that every student understands all of the key vocabulary in our science standards. But we can have students frequently hearing, talking, actively experiencing, reading, and writing these terms in context, thereby building a strong framework of understanding of the vocabulary that supports basic concepts to be learned.
Supports for Effective Reading
In turning our attention to essential vocabulary in high school science, we need to address these questions: What are essential scientific vocabulary terms, and how do we present them so that students are familiar with these important words, understand their meanings, and know how to use them? It is important to design instruction so that learning the new vocabulary seems "doable."
To help students become comfortable with important science vocabulary, it is beneficial to:
- Use appropriate spoken vocabulary. Use standards-based science terms in instruction and class discussions. The content-specific vocabulary used in the Ohio Science Academic Standards (Ohio Department of Education, 2003) was chosen by the writers of the standards to convey clear and accurate information. In everyday usage, there are often several terms fitting one definition. Some examples are (with the standards-based term in bold) dirt/soil, spinning/rotating, feature/trait, heat/thermal energy, surroundings/environment, living thing/organism, children/offspring. It is helpful for students to hear and speak the standards-based vocabulary often, so that they can read, write, and understand those words and phrases in many situations, including on the Ohio Graduation Test.
- Incorporate content-specific reading resources. Encourage the use of a variety of reading materials, including textbooks, web-based information, journals, instructions for projects, laboratory experience, magazines, newspapers, and miscellaneous books, so that students encounter appropriate vocabulary from various authors and in many different scenarios.
- Develop student-made vocabulary guides. As new vocabulary is encountered in science class, students can create a guidea list of important new words with explanationsto add to and keep in their notebooks. The words should be spelled correctly and explained in the student's own words, with the teacher monitoring to assure accurate meanings are recorded. It is important that this become a personally meaningful and accurate reference for students as they encounter related reading and writing opportunities. It is often more valuable to the student than a classroom word wall because it is always available to the student for reference, it is in the student's own words, and the explanation can include original illustrations (nonlinguistic representations). However, teachers have suggested that samples of these student-created word explanations can also be used effectively to build an actual word wall to add student ownership and classroom interest.
- Require student writing on tests. Many types of assessments, including the OGT, require that students construct written responses. Once they understand the assessment item, they must be able to use the appropriate vocabulary to respond completely and correctly. This is one of the most difficult assessment tasks for studentsand where they frequently lose points on their total score. To be successful, students must practice, practice, practice expressing themselves in writing that is clear, complete, and logical and that correctly uses appropriate vocabulary (includingwhere usefulwell-drawn and labeled illustrations, graphs, diagrams, etc.). This skill is needed not only on the OGT, but in many situations in school, careers, and life.
- Provide a variety of student writing opportunities. Other types of student writing, besides OGT-like assessments, that help reinforce the correct use of science vocabulary include class notes, lab notes and reports, research papers, outlines of reading materials, web quests, web-based science student blogs, project development and presentations, and interviews. Also useful in writing activities is the inclusion of a variety of ways to communicate specific scientific detail in the form of drawings, charts, tables, maps, graphic organizers, nonword symbols (such as numbers, English and Greek letter representations, mathematical equations, chemical equations and formulas, vector diagrams, scale drawings, and molecular structure representations; see the following example). Research (Reeves, 2002; Taylor & Collins, 2003) indicates that these kinds of writing experiences can also greatly strengthen students' reading skills and overall content comprehension.
Example of an Assessment Item and the Student Response Using Both Text (Words) and Illustrations
Student's correct response:
- Sodium has an atomic number of 11 and a mass number of 23.
- Identify the types of subatomic particles located in the nucleus of a sodium atom. Compare the properties of each type of particle.
- Where is most of a sodium atom's mass located? Explain your answer.
- Identify the subatomic particles that are found in the energy levels outside the nucleus of a sodium atom. Describe the number and arrangement of these particles.
- Explain the role of electrons in a chemical reaction between atoms of two different elements.
The above assessment item and sample student response accessed online at Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System 2006 MCAS High School Chemistry, http://www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/.
Science Vocabulary in the Ohio Science Standards, Grades 9 and 10
Figure 1 and Figure 2 show essential vocabulary and phrases found within the Ohio Science Standards for grades 9 and 10 (respectively). Some of these terms and phrases may be familiar to ninth and tenth graders from earlier learning experiences, but in order to fully understand the concepts within these standards, each student should develop the ability to effectively read, write, and participate in discussions using these terms. Teachers should use and emphasize the standards-based terms often during instruction, in assessing student progress, in monitoring student work, and in producing explanatory materials. Students learn by hearing and seeing the terms, as well by using the vocabulary terms themselves. Little is learned by writing or studying out-of-context lists of word "definitions" prepared, for example, by the teacher or textbook authors.
Reading, Analyzing, and Answering OGT-Like Items
It is important to integrate OGT-like items as part of regular instruction. It is also important to provide students with strategies for answering these questions. Providing students with strategies for responding to constructed-response and multiple-choice items helps them focus on the important aspects of the question; e.g., what is the question asking, how can I represent what I know in response to the question, and what level of detail is required to completely answer the question. These strategies help students organize their thoughts, and regular practice will help them become comfortable with OGT-like questions.
Using POW to Answer Constructed-Response Items
This simple graphic organizer helps students analyze the question, organize what they know, and then create a response.
|P||robing (into details by carefully reading the assessment item)|
|O||rganizing (what you know)|
|W||riting (correct & complete responses)|
PROBING by reading the assessment item
What is the item telling me to do?
Number of score points to earn:
To earn the maximum score points, I must specifically respond to:
ORGANIZING quick notes
This is what I know about this topic and should include in my response:
WRITING my response
This is my actual response to the assessment item. (May include sentences and/or accurately constructed and appropriately labeled graphs, charts, drawings, etc.)
OGT Example Using the POW Organizer
The following released item is from the 2007 OGT:
- A study is planned to investigate the potential environmental impact of storing animal wastes in large, open lagoons on commercially owned farms. These lagoons sometimes rupture or overflow, spilling their contents into lakes and waterways.
Identify one negative consequence of increased animal waste in lakes and waterways and describe how the increased animal waste results in this consequence.
Then identify a second negative consequence of increased animal waste in lakes and waterways and describe how the increased animal waste results in this consequence. Respond in the space provided in your Answer Document. (4 points)
PROBING by reading the assessment item
What is the item telling me to do?
Identify , Describe, Identify, Describe
Number of score points to earn:
To earn the maximum score points, I must specifically respond to:
- Identify a negative consequence of increased animal wastes in lakes & waterways.
- Describe how this results in this consequence.
- Identify an additional negative consequence.
- Describe how this one results in the consequence.
ORGANIZING quick notes
This is what I know about this topic and should include in my response:
- water unsafe to drink
- germs make wild animals and humans sick
- waste acts as fertilizer & encourages too much algae growth
- algae decay robs the water of oxygen; fish & things die
WRITING my response
This is my actual response to the assessment item. (May include sentences, and/or accurately constructed and appropriately labeled graphs, charts, drawings, etc.)
- Animal wastes cause the water to be unsafe to drink.
- Wastes contain germs that are likely to make wild animals and humans sick.
- Animal wastes fertilize & encourage too much algae growth.
- The decay of algae robs the water of oxygen, killing fish and other life in the water.
Using VPS to Answer Multiple-Choice Items
This simple approach helps students use the science vocabulary in the question, along with key phrases, to select the best option.
|V||ocabulary (to know) ||________________________________|
|P||hrases (to recognize) ||________________________________|
|S||election (of best answer) ||________________________________|
OGT Example Item, Using the VPS Method
The following released item is from the 2006 Science OGT:
- The picture below shows the four major forces acting on an airplane in flight.
What causes the force indicated by the X?
- air friction
- magnetic force
- force exerted by the engine
Vocabulary: force, gravity, friction, magnetic, exerted, engine
Phrases: What causes...the force...?
Selection: I know that gravity causes a downward pull, so A must be the correct answer.
Is reading in middle and high school different from reading in earlier grade levels?
Almost all the kinds of K5 science reading resources are different from the type of reading required in middle and high school science classes and assessments. Beginning in middle school and continuing through high school, the reading expands to more complex text, plus many more nontext symbols and explanatory illustrations (e.g., multidimensional graphs, charts, and tables; chemical symbols; formulas and equations; physics vector diagrams; electrical circuits; and detailed illustrations of DNA).
Example of Reading Level of Multiple-Choice Question About Electricity at the Fifth-Sixth Grade Levels
Which best describes a parallel circuit?
- Electrical current flows along one pathway.
- The electricity flow all comes from one source.
- Electrical current flows through a single loop.
- Electrical current flows along more than one pathway.
(The correct answer is D.)
Example of Reading Level of Multiple-Choice Question About Electricity at the High School Level
The difference in voltage between two points in space is defined as Δ V = Δ Uelec/q, where Δ Uelec is the change in the electrical energy of a particle with charge q as it moves from the initial point to the final point. The amount of power dissipated (i.e., rate at which energy is transformed by the flow of electricity) is then given by the equation P = I Δ V. Based on this information, which of the following statements is true?
- Voltage is only measurable in a parallel electrical circuit.
- Power dissipation in a circuit is inversely related to the current in the circuit.
- Electrical current involves the motion of particles having a charge of q.
- A moving charged particle cannot have a change in energy.
(The correct answer is C.)
The following three resources about water from the ORC website help to further illustrate the change in science reading difficulty as students move through the elementary years, to middle school, and then through high school.
Mobile Inquiry TechnologyHot and Cold Cups (ORC #6162)
Grades 35. The conceptual and the reading levels in this lesson are generally acceptable for students within grades 35. It is scientifically appropriate and helps build students' conceptual understanding.
Putting the Ice in Hockey (ORC#3542)
Grades 68. This site includes language that is a bit more advanced than in elementary grades, as would be expected in most of our science materials for middle school students. This helps to continually increase student vocabulary acquisition and depth of conceptual understanding.
Hydrology Investigation (ORC #1033)
Grades 912. The concepts, vocabulary, and investigative approach are still more complex within this high school activity than would be generally expected at the lower grade levels. Our students' vocabulary acquisition, along with reading, writing, and investigative and assessment abilities, must grow with the students and be at an advanced skill level by the time they reach high school and the required high-stakes testing, such as the OGT.
These next resources from ORC provide additional information and teaching strategies to help strengthen students' science learning and reading skills:
High School Reading Assessments (ORC #9921)
Grades 912. Adolescent readers are often expected to read texts in their content classes that are too difficult for them. A series of one-minute probes, developed by Tim Rasinski at Kent State University, were drawn from high school-level content textbooks. By administering a simple and efficient 1-minute fluency probe, content teachers can determine which of their students are simply unable to read grade-level texts. The use of these assessments provides reliable data about high school students' reading ability. Links to reading passages and directions for administration are available at the website.
"You Don't Read a Science Book, You Study It": An Exploration of Cultural Concepts of Reading (ORC #3666)
Grades 912. In an effort to increase our understanding of what immigrants feel about reading, Jim Anderson and Lee Gunderson describe in this article what they have learned from their work with immigrant students and their parents. The authors conducted their research in culturally diverse classrooms in Vancouver, drawing conclusions and implications for the nonimmigrant as well as the immigrant parent population.
A Focus on Vocabulary (ORC #4778)
Grades 39. Of the many compelling reasons for providing students with instruction to build vocabulary, none is more important than the contribution of vocabulary knowledge to reading comprehension. The focus of this professional resource is on vocabulary instruction as a component of reading comprehension.
A Look at the OGT: Considering Science (ORC #8009)
Grades 910. This column describes the science portion of the Ohio Graduation Test, examines some science items, and looks at instructional strategies that can be used to increase student achievement in science. ORC Science Content Specialist Terry Shiverdecker provides a thorough description of the test, including sample problems, and then discusses what students will need to be able to do in order to solve those problems.
Using the History of Science in the Chemistry Classroom (ORC #5643)
Grades 912. This professional resource provides information that makes it easier to bring the history of science into the classroom. This site focuses on chemistry topics likely to be taught in an introductory chemistry or physical science class, including many internal links providing exposure to relevant vocabulary, nonlinguistic representation used in science (symbols, illustrations, etc.), content, and careers, as well as a glimpse of how science terminology (vocabulary) grows through time and new knowledge.
The Allergy Chronicles (ORC # 3577)
Grades 912. This lesson requires students to write a newspaper article on allergies. Students are expected to do some basic background research (reading and understanding the science content) and then present their findings in a clear, easy-to-understand article with the general public as their audience.
Science Teacher Bookshelf
There are no simple answers to the questions we have about the OGT or about how to better prepare students to be scientifically literate citizens. Sometimes simple strategies will help us move closer to our goals. The following books offer information and straight-forward strategies we hope you will find useful.
Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by Robert J. Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock (ASCD, Alexandria, VA, 2001)
"For any educator who hungers after real proof of which teaching strategies raise student achievement and by how much, this K12 guide provides a banquet of research evidence, statistical data, and case studies. Distilling decades of information into a clear plan of action, the authors identify nine categories of instructional strategies that maximize student learning and explain the vital details you need to know about each." (Quote from publisher)
Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (ASCD, Alexandria, VA, 2007)
"If you ever have students who are reluctant to tell you when they don't understand somethingor worse, tell you they understand when they really don'tthen here's a book that gives you lots of ways to check for understanding. Learn why typical methods to check for understanding are usually ineffective. And explore formative assessment techniques that work in any subject area and grade level." (Quote from publisher)
How Students Learn Science in the Classroom by M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford (Eds.), Committee on How People Learn: A Targeted Report for Teachers, National Research Council (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2005)
"Organized for utility, the book explores how the principles of learning can be applied in science at three levels: elementary, middle, and high school. Leading educators explain in detail how they developed successful curricula and teaching approaches, presenting strategies that serve as models for curriculum development and classroom instruction. Their recounting of personal teaching experiences lends strength and warmth to this volume." (Quote from publisher)
Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: 25 Formative Assessment Probes, Volume 1 by Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Lynn Farrin (NSTA Press, Arlington, VA, 2005)
"Before your students can discover accurate science, you need to uncover the preconceptions they already have. This book helps pinpoint what your students know (or think they know) so you can monitor their learning and adjust your teaching accordingly. Loaded with classroom-friendly features you can use immediately, the book is comprised of 25 'probes'brief, easily administered activities designed to determine your students' thinking on 44 core science topics (grouped by light, sound, matter, gravity, heat and temperature, life science, and Earth and space science)." (Quote from publisher)
Teaching Reading in Science. (A Supplement to Teaching Reading in the Content Areas) by Mary Lee Barton and Deborah L. Jordan (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, Aurora, CO, 2001)
"It's hard for students to "do" science when they have difficulty reading science textbooks. But you can improve their abilities to decipher complex readings, learn new vocabulary, and apply what they've read with the guidelines and strategies in this practical guide." (Quote from the ASCD website)
Connecting Informational Children's Books with Content Area Learning by Evelyn B. Freeman and Diane Goetz Person. (Allyn and Bacon, Needham Heights, MA, 1998)
"This book discusses in detail how children's trade books can be used to achieve the national standards in the content areas (math, science, and social studies). Freeman and Person begin with a concise discussion of the national standards and explain how they translate into usable teaching methods. Each of the new standards is discussed with a focus on how they correlate positively with the use of informational children's books. This book is a wonderful guide not only to understanding the standards, but to finding practical, innovative ways of achieving them through the use of informational books." (Quote from publisher)
Improving Reading, Writing and Content Learning for Students in Grades 412 by Rosemarye Taylor (Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2006)
"In contrast to the primary grades when children are learning to read, students in grades 4 through 12 are expected to learn content as they read, yet they may still struggle with reading basics. Improving Reading, Writing, and Content Learning for Students in Grades 412 provides a realistic and systematic process for improving reading and writing while enhancing content knowledge and skills." (Quote from publisher)
Ohio Department of Education. (2003). Ohio Science Academic Standards.
Reeves, D. (2002). Reasons to write Student handbook. New York: Kaplan Publishing.
Shanahan, Timothy. (2008). The personal and social implications of literacy and literacy instruction. http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shanahan.htm, click on Vocabulary, Fluency, Comprehension & Writing.
Taylor, R. (2007). Leading for literacy. http://www.ohiorc.org/orc_documents/orc/prodevelopment/documents/lfl_0207/lfl_compendium.pdf
Taylor, R., & Collins, V. (2003). Literacy leadership for grades 512. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Return to top