How We Teach Science Reading

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By Dan Griffiths

From the Fall 2010 Caller
Reading science at any level is like reading a foreign language book. Students encounter so much technical language for the first time. They have to translate the jargon, and they have to integrate the language with concepts they’re trying to get the hang of. We constantly and gradually introduce and reinforce terminology. By the junior and senior years, these words and phrases have become a part of students’ vocabulary.
 
We start teaching students how to read science in Science I and II. A lot of the homework is reading comprehension: we ask them to interpret the text and pull out information, which checks understanding and builds skills. There’s a big difference between reading and understanding. You can learn things by rote and regurgitate the information, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use concepts in different contexts accurately.
 
We help students cope with new terms and concepts by having all regular Science I classes meet five days a week, instead of meeting fewer times with more homework. This way there’s always someone available to go over new material in class. We don’t assign huge chunks of homework, because there’s too much in science reading that’s unfamiliar.
 
As in math, it’s hard to find good textbooks, so we use texts as just one of a number of tools available to students. We have to produce a lot of our own materials to supplement the books that are too limited in their scope for our curriculum.
 
One of our aims is for our students to be able to come across a science article in the New York Times or Scientific American, for example, see that it is an opinion piece, and critically read, evaluate, and understand it. They should be able to understand sources and the vital peer review process of scientific journals. They must understand where the material they’re reading is coming from.