Elementary science and language arts: Should we blur the boundaries?

Dickinson, Valarie L

Elementary school goals for instruction focus on developing literate readers and writers. It has been recommended that language arts strategies can help elementary teachers more effectively teach science. The terms “integrated, interdisciplinary, and thematic instruction” are defined and examples are given for using each in an elementary classroom. Definitions are provided comparing language arts and scientific literacy. Use of thematic instruction with an interdisciplinary focus is recommended to help meet both language arts and science goals and objectives as they relate to the National Science Education Standards and the National English Language Arts Standards. Recommendations are made for helping teachers effectively use language arts strategies to help develop science literacy, and science to provide purpose for reading and writing activities within thematic, interdisciplinary instruction often found in elementary schools.

The main goal in any elementary classroom is to produce literate readers and writers. Indeed, language arts goals of reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprise up to half a school day in most elementary schools. Typically, time has been a constraint to the teaching of much science in elementary classrooms (Fitch & Fisher, 1979). There are other constraints to teaching science in an elementary classroom. Teachers feel unprepared and unknowledgeable. They lack confidence in their abilities, administrative support, and the equipment to effectively teach science (Abell & Roth,1992; Atwater, Gardener, & Kight,1991; Cox & Carpenter, 1989; Perkes, 1975; Schoeneberger & Russell, 1986; Tilgner, 1990; Tobin, Briscoe, & Holman, 1990). It is likely teachers also believe time spent on science does not help them meet their goals of developing general literacy in their students (Dickinson, Burns, Hagen, & Locker, 1997).

However, use of other content areas to promote literacy and to support learning in other content areas is recommended and encouraged by the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The National English Language Arts Standards recommend that language arts serve the goals of purposeful communication through reading, writing, speaking, and listening (IRA & NCTE, 1996). Other content areas, including science, can provide a purpose for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Indeed, language arts methods texts recommend that elementary teachers hold class discussions and lead writing activities regarding shared experiences to help students develop understanding of the content and their own communication skills (Rubin, 1995; Templeton, 1995; Tompkins, 1998; Tway, 1991). Science explorations and discussions can provide the vehicle for such purposeful communication.

Given the goals for elementary teaching to produce students who can effectively read and write, it is not surprising that elementary teachers’ backgrounds are stronger in language arts than in science. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to help teachers use their strengths in language arts to improve their teaching of science.

Definitions of Integrated, Interdisciplinary, and Thematic Instruction

Much research has been conducted on reciprocal processes of learning language and science (e.g., Casteel & Isom,1994). Proponents claim that because learning science can be described as a process similar to learning language, getting teachers to see these similarities may help to improve the learning of both science and literacy. Also, many articles have extolled the virtues of using language arts strategies to help teachers teach science (Baker & Saul; 1994; Gaskins, et al. 1994; Glynn & Muth, 1994; Keys, 1994; Rivard, 1994).

The terms used to describe cross-disciplinary approaches of instruction have varied meanings. Integration has been defined as “a combined or undivided whole” (Lederman & Niess, 1997). Within integrated instruction, disciplines are blended together. There are no solid divisions enabling a learner to recognize each discipline as separate. In instruction that combines science and language arts, seeing where science leaves off and language arts begins would be impossible. For example, in an elementary classroom where students are asked to read about a science topic such as outer space and then write a report from the books they have researched, it is difficult for educators to see where the science is obtained. Students would acquire practice with the skills of reading, writing, and organizing information but would not gain any science objectives, other than possible rote memorization of factual knowledge.

With interdisciplinary instruction, each discipline maintains its integrity. Outlining where one discipline ends and the other begins is possible. With interdisciplinary instruction in science and language arts, it is possible to note which language arts tools are being used for science instruction and how science activities are being used to promote language learning. An elementary classroom studying outer space may use language arts skills of reading and writing to search for and organize information, and that would be the language arts portion of the day. Science content would be used to provide motivation for the book research. However, during another part of the day, students would be involved in investigations and manipulating materials to help them learn science content related to outer space. Language arts skills of reading, writing, and oral communication could support the investigations. These skills provide tools for recording observations and evidence and holding discussions about the meanings of investigations.

Thematic instruction is the variety most used in elementary schools. Elementary teachers can visit many teacher supply stores and purchase professionally developed “thematic units” recommended for different grade levels. With thematic instruction, an overall motif or theme pervades the classroom. The Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council [NRC], 1996) recommend broad themes such as “systems,” “models,” “constancy and change,” and “scale.” These themes describe ways of thinking about science, and permeate different science content areas. More typically, thematic units for an elementary classroom are developed around topics, such as outer space, about which science, language arts, math, art, music, and physical education activities could take place. These thematic units provide a muddled notion of what a theme is and is not, because when teachers use the thematic units from professionally prepared curricula they are actually teaching topics rather than science themes. Should the teacher decide to use such “thematic units” that are typically available, the instruction could use interdisciplinary approaches of instruction. Each discipline could be separated under the umbrella of outer space. However, a more common approach in an elementary classroom may be that of attempted integration within the thematic unit. Instead of being able to define boundaries between the disciplines, such “thematic” instruction focuses on relating all activities to the theme, without regard to the objectives and goals of individual disciplines.

Too frequently, activities are chosen simply because they match the theme. While teachers may congratulate themselves and say they use thematic instruction to teach both science content and language arts, in fact, they often do not teach much science at all. Often they are actually using a theme, or topic, (such as outer space) to develop reading or writing lessons that they believe help to teach science. However, the science discipline is not approached using recommended strategies (NRC, 1996) or to meet science goals or Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993). Though they believe they are using an integrated approach, they are inappropriately defining integration. While language arts goals are being met, the same activities do not allow students to meet science learning goals. The science goals are lost in the language arts instruction under the guise of integration. Students who participate in such a unit may view science as a body of knowledge about which they must read or write and will not experience inquiry activities to help them learn science processes.

While elementary children do not initially divide their school day or lives into different disciplines, it becomes important for them to recognize the differences in and to develop in-depth understandings of different disciplines. Without in-depth understandings of individual disciplines, developing an integrated or interdisciplinary awareness of the connections between disciplines is difficult (Lederman, 1994). Without a teacher who approaches instruction in each of the disciplines in a manner true to the standards and goals of those disciplines, students will not likely develop a strong understanding of those individual disciplines.

What are the conditions necessary to develop lessons that help appropriately teach science as well as language arts? First defining what it means to be scientifically literate and literate in reading, writing, and oral communication is necessary.

Definitions of Literacy and Science Literacy

Defining the term science literacy is difficult. Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989) defined a scientifically literate person as follows:

One who is aware that science, mathematics, and technology are interdependent human enterprises with strengths and limitations; understands key concepts and principles of science; is familiar with the natural world and recognizes both its diversity and unity; and uses scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking for individual and social purposes. (p. 4)

However Bybee (1997) noted that use of the term science literacy has different meanings for different people, and there is no accepted common definition for the term. Science literacy, according to Bybee, is …best defined as a continuum of understanding about the natural and defined world, from nominal to functional, conceptual and procedural, and multidimensional. This unique perspective broadens the concept to accommodate all students and gives direction to those responsible for curriculum, assessment, research, professional development, and teaching science to a broad range of students. (p. 86)

The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) recommend that a scientifically literate person know science content, including science as inquiry, science subject matter, science and technology, science in personal and social perspectives, and the history and nature of science, as well as unifying concepts and processes. The Standards also recommend that students present and share their results with other students. Presenting and sharing results with other students can have a direct connection to general literacy goals of developing effective written and oral communication skills. Students can use their skills in language arts to present and share science exploration results and conclusions with other students.

Literacy, in terms of language arts, also has many definitions. These definitions range from being able to write one’s name to having the ability to read at a certain level to more sophisticated definitions. A generally accepted definition is the following by Venezky (1995): [The] ability to read and write in a designated language, as well as a mindset or way of thinking about the use of reading and writing in everyday life. It differs from simple reading and writing in its assumption of an understanding of the appropriate use of these abilities within a print-based society. Literacy, therefore, requires active, autonomous engagement with print and stresses the role of the individual in generating as well as receiving and assigning independent interpretations to messages. (p.142)

Even within the language arts there are various related literacies.

Two literacies directly related to science instruction are content literacy and information literacy. McKenna and Robison ( 1993) defined content literacy as “the ability to use reading and writing for the acquisition of new content in a given discipline.” Three cognitive components underlie this ability: (a) literacy skill, (b) prior content knowledge, and (c) content specific knowledge. For example, in science, students need to be able to read, interpret, and create charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables. The second related literacy, information literacy, is especially important in thematic instruction, because information literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, and use information from a variety of sources (National Working Party for Information Literacy, 1997). Information literacy has the following basic goals to enable students to use information effectively: (a) construct strategies for locating information, (b) locate and access information, (c) organize and apply information, and (d) evaluate the information gathering process and the final product. These skills provide students with a meaningful link between the curriculum and the real world and need to be integrated into all curriculum areas.

There are similarities between language arts and science literacy. One similarity is that students must be able to purposefully use language arts and science. Another is that each discipline recommends active interaction. In language arts, students must actively interact with and make meaning of print; in science students must actively interact with and make meaning of investigations.

The differences are greater. To be literate in language arts, students need to be able to accurately generate and interpret printed and oral language. To be literate in science, students need to have a basic understanding of the natural and defined world, subject matter, science processes and inquiries, and the nature of science itself. While language arts skills can be used to develop science literacy, they are not enough to help students understand what they need to meet objectives for science itself. While science activities can serve as common experiences and motivation for using and developing language arts literacy, they do not, in and of themselves, help students become literate in written and oral communication. Because the disciplines of science and language arts have different goals and objectives, the assumption that students, especially elementary students, can naturally become literate in language and in science solely through thematic instruction using integrated instruction is erroneous.

Language arts and science are different disciplines. While instruction in one can complement the another, the expectation that instruction in one can substitute for separate instruction in both is mistaken. Recommendations for providing effective thematic interdisciplinary instruction that includes science and language arts goals and objectives are made in the following section.

Recommendations for Thematic Interdisciplinary Instruction

Elementary teachers can use their strengths in language arts to deliver more effective science instruction (Dickinson, et al, 1997; Flick, 1995). It is important, however, that science goals not be lost in language development, even though such methods can help to enhance effective science instruction (not replace it). Because the trend in elementary schools is for holistic or literature-based instruction that frequently utilizes thematic teaching, the following recommendations are made for improving thematic instruction dealing with science and language arts. Recommendations to teachers and teacher educators include to (a) choose meaningful themes, (b) balance thematic with disciplinary instruction, (c) make interdisciplinary connections logical, natural, and appropriate, and (d) include experiences that will help students meet goals and objectives of both disciplines.

Teachers must choose meaningful themes that are worth exploring. Moreover, such themes should allow objectives for both language arts and science to be met. Teachers must consider student interests, experiences, and learning needs; curricular issues; instructional goals; and the availability of quality literature when selecting a theme or a focus (Moss, 1996). Too often the greatest concern is about the available literature on the topic. For example, selecting teddy bears as a theme may allow many opportunities for clever reading and writing activities and the sharing ofa plethora of children’s books but precious little in the way of helping students meet science content or literacy objectives.

Once the theme is chosen, it is important for teachers to determine the “big understandings” or major concepts that are critical to what children need to learn. Adams and Hamm (1998) recommended that selection of thematic “big ideas” meet the following criteria: (a) the big idea should be constant over space and time, (b) the big idea should broaden students’ understanding of the world or what it means to be human, (c) the big idea should be interdisciplinary, (d) the theme should relate to the genuine interests of the students, and (e) the interdisciplinary work should lend itself to student science inquiry. These concepts and big ideas should then relate directly to the objectives, lessons, and activities associated with the unit (Pappas, Kiefer, & Levstik, 1995; Routman,1991; Walmsley, 1994).

Teachers must also balance thematic instruction with disciplinary studies. Recognizing the importance of helping students see the differences between and among disciplines, teachers should select a theme for the unit. Their units should include objectives for science that are obtained from the Benchmarks (AAAS, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC,1996). Language arts objectives should relate to the Standards for Teaching the English Language Arts (IRA & NCTE, 1996). Teachers must then provide instruction appropriate for each discipline to help students meet those objectives. Assessment strategies providing evidence that students have met both science and language arts goals are critical. Science should get sufficient attention as science, not as an add-on to a language arts unit.

Teachers should start with what children already know and move out from there. Too often themes are unrelated to students’ experiences. Teachers need to use student experiences and background knowledge as a bridge to what they want students to learn. Some teachers achieve this bridge by making lists with their students of “what we know” about the topic and “what we want to know.” Ogle’s (1986) K-W-L charts work well where individuals or small or large groups can record the data on charts with columns for “what we know,” “what we want to know,” and “what we have learned.”

When connecting topics across disciplines, teachers must focus on making logical, natural, and appropriate connections. Many teachers design units with activities in reading, writing, listening, speaking, math, science, and social studies without contributing to the development of important ideas. Such instruction should be referred to as correlated instruction rather than integrated instruction (Routman,1991). Teachers need to be wary of “cute” and remember that just because something is fun or active does not mean it is helping students meet science or language arts literacy goals. Important ideas and logical connections are more important than fun or faddish activities.

Students need experience with many information sources. Thus, teachers should use a range of information sources, which may include books (fiction and nonfiction), magazines and newspapers, reference books, Internet sources, videos and films, resource people, and field trips. Moreover, thematic units in the elementary school need to employ many manipulative materials-artifacts, props, and equipment (Pappas, Kiefer, & Levstik, 1995).

A range of experiences must be used that may include experimentation, direct observation, reading, writing, listening, speaking, computing, and “handson.” Too often the focus is only on reading and writing of science information. By giving students a variety of experiences, lessons will better fit all students and objectives of both disciplines.


Science and language arts goals and objectives complement one another. Science can be used to provide common experiences about which students can communicate both orally and through written work. Language arts can provide tools for recording and communicating results of inquiry. Elementary teachers feel stronger in their language arts teaching. Using strengths in language arts can, thus, be a key to improving elementary science teaching. When elementary teachers understand that science can play a crucial role in developing their students’ general literacy, it may demand greater focus in the classroom. However, using language arts methods cannot be a substitute for science inquiry, nor can it be used to help students meet all science goals and objectives. Goals and objectives of both science and language arts must be considered and assessed if both disciplines are to be given their fair treatment in elementary schools, and if elementary teachers hope to help students meet both the National English Language Arts Standards (IRA & NCTE,1996) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996).

Author Note: Valarie L. Dickinson, Department of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University; Terrell A. Young, Department of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Valarie L. Dickinson, Department of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University, Richland, WA 99352. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to vdickins@tricity.wsu.edu


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Valarie L Dickinson and Terrell A. Young

Washington State University

Copyright School Science and Mathematics Association, Incorporated Oct 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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