value of teaching reading in the context of science and mathematics, The
Flick, Lawrence B
There is a growing interest in the relationship between science and mathematics education and teaching reading. The kind of reading instruction implied is reading comprehension not the skills of learning to read. Developing reading comprehension is, of course, the goal of reading. Comprehension requires the application of high level thinking skills. The meaning of text is no more “in” the words than the meaning of a chemical element is “in” the Periodic Table. Both require interpretation, inference, and background knowledge. The current interest in its relationship to learning science and mathematics comes from several sources.
With the rise in standardized testing, there is ongoing concern that for many items, reading comprehension is being tested and not science or mathematics understanding. In one type of item format, two to three separate items follow from and depend on information presented in leading paragraphs. Test takers must read and interpret the separate items and meaningfully relate the questions to earlier information. These items are just one kind of reading challenge in standardized tests. Some items contain the expression of sophisticated ideas that students may have had the opportunity to read about in only one context, the textbook. Processing complex ideas in written form takes practice and opportunities to see the ideas expressed in different ways.
Another source of interest in the connection between reading comprehension and learning in science and mathematics comes from the need for students to effectively use textbooks. Interest in these skills goes deep in the literature of reading in the content areas. Instruction directly addressing reading skill development is typically taught within English or language arts classes that use novels or short stories as the teaching tool. But science and mathematics texts are different in format, structure, and purpose and require different skills. Effective learners do not read science and mathematics textbooks like novels. One study employed very capable graduate students in liberal arts who had avoided taking science as students in undergraduate science classes (Tobias, S., 1990, They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier). They participated as students doing all the homework and taking all the tests. They also kept a journal of the experience. One of the outcomes was that they were surprised at how the textbooks were used by effective science students. These students did not read the texts in the traditional way one reads a book. It was more of a reference, in which examples and problem sets were consulted iteratively to learn about problem types and methods of solution.
A third source of interest in developing reading comprehension skills in the context of science and mathematics education is with student ability to read articles appearing in newspapers and magazines and on the Internet. A goal of national standards is that students are able to read and interpret media reports on science and science-related social issues. State assessment systems require students to produce work samples and other products that require understanding and synthesizing articles from a variety of sources. Informal discussion with a state department of education science specialist revealed that most of the opportunities for students to meet state performance standards in public speaking came in science classes in which students were required to report on science in the media. There is also growing concern among teachers, not only in the areas of science and mathematics, that students widely plagiarize from the Internet. This behavior, while not.new among students, suggests a lack of skill in summarizing and synthesizing content-oriented reading material.
But there may be a more fundamental reason that educators are thinking about the relationship between reading comprehension and science and mathematics learning. Reading comprehension is the goal of reading. It is the employment of high level thinking to infer the meaning of text, consider its implications, and decide on applications. Scientific inquiry in science education and the posing and solving of problems in mathematics education embody the higher level purposes in these subject areas. One of the accomplishments of the standards movement in science and mathematics has been to articulate teachable content that requires higher level thinking. Teaching effective reading comprehension strategies within the context of a subject area such as science and mathematics will support high level learning goals in those subject areas.
Research in cognitive psychology, for example, shows that the skill of identifying and understanding the purpose of a piece of writing is one of the hallmarks of an effective reader that contributes to reading comprehension. Good readers know why they are reading the material and how it is related to a broader task. The same thing can be said for students successfully engaging in inquiry or problem-solving. To effectively pursue an investigative project in science, students have to keep the purpose of the project in mind while deciding what information and/or procedures are required to meet that purpose. Similar arguments can be made about other cognitive skills. Summarizing is a critical skill in the process of reading comprehension. The skill of summarizing goes to the heart of maintaining focus in constructing written or spoken arguments. Students who can identify the main points of a multistep mathematics problem and explain them in their own words have taken a significant step in planning an approach to a solution.
National and state assessment policies in reading should be used to reinforce the value of developing comprehension skills in a subject-matter specific context. Developing cognitive skills in reading comprehension is compatible with developing higher level cognitive skills in science and mathematics education. Promoting standards based science and mathematics education promotes important reading comprehension skills.
Copyright School Science and Mathematics Association, Incorporated Mar 2002
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