Ben Rogers asks: do students need to be taught to read scientific texts?

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Angel is the best science student I let fall behind. I taught her from year 7 until year 10. From the first lesson, she shone; her questions were sharp and her answers were excellent. She spotted every mistake I made and brought me interesting ideas and problems she had thought up. She loved chemistry. I sent her to chemistry summer schools. I sent her to competitions. She should have excelled in science, but she didn’t.

The problem was that Angel wouldn’t read anything. She wouldn’t read her notes. She wouldn’t do any homework if it involved reading. She wouldn’t read exam questions properly. And I didn’t teach her how to. Angel did well in her English lessons. I assumed reading science was the same as reading English. It isn’t. Angel dropped sciences at A-level.

The reading survey

I taught secondary school science for 18 years before becoming a primary school teacher. Then, I used to think about science. Now I think about reading, and particularly reading in science as it is an important professional skill. In light of this, I created a survey for scientists and engineers to find out about their reading habits and how they learnt to read. Thanks to Twitter and support from @RSC_EiC, 100 scientists and engineers responded to my questions. I asked them:

  • How much do you read for work?
  • Why do you read for work?
  • How did you learn the strategies for reading science texts effectively?

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It turns out that the people who responded to the survey read a lot. Almost 85% of them read professional texts for more than 5 hours per week and 20% of them read for more than 15 hours per week.

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One of the main conclusions from the survey is that professional scientists and engineers teach themselves to read subject texts, at least until college (only 10% of the professionals who responded to the survey were taught to read science texts at school, 84% said they taught themselves). For students like Angel, college is too late. As a science teacher who has seen talented students fail to reach their potential, I am convinced that the ability to read technical texts is key to success in the sciences.

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Two strategies and a solution

In my experience, school teachers teach children how to read novels. They don’t teach them how to read textbooks. The typical textbook isn’t a work of literature: it has short sections of text, which may or may not be well written; it may assume the reader has certain technical knowledge and is able to apply it; it is likely to have diagrams. The reader will jump forwards and backwards in the text, comparing information in the diagram to the text and to their own knowledge. Most people don’t read novels like that.

Research shows that just two strategies – questioning the text and summarising – make all the difference and can be taught quickly. The impact is impressive (see the Education Endowment Foundation report).

So I'm working on a solution. A colleague and I are writing three short lesson plans. The idea is that a teacher can take the basic plans and insert a relevant text. The lessons allow students to learn and practice two reading comprehension skills that we know work. Each plan focuses on a different type of reading:

  • Reading for information and understanding, because it is the reason that most of the survey respondents read.
  • Reading around the subject, because just knowing the curriculum isn't enough.
  • Reading exam questions, because, take it from me, all students need it. If you mark exams, you'll know what I mean.

We are hoping to find some funding to develop and share these lessons. If you can help, please let us know. Hopefully we can make reading science texts less of a lottery and catch more science students before they fall behind.

Ben Rogers is a teacher at Norwich Primary Academy, UK.

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